In a career that has seen Jillian Dempsey quietly assemble a remarkable body of work, destined to establish her as an icon in Boston women’s hockey, an event on New Year’s Eve 2015 shall forever hold a special place in her heart. Competing in the Women’s Winter Classic at Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium, home to Tom Brady’s New England Patriots, it represented more than just a hockey game, but a chance to contribute to a new and empowering chapter for women’s hockey in America.
For Boston women’s hockey fans, Dempsey is one of their heroes. Friendly and articulate, she was the recipient of the Boston Bruins John Carleton Award in 2009, while contributing to the US capturing gold at the IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds in the same year.
Having logged 148 career points with the Harvard Crimson, also gaining the university’s inaugural Female Career Achievement Award, the product of Winthrop, Massachusetts was a First-Team All-Ivy and four-time ECAC Hockey All-Academic.
Also playing briefly in France, Dempsey would spend two seasons with the Boston Blades, earning the 2014 CWHL Rookie of the Year Award and following it up with a Clarkson Cup title in 2015, the second in franchise history. The chance to compete at Gillette Stadium in such a historic event only adds to a remarkable hometown legacy,
“I have been incredibly fortunate to play my entire hockey career right at home in Boston. There is no better sports town than Boston – the passion is intense, and the support is unwavering. I always love watching the Winter Classic.
When they built the rink at Fenway, I remember thinking how cool it would be to play there with all the history and tradition of the Red Sox. But suiting up and skating in Gillette Stadium…WOW!! I will never forget that.”
As exciting as participating in the Women’s Winter Classic may have been, the announcement of the game resulted in its own jubilation. For the women of the Boston Pride and the NWHL, the inclusion represented a significant acceptance, while adding a major league feeling to a landmark event.
Considering that the outdoor event also featured the NHL’s Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, the presence of female competitors adding to the overall hockey rivalry between these two distinguished cities is an exceptional point of pride. Of note, Dempsey has been part of Montreal vs. Boston hockey rivalry before. Playing for head coach Digit Murphy with the Blades, the squad defeated the Montreal Stars in the 2015 Clarkson Cup final as Janine Weber scored the Cup-clinching goal,
“When we learned of the surprise about Winter Classic, I could not stop smiling. I am obsessed with hockey and it was hard to believe that our Boston Pride team was invited to participate in this inaugural Women’s Outdoor Winter Classic and have the honor of being pioneers for women’s hockey.
The Boston vs. Montreal rivalry is as old as the game itself and here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete against the Canadiennes on such a renowned stage and help grow the game. I’d say that was the best Christmas gift this year and the perfect way to ring in 2016.”
In a day filled with an understandable variety of sentiments, it was a teammate that has played with Dempsey on the Blades and with Team USA that supplied the game’s most memorable event for Dempsey. Such acknowledgement belongs to Blake Bolden, who would become the first American born player to score a goal in a women’s outdoor professional hockey match, tying the score at 1-apiece.
“Throughout the day, I felt a range of emotions—from anxiety to pure joy and excitement. The best part of the game was the goal celebration and team huddle after Blake (Bolden) buried a beauty in the back of the net to tie the score. We were fired up and felt extremely energized.”
In the aftermath of the Women’s Winter Classic, there was a highly emotional element that affected not just the Pride, but the entire NWHL family. Sadly, Pride blueliner Denna Laing was attempting to grab the puck out of the corner but stepped on a skate and crashed into the boards. Taken off the ice in a stretcher, as trainers from both teams tended to her, she was rushed to hospital.
Suffering a spinal cord injury, Laing holds a special place in the hearts of Dempsey and the entire women’s hockey community, as a remarkable rally of support has followed. Not only have women’s hockey teams throughout New England formed number 14 on the ice, the number she donned with the Princeton Tigers, various NHL athletes have made donations, and she even received an encouraging message of support from Boston-raised celebrity Mark Wahlberg on Twitter.
As all of the league’s competitors are now wearing yellow-colored sticker on the backs of their helmets, with Laing’s jersey number 24 in large black font, Dempsey’s return to the ice was one filled with emotion.
After opening the year with a 4-3 overtime loss against Buffalo (which saw Dempsey win 12 of 16 faceoffs), she returned with tremendous vigor during the Pride’s Do it for Daron fundraiser. Held on January 10 against the New York Riveters, she went to social media to dedicate every shift to Denna.
The result was Dempsey scored twice, including the opening tally of the game, as the Pride prevailed by a convincing 8-1 margin. In the aftermath of the contest, Dempsey showed her support for Laing on social media. With her winning smile, she displayed the game puck, also adorned with the yellow #24 sticker.
During the game, Dempsey would also tap the glass in front of a fan who made a poster in support of Laing, symbolic of her devotion to teammates, fans and the game alike. Perhaps it was a message on social media posted on January 10 from Prove People Wrong (a movement that reminds individuals that success as a choice) that put it best when they stated that the world needs more people like Jillian Dempsey.
“It has been a very emotional stretch of days finding out the extent of Denna’s injury. I have played on her wing since we were 12 year-olds at Assabet and we’ve shared countless memories on and off the ice together. On Sunday, I told myself to play each shift for Denna, to appreciate every opportunity lacing up my skates, and to play my heart out because she would expect nothing less of me.
She is loyal, genuine and selfless – the best teammate you could ask for. Despite the unimaginable pain Denna is feeling, she continues to smile and be brave. We are inspired by her courage, positivity and strength, and we will be playing for #24 every Gameday. PPW.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Winter Classic action from Getty Images (Brian Babineau), #24 Hockey Puck shot obtained from: https://twitter.com/JilliantDempsey
For more information on Denna Laing, please visit: http://www.dennalaing.org/
Follow Denna Laing on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/dlaing14