Pioneering Puckstoppers

Erin Whitten Hamlen And Kelly Dyer Hayes Did More Than Pave The Way For The Next Generation Of Female Goalies

What do you call the ones before the trailblazers?

They’re the ones who aren’t inextricably tied to the movements and moments we see as defining the times as they are a’ changing. But they were there, before the world changed, and just as responsible for that progress, trailblazing before there was a trail, making their way to the door before history let someone else in. 

The ones who are inextricably tied to those movements and moments are quick to laud everyone who came before them. History, though, favors the famous. Which is a shame, particularly when you find out about the world before the trails. One thing’s for sure. It makes it a whole lot easier to appreciate the trails. 

*     *     *

When it came to goaltending in women’s hockey, Kelly Dyer Hayes and Erin Whitten Hamlen, the first two American-born women to play pro hockey, timing—both good and bad—was everything.

For Dyer Hayes, the story begins in Acton, Mass. For Whitten Hamlen, separated by a few years, a few hundred miles and by their playing styles, but fast friends once they met while playing for Team USA in 1992, the story begins in Glens Falls, N.Y.

For both, a passion for goaltending and not taking no for an answer was the answer. It was a passion that took each of them up and down and around all sorts of places they couldn’t have imagined from Acton or Glens Falls.

In those days, it was the difference between an unclear path and no path.

By the time their careers were complete, there were a lot of firsts between them, and while those firsts may not have made life easy for female goalies, they undeniably are central in telling the story of how those paths formed. 

Thanks in large part to Dyer Hayes and Whitten Hamlen, elite female goaltenders in the United States were no rumor in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were progress.

Progress in different forms, maybe, but through the twists of hockey with boys and men, then the turns of USA Hockey that ended for each before they would have liked, it was all fueled by a very similar and unceasing passion for playing the very best hockey they could. 

As was often the case for a girl born in 1966, starting out on skates meant figure skates for Dyer Hayes. 

“My brother David was two years older, so we’re at the same arena,” she says. “He would go to the right and I would go to the left. And the rink on the right looked like way more fun. But there were no other girls out there, so I just kept sort of asking and asking.”

It wasn’t long before she was playing hockey, which she started at the age of 11 in the Assabet Valley program after figure skating wasn’t working out so well for someone almost fully grown to 5-foot-11 by then. Getting in the goal was another story, however, and a story that also begins to reveal the force of will that helped fuel the fire.

“I had to beg to play goalie,” Dyer Hayes recalls. “One time, our goalie didn’t show up, so I just hopped in net in regular player equipment and never came out of the goal after that.”

From there, she filled in as a goalie for the boys’ team in Acton-Boxboro Youth Hockey, which led, eventually and somewhat famously, to playing alongside Tom Barrasso, Jeff Norton and Bob Sweeney into high school. 

Why high school boys’ hockey with some of the most competitive teams in the hockey hotbed state of Massachusetts? 

“I never even questioned it,” Dyer Hayes says. “People have said, ‘Oh, you’re blazing a new trail.’ Well, no. I just wanted to play hockey. It just seemed like the natural step. I never even thought of not doing it. After I graduated, I found out a few things that I didn’t know at the time—like there were some meetings and discussions about me trying out. My parents may have just kept that from me, which was probably nice, because I was just going out and playing.”

A few years behind Dyer Hayes, Whitten Hamlen also grew up hockey mad, and her hometown certainly helped. There were ponds and backyard rinks reliably freezing every winter, street hockey games in the summer, and the Adirondack Red Wings winning three Calder Cups in the 1980s. 

“That was really when I was totally into hockey, fully engulfed,” says Whitten Hamlen, who was born in 1971. “For me, I grew up with hockey kind of in my blood. It was just the environment I was in. I spent a lot of time collecting hockey cards and playing and going to backyard rinks, and spending hours upon hours until it was too dark and you couldn’t feel your toes anymore. It was hockey all year round.”

Whitten Hamlen didn’t spend much time thinking about trailblazing, either.

“I definitely just played,” she says. “That’s all I did.”

By high school, red carpets weren’t exactly being rolled out to invite Whitten Hamlen to become the first girl to play boys’ hockey at Glens Falls High School. As with Dyer Hayes, Whitten Hamlen would need the forces of will and talent to take that next step herself.

But, first, a physical fitness test for a player who since the age of 8 had been lugging around old-school goalie equipment for the better part of a decade and playing with boys at not-quite five-and-a-half feet tall.

“I had to go to a fitness test that none of the boys had to go through,” Whitten Hamlen recalls. “But I get done with that, and I killed it, of course. They were, like, ‘Yeah, she can play. It’s OK, she’s not fragile.’ And I remember thinking at the time that it was odd. But, at this point, it was just the end goal that mattered.”

Pushing in those days was just as much a part of playing, it seems.

“My mom, at one point, tried to talk me out of hockey,” says Whitten Hamlen. “And I’m, like, ‘Not in my makeup, mom. It’s not going to happen.’”

Kelly Dyer Hayes, left, and Erin Whitten Hamlen helped lay the foundation for girls’ and women’s hockey through their play on the ice and their strong character and passion away from the rink.Kelly Dyer Hayes, left, and Erin Whitten Hamlen helped lay the foundation for girls’ and women’s hockey through their play on the ice and their strong character and passion away from the rink.

*      *      *

In the early ’80s and into the ’90s, the best female college hockey players had essentially one league, the ECAC, and the very best were playing for one of three schools—Providence College, the University of New Hampshire and Northeastern University. From 1984 to 1998, no other team appeared in the women’s hockey ECAC final.

When it came time to look at colleges, however, no one was beating down Whitten Hamlen’s door. Certainly not the way things are today in her current job as a Division I head coach at Merrimack College.

“I had to go to a fitness test that none of the boys had to go through. But I get done with that, and I killed it, of course. They were, like, ‘Yeah, she can play. It’s OK, she’s not fragile.’”

– Erin Whitten Hamlen

“I had to do a lot of self-promoting because I was playing boys’ hockey and I wasn’t in Massachusetts being seen by these schools,” she says. “I caught the eye of a couple coaches and I went on a few visits. Providence didn’t need a goalie. Northeastern brought me but it wasn’t the best visit. UNH showed up at one of my games in Massena, N.Y., and the head coach offered me a position and a scholarship at that point.”

That coach, Russ McCurdy, was in the midst of going 264-36-10 over 15 seasons, beginning in 1977, behind the Wildcats bench.

“And the rest is history, I guess,” says Whitten Hamlen, who started all four years at UNH, winning a pair of ECAC titles. “[McCurdy] just literally showed up at the high school rink to watch me play boys’ hockey. Pretty amazing, the fact that he took the time to come out and see me.”

Had their planets aligned a little earlier, Whitten Hamlen could have been taking over between the pipes at UNH for Dyer Hayes, who had also met with McCurdy years before.

“I remember clear as day, [McCurdy] came down to watch one of our girls’ games, stood out in front of the Coke machine and said, ‘I’m Ross McCurdy and you’re a fine goaltender,” recalls Dyer Hayes, whose assumptions of playing at UNH wound up being derailed. “You kind of aspire to go to the best team. Right as I was starting to get my applications in, during that process, I got denied because I didn’t have two years of language.”

Enter Northeastern, where someone whose dyslexia would go undiagnosed for decades could thrive in a co-op curriculum perfect for the hard-working Dyer Hayes, who wound up graduating with honors and playing three sports.

“It was truly a dream come true, and I really feel it was meant to be,”  says. “And, of course, the greatest arena in the United States of America, possibly the world, the original Boston Garden and the oldest standing arena in the United States, Matthews Arena.”

During her junior and senior seasons, Northeastern went 48-3-1 and won two ECAC titles—something akin to the national championship considering the axis of the sport’s powers at the time—to close out the 1980s.

*      *      *

In the late 80s, if there was a radar for Team USA’s goaltending prospects, Dyer Hayes and Whitten Hamlen hadn’t heard of it. In fact, Whitten Hamlen hadn’t really even heard there were tryouts for the first IIHF Women’s World Championships in 1990.

“It was like a rumor,” she says.

“I didn’t think there was much of a radar before the 1990 world championships, to tell you the truth,” adds Dyer Hayes.

But she did try out, then make and start in goal for that team, the very first of its kind, with the imposing Dyer Hayes wearing red, white and blue, and a “Charlie the Eagle” helmet.

In a case of the more things changing while staying the same, the United States and Canada met in the final. Team USA did not win, but the event was a success, playing to full crowds for the games in Ottawa, all facts that may have more to do with the future of women’s hockey than many knew at the time. 

Had that tournament fallen flat, there’s a chance women’s hockey isn’t on the Olympic program in Nagano, there’s no gold medal win for Team USA in the inaugural event, and the path for women in the sport remains as unclear as it had been before that history-making gold medal for the team that so many know by heart.

Colleen Coyne was on that history-making team, earning gold in Nagano, with Sara DeCosta and Sarah Tueting on the roster as goaltenders. But Coyne, a defenseman from Massachusetts and now the president of the Boston Pride, was also on the 1992 and 1994 IIHF Women’s World Championship teams where Dyer Hayes and Witten Hamlen were the primary goaltenders.

“At that point, Erin and I had been teammates at UNH, so I knew her very, very well,” says Coyne, who tried out for the 1990 team but did not make the final camp cuts. “And Kelly, she played with Tom Barrasso, and she was like a legend. And I knew that she was really good.”

As the ’90s progressed, while her playing time in games may have been less a focus for Team USA, Dyer Hayes’ leadership was most certainly on display.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate and I have tremendous gratitude for the opportunities that unfolded in front of me and in front of my life.”

– Kelly Dyer Hayes

“Kelly, she was so super-confident, just carried herself that way, and she was constantly complimentary of everybody else,” Coyne says. “So welcoming. And, still, to this day, she’s the same way. She tried to plant that confidence in everyone around her. I don’t remember her ever making someone feel like they were anything less than awesome.”

On the ice, there was excellence in abundance, even as the pair represented slightly different and overlapping generations of the game.

“I don’t think you could ever argue with the quality of goaltending they did,” says Coyne. “Erin Whitten, in my opinion, is the best goaltender in my college era. She was amazing. Kelly was like a coach on the ice. It’s great to have a goaltender who’s, like, ‘Hey, you have time.’ She saw everything.”

All these years later, there are lasting first impressions from 1992 when, finally, the trails of Dyer Hayes and Witten Hamlen formally crossed while competing for the same spot on a women’s national team.

“I remember her more as a person that as a goalie,” Whitten Hamlen says. “And she was just so supportive, and we were such good goalie partners together. We were fast friends right away.”

Dyer Hayes hadn’t been a backup for a very long time, but would for this team coached by McCurdy.

“Erin and I bonded extremely well,” Dyer Hayes says. “And it is a different mentality [to be a backup]. I think in ’92, I wasn’t resolved to it quite yet.”

Whitten Hamlen’s first impressions of Team USA were also lasting, while on her way to becoming one of the best female goaltenders in the world.

“It was a cool thing to put on the jersey for the first time, and realize you’re at a world championship and playing for your country,” she says. “I don’t think anything ever tops the opportunity to do that for the first time.”

In both 1992 and 1994, Whitten Hamlen started the bulk of the games, with Team USA losing to Team Canada in Finland and Lake Placid, respectively. She was named USA Hockey Women’s Player of the Year in 1994 while both she and Dyer Hayes were making some history of their own away from Team USA.

The Olympics loomed, and both were aiming to keep that option open.

*       *       *

Erin Whitten Hamlen’s love of the game was so strong that she shook off the disappointment of not making the 1998 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team and returned between the pipes the following season during the 1999 IIHF Women’s World Championship.Erin Whitten Hamlen’s love of the game was so strong that she shook off the disappointment of not making the 1998 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team and returned between the pipes the following season during the 1999 IIHF Women’s World Championship.

The answer was to play against the best competition they could find—again through the force of their talent and will—and that meant again knocking on the door to play with the men.

Whitten Hamlen made the biggest splash, but Dyer Hayes wasn’t far behind. Both made their pro debuts in the 1993-94 season and recorded games in 1994-95 and 1995-96.

Still just a kid at 21, Whitten Hamlen played in a men’s pro team in Toledo, Ohio, where she became the first woman to win a men’s professional hockey game, then on to Dallas, Utica, N.Y., and Muskegon and Flint, Mich. 

But pro hockey was for more than headlines or win totals.

“My end goal was always to play at the highest level with the national team,” Whitten Hamlen says. “I knew I wasn’t going to go to the NHL. I just knew based on my size, based on who I was, based on the timing, it just wasn’t something I thought was going to happen for me. It didn’t mean I didn’t want to try, but I was realistic about it. 

My goal was to basically be in a position where I could get all the practice I could and the games were a bonus for me. My job [was] to be ready for the national team and the Olympics.”

Dyer Hayes was also just trying to stay sharp during her time playing with men.

“We had no place else to play,” she says. “I had a greater purpose and that was playing for Team USA.”

*       *       *

By 1997 at the Women’s Worlds in Ontario, Team USA’s goaltenders for head coach Ben Smith were Whitten Hamlen and Sarah Tueting. Canada won gold in OT.

Whitten Hamlen was feeling the pressure, too.

“I knew it in the spring of ’97 with the Worlds, where I was like, ‘OK, that’s another silver medal and I have to turn the corner at some point,” she says. “And there was a lot more pressure going into that pre-Olympic tour year because I hadn’t won a gold medal. So I think I mentally put myself in a position where I didn’t play my best hockey.”

In the end, neither Whitten Hamlen nor Dyer Hayes would go to Nagano. But both were rooting for Team USA.

“It was kind of meant to be,” says Dyer Hayes of the gold-medal win. “People would ask me as if they would expect me to be upset that I got cut from a team that won the gold. My feeling is that it was just meant to be. Obviously in ’98, Sarah Tueting, in the way she played and performed, she was a difference maker. And so it just really makes it feel like it was meant to be that way.”

Coyne, one of those inextricably tied to the Nagano win, can’t see that opportunity in history happening without Dyer Hayes or Whitten Hamlen.

“Everybody loves the Olympics,” Coyne says. “So, when people look to us and say, ‘Oh, my goodness, they are legends and trailblazers,’ I get what they’re saying. But by virtue of having the history that I have, I know that’s not true. Women’s hockey is not where it is today without Kelly Dyer. Without Erin Whitten. Without Cindy Curley. Without Tina Cardinale. Without Stephanie Kelly. It all matters. We just happened to be at that place where the world was able to see it.”

Whitten Hamlen would make one more Team USA appearance, in 1999, after boldly reaching out to ask for another chance from Smith after the 1998 cut—a move that suggests, yet again, just how much these goaltenders loved the game.

“I’ve been bold my entire life, and I wasn’t going to stop there,” says Whitten Hamlen. “What did I have to lose? I thought I played probably my best World Championship in that one. But, in the end, we still lost so I still couldn’t pull out the gold medal.”

Silver again, but …

“The silver lining to me is my response,” Whitten Hamlen says. “I don’t think I’d be coaching now if I made the Olympics. I think I’d be doing something else because success would have come too easily. Now I have more motivation to make my own players successful in what they are doing because I wasn’t as successful as I would have liked by peoples’ standards.”

This fall Whitten Hamlen will begin her eighth season behind the bench at Merrimack. From where she sits, she can certainly see that times have changed.

“I still think it’s hard, but I love the opportunities that women are getting,” she says, pointing out the players who leave her program and continue to play hockey professionally with women. “There’s so much farther to go and there’s so much more that has to happen, but the groundbreaking individuals in women’s pro hockey, they are the people who have really started something that will continue for a lot of years.”

Dyer Hayes, once her Team USA playing days were over, also kept knocking on hockey’s doors, starting with Louisville hockey in product development, where she’d work to make equipment, like the game itself before that, better for girls and women. She’s also went on to work for Easton and Brian’s, and these days lives in Massachusetts and is a key account manager for Surgically Clean Air, whose clients include a couple of NHL teams.

“I think it’s important to honor the changes that have come [to women’s hockey], but then to also recognize we have far to go,” says Dyer Hayes who has spent a lot of time this past year thinking about Title IX on its 50th anniversary. “I have a position of gratitude but I see how things could get better.”

It never does take Dyer Hayes long to dwell on the positives of this unexpected life in hockey, either. 

“Look at the timing, how everything unfolded,” she says. “As I’m graduating from college, the first-ever women’s world championships. As I’m playing that level of hockey, Manon Rhéaume breaks the ice, if you will, of the image of women playing in men’s professional hockey. As I progress from that into retirement, I’m one of the first women to work in the hockey industry on the equipment side. I’ve been extremely fortunate and I have tremendous gratitude for the opportunities that unfolded in front of me and in front of my life.”

They may have unfolded, but they most assuredly did not fall out of the sky and into her lap. She did have to go looking and looking and looking again, knocking and knocking and knocking again. The same is true for Whitten Hamlen.

“Just plain courage,” Coyne calls it. “I can’t imagine that it was easy. Not everybody on their men’s teams welcomed them with open arms. But they did it anyway. They did it because they love the game and they wanted to prove that they could hang with that level of talent. And I think it helped move our sport forward.” 

 

James MacDonald is a freelance writer from Sandwich, Mass.

Issue: 
2022-06

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