On March 20, 1998, Brandy Fisher-Bailey and women’s college hockey had a weekend that would never be forgotten.
Fisher-Bailey, who at that time was a senior at the University of New Hampshire, was the first recipient of the Patty Kazmaier Award, recognizing the best athlete in women’s college hockey. The next day, March 21, 1998, Fisher-Bailey joined her teammates in defeating Brown, 4-1, to capture the sport’s first national championship.
That unforgettable weekend took place 25 years ago at the FleetCenter, but the memories have not faded for Fisher-Bailey, now the girls’ hockey coach at Thayer Academy.
“I remember that weekend being, obviously, one of my favorite memories in hockey,” Fisher-Bailey said. “Our team was hoping we would come up with a big win, so I was just trying to be in the moment and focused on the task at hand.”
In 1998, women’s college hockey enjoyed a spike in attendance after the success of the US women’s hockey team that won gold at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, that February.
But a month prior to that golden triumph for the US women’s hockey team, USA Hockey announced the first-ever American Women’s College Hockey Alliance Championship would be held at the FleetCenter.
Event organizers seized on an opportunity to fill an open date at the arena after the Hockey East men’s consolation game was discontinued. A grant by the US Olympic Committee allowed USA Hockey to bridge the gap between 1998 and the 2000-01 season, when the NCAA planned to officially recognize the sport.
The weekend started with Fisher-Bailey winning the inaugural Patty Kazmaier Award over the Dartmouth’s Sarah Hood and Yale’s Laurie Belliveau, of Manchester-by-the-Sea. The same day, Fisher-Bailey and her UNH squad defeated Minnesota in a semifinal to earn a spot in the championship game.
“I’ve always been a person that was able to focus in the moment,” said Fisher-Bailey. “I felt like I was focused on mentally preparing for each game and being the best teammate I could be that weekend. I remember being so in the zone.”
Fisher-Bailey’s laser-sighted focus served her in dealing with the carnival-like atmosphere that permeated the building during that championship weekend.
Billerica’s Tina Carrabba, one of Fisher-Bailey’s UNH teammates, recalled the FleetCenter was hopping with activity — and that it may have been due, in large part, to her own family’s presence.
“I remember my brother, all his friends and my entire family was there because it was local,” said Carrabba, who scored the first goal in the title game. “It was exciting to do that in front of my family and friends, you know? Playing at the FleetCenter was amazing, but it was one of the first years that the FleetCenter was open and I grew up at the old Boston Garden, so I wished it was the Garden. But it was still amazing.”
Despite its start at a big arena, the women’s college hockey championship has shifted to smaller venues and on-campus sites (such as Penn State’s home arena in 2022), and has yet to return to major professional venues, such as TD Garden, where the men’s Beanpot is staged. The women’s Beanpot, meanwhile, remains at on-campus sites.
Fisher-Bailey believes it might be premature for a women’s college hockey championship to return to a venue such as TD Garden.
“One of the things that is nice about the smaller venues,” Fisher-Bailey said, “is the feel of being able to fill the rink and the atmosphere of having lots of support and fans.”
The sport’s popularity — in addition to its social media presence, media coverage, and TV viewership — has been growing, but attendance figures have lagged behind what Carrabba experienced in 1998.
“They had us volunteering everywhere to get a bigger fan base,” said Carrabba, who runs a hockey training facility in her hometown. “We would have between like 4,000 and 6,000 fans at our games because of the community work we did. I feel like they don’t have that now.”
Despite its ongoing issues with attendance, women’s college hockey has had robust growth since the inaugural championship weekend a quarter-century ago. The players who suited up for that title game blazed a trail, even if they didn’t realize it at the time.
“We were in the moment, playing college hockey in an established league, at a university that had a long-standing program,” said Carrie Jokiel, a UNH teammate of Bailey-Fisher and Carrabba. “In the moment, though I was very cognizant of the women that had paved the way before us, I didn’t recognize that we were trailblazers. Now I see it. Now I look back and can’t believe it’s been 25 years.”
Philips, Petford honored
▪ Northeastern senior Gwyneth Philips was named as the Hockey Commissioners Association’s women’s goaltender of the month for January. She earned her second honor of the season from the organization after going 6-0 in the month, including four shutouts. Philips will lead the Huskies in her first Beanpot title game against Boston College Tuesday night.
▪ Stonehill’s Alexis Petford was runner-up for women’s rookie of the month for the third time this season. In January, she averaged 1.5 points per game and had eight goals and four assists. Petford has 22 goals this season for Stonehill’s fledgling program, good for second in the nation.