By Joe O'Connell
Photos by Matthew Modoono and Adam Glanzaman/Northeastern University, and Jim Pierce/Northeastern Athletics
It was the longest moment of silence during the 20-minute interview. After discussing her many hockey memories and accomplishments, her regrets and her future, a closing question about her beloved Chicago Blackhawks gives Kendall Coyne pause.
The question: “Would you trade all the Stanley Cups the Chicago Blackhawks have won in your lifetime for an NCAA championship?”
Coyne has cheered for the Blackhawks her entire life, having grown up about 30 minutes south of Chicago in Palos Heights, Illinois. It’s an organization Coyne worked with to create her own co-op in its media relations department and one she will have the opportunity to return to once she finishes her master’s degree in corporate and organizational communications in 2017.
“Yes,” she finally answers, with a smile, followed by a laugh. “I better be able to get a job after this.”
Seeing the senior captain of the Northeastern women’s hockey team unsure is a rarity. Whether she is splitting the defense of an opposing team, presenting a report on her honors project, or answering a writer’s questions, Coyne’s poise, confidence, determination, and unparalleled skill are what make her loved and respected by those who know her.
While the question may give Coyne pause, there is a chance she might not have to choose between one or the other. That’s because the women’s hockey team secured the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth this past Sunday, bringing Coyne, her teammates, and her coaches one step closer to their ultimate goal. Northeastern faces Boston College on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the opening round of the tournament.
But can you believe that? We are talking about one of the top U.S.-born female hockey players in the world. She’s an Olympic silver medalist, a world champion. She’s helped bring two Beanpot trophies to Huntington Avenue. She’s the Cammi Granato Award winner for Women’s Hockey East Player of the Year and she is a finalist for this year’s Patty Kazmaier trophy, which is given to the nation’s top collegiate women’s hockey player.
Yet she hasn’t competed in the NCAA tournament—until now.
“We had never done it as a program,” Coyne said. “I know for me that was my ultimate goal, to do something that has never been done before.”
Playing in the NCAA tournament is an impressive accomplishment, one that would most likely be prominently featured on any athlete’s resume. But for Coyne, it may be relegated to a footnote when you consider all her other successes, both on and off the ice.
Huskies’ head coach David Flint first saw Kendall Coyne play when he was working for USA Hockey and she, as a 15-year-old, was in a national team camp.
“Everyone is talking about her, and you see this tiny kid with braces, and the first time she stepped on the ice everyone was just blown away by her talent,” recalled Flint, who is in his eighth year behind the Huskies’ bench. “Quickly you realize she was the top kid in the country in her age group.”
When it came time for Coyne to pick a college hockey program, she was a highly sought-after prospect. But Flint opted for a hands-off recruiting approach, letting Coyne know Northeastern was interested but allowing her to go through the process at her own pace.
“I convinced her to use her last official visit to come to Northeastern,” Flint said. “She loved everything about the school. I knew when she was leaving I made her decision tougher.”
Coyne and Flint still reminisce about the call she made to inform him she would wear the red and black sweater, mostly because Flint’s exuberance could be heard by Coyne’s mother who was sitting next to her when she made the call.
“Going through the process, I selected Northeastern ultimately because of Coach Flint,” Coyne said. “I could tell right away he cared about me as a person first, not a hockey player. And he has stuck to that since day one.”
“In my coaching career she is my biggest recruit and her selecting Northeastern was a pretty special moment for me and the program,” Flint said.
Any hockey aficionado will tell you that one of Coyne’s greatest attributes is her speed. During the 2014 Winter Olympics, commentator and former NHL great Jeremy Roenick—who became a star during his first eight seasons as a Chicago Blackhawk, in fact—said that Coyne might be the best skater in the world, man or woman.
“He’s not far off,” echoed Flint. “I’ve never seen anyone be able to skate like that, to go zero to 60 so quickly.”
When Coyne first laced up her skates for Northeastern, she played the left wing, and Flint said she would use her speed to blow past defenders on the outside. But her Division I defenders soon caught on.
“I moved her to the right side a couple years ago, and those defensemen are respecting her speed and playing off her, so now she has space to get to the middle of the ice, which is a better place to score,” Flint said. “I feel like it has opened up a new world for her.”
Her stats tell a story of dominance.
In 132 career games for the Huskies, she has amassed 140 goals and 108 assists for a total of 248 points. In this, her final season, she is leading the nation in goals (49) and points (83), both Hockey East single-season records. She’s the all-time leading scorer in conference history and Northeastern women’s hockey history.
“She’s been such a big part of this program and has done so much,” Flint said. “I don’t know if I will ever coach a player that good again.”
From time to time, frustration can get the better of an athlete. When things start to go wrong in a game, the athlete can become flustered and upset, which can negatively impact his or her performance. But if you ask New Hampshire women’s hockey coach Hilary Witt, the opposite holds true for Coyne.
“When she gets frustrated and fired up, she turns that into a positive for her and her team,” Witt said. “It is motivation for Kendall—she finds a way to bring it when it is not going well.”
Witt and her players saw that firsthand during last year’s Hockey East tournament. In the first game of the best-of-three series, the lower seeded Wildcats pulled out a 2-1 victory. Coyne managed 12 shots on goal, but was unable to find the back of the net.
In the following two games, Coyne collected four goals and an assist to lift Northeastern to the next round. “I think she took that first loss personally, and over the next two games she basically singlehandedly beat us,” Witt said.
Coyne and Witt’s relationship goes back several years. Witt was part of Northeastern’s coaching staff during Coyne’s early days at Matthews, before she took the head coaching job in Durham in 2014.
Earlier this year when Coyne become Northeastern’s all-time scorer, she broke Witt’s record. And she did it against New Hampshire.
“Kendall is not someone who worries about records, but it was nice to see her smile and enjoy it after the game,” said Witt, AS’01, who amassed 208 points for Northeastern from 1996 to 2000. “And she just kept going the rest of the season. When we recruited her I told her she would break those records and I am really happy for her because records are supposed to be broken. Although, I’m not sure anyone will break hers.”
That piece of paper always caught Alan Zaremba’s attention.
Zaremba, the associate dean for undergraduate programs and an associate professor in the College of Arts, Media and Design, met each week, one-on-one, with Coyne, AMD’15, as part of the Honors in the Discipline program. And every time, without fail, Coyne brought with her a typed paper on the topic they would discuss that day.
“That was really impressive,” Zaremba said. “Even one week after she had been overseas playing in an international tournament, she came into our meeting with her typed page ready to roll.”
The Honors in the Discipline program provides upperclassmen at Northeastern the chance to undertake research projects they find particularly of interest. For Coyne, that topic was examining crises in sports and the resulting aftermath. Together, Coyne and Zaremba explored Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, Deflategate, and the University of North Carolina’s academic controversy.
I’m just very fortunate for those and I really hope I can give back and inspire some little girls to play hockey and maybe they can have some of the same experiences I had. It’s been awesome being at Northeastern because I have discovered what I am passionate about, besides hockey.”
“I don’t know much about her as a hockey player, but as a student she was exceptional,” Zaremba said. “She was just industrious and committed, which I understand is how she approaches hockey.”
Coyne said she was most struck by Armstrong’s ability to beat drug tests while deceiving the public during his career as a professional cyclist. “I was really interested in Armstrong’s story because like him, I am an Olympic athlete,” Coyne said. “I’ve gone through some of the same drug testing criteria that athletes like Lance Armstrong go through, so I really understood the language of the crisis.”
This experiential learning opportunity with Zaremba, Coyne said, opened the door to a co-op working in the National Hockey League—a longtime dream of hers. Northeastern’s signature co-op program, in fact, played an important role in her college decision.
“When I am recruiting players, I sell co-op,” Flint said. “It’s not too hard to sell. They understand the value of their education and the value of getting a good job. And I think Kendall saw that.”
After competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics, Coyne went from the ice to the press box, working for the Blackhawks’ media relations office. “It’s cool now that I am graduating and things are coming to an end, that I’ve accomplished the academic goals I set as a freshman,” Coyne said.
Not only have Coyne’s physical conditioning and mental toughness grown with each successive season, so too have her leadership qualities.
“I was kind of in a shell when I came here, and being a leader has helped me be more vocal and allowed me to help others,” said Coyne, who was elected team captain before the start of this season. “You can obviously lead by example, but I think it is more so being a good person on and off the ice and being someone your teammates can look up to.”
Coyne struggled to fit in during her first year at Northeastern, Flint said, a result of being such a highly touted player. Many of the veteran players were not sure how to treat the future star of the program, leaving Coyne somewhat alienated.
“After her freshman year she told me she didn’t want anyone to ever feel that again,” Flint said. “So she has really worked to create a culture in which everyone treats everyone the right way and is respectful to each other.”
And Coyne has become a go-to for support on and off the ice for her teammates, according to assistant captain and junior goaltender Sarah Foss. “She has done an unbelievable job to make sure everyone feels included and we are a unit,” Foss said. “The chemistry this year has never been better and I attribute a lot of that to her.”
We had never done it as a program,” Coyne said. “I know for me that was my ultimate goal, to do something that has never been done before.”
The days to see Coyne in a Northeastern hockey sweater are nearing an end. At most, she will play three more games—and that’s if the Huskies reach the NCAA tournament championship game.
While Coyne is solely focused on Saturday’s game against the top-ranked Eagles, her post-college life is fast approaching. Yes, she still has to complete her master’s degree—and there is that little challenge of returning to the Winter Olympics in 2018, to help Team USA win gold—but Coyne says she is keeping her options open.
She hopes to work with a sports organization in community development, where she can share her experience with others and possibly inspire the next Kendall Coyne.
“The experiences I’ve had here, some people don’t get to have them. I’m just very fortunate for those and I really hope I can give back and inspire some little girls to play hockey and maybe they can have some of the same experiences I had,” Coyne said. “It’s been awesome being at Northeastern because I have discovered what I am passionate about, besides hockey.”