Cetacean Nation chatted recently with another of our new Whale, forward Sarah Hughson. The high scoring forward grew up in East Haddam, CT and played her high school hockey at The Gunnery in Washington, CT. But she left the Nutmeg State to pursue her undergraduate degree and athletics st Elmira College in upstate New York. She has come back home to Connecticut with her degree and All-American recognition, to become a professional hockey player in the NWHL in her home state.
But Sarah didn’t actually begin her hockey career in Connecticut, but in Michigan. But that’s not even where she learned to skate. Here’s what Sarah had to say about her cross country skating journey. “Well I was born in Colorado and we spent a couple of years there where I did a few learn to skates to pass time in the winter. When we moved to Michigan that was where I really got into learning how to play. My mom tells me that they brought me to the rink to just skate some more and the man who was running a hockey program at the threw me in some hockey gear, and I guess I never looked back.” Those are pretty modest beginnings for a player with Sarah’s credentials, but it all came together at her last stop. She explains “It was when we moved to Connecticut where I first joined a youth hockey league, the Middlesex Red Devils out of Wesleyan and Cromwell.That was a coed team but it really was just me and two other girls on a team full of boys. I played with them up until they began to check (around age 12). I moved over to the Polar Bears program, which is an awesome all girls team. It was with them that I learned what prep schools were and the opportunities of going to a boarding school to play hockey and develop my skills more at a higher competitive level” Cetacean Nstion noted that Sarah has played several other sports, and asked her to tell us about that. She began by addressing soccer, saying “I have played soccer the majority of my life. I played growing up in CT on my town's travel team, before playing on the middle school team. And I then joining the varsity team when I went to Gunnery my freshman year” Even though her soccer career did not continue, Sarah’s fondness for the sport is evident. She offered “Soccer is a great sport and I loved every second of it and wish I could say that I continued to play after high school, I would love to get back into it if I ever find the time or a summer league to join”.
As to lacrosse, Sarah explained “I actually never played it growing up, I played softball instead since that is what my friends in my town. When I went to Gunnery I decided that I wanted to try something new and lacrosse had always been a sport that wasn't offered in my hometown but something that I would have loved to learn” Sarah also took time to give us her thoughts on the positive effects of being s multi-sport athlete. She stated “Playing multiple sports growing up is so important in my opinion! I completely understand picking one sport to be your ultimate favorite (hockey was always mine) but there is so much that you learn from playing other sports that overall helps your hockey career.” Sarah then broke it down for us this way “Soccer taught me how to play with pace, use my teammates to be successful and really helped build endurance. Softball taught me hand eye coordination and really helped me learn how to sprint growing up. Lacrosse taught me how to angle the opponent, learn plays, and definitely helped with my endurance as well. All of these skills that combine on the ice and overall played a huge roll in my success in hockey.” Sarah added this interesting note as well “Aside from that it is important to step away from the rink, make friends who don't play hockey, get away from the intensity of hockey at times and enjoy being around a different atmosphere.”
Sarah mentioned her prep school, The Gunnery, and her success there spanned three sports, soccer, hockey and lacrosse, earning MVP honors in all during her senior season. She captained the soccer and lacrosse teams for two seasons, and was a two time conference champion with the hockey squad. Sarah told us this about the school and what she experienced there “The Gunnery was a very small tight knit community, not only did everyone know each other but they knew what sports they played, what their favorite subjects were, what dorm they lived in, where they were from, who their closest friends were... it was all so family like. It also had many traditions that I loved including the all school walk, senior rock, finding the stray shot (a cannonball...long story), and many others. When I first toured at Gunnery I got this feeling that I just really belonged there and I really felt like home and that that is where I needed to end up. I was right because I absolutely loved my time at Gunnery and the friends and memories I made there.” The fans of Cetacean Nation will find it pretty cool that one of those friends was her goalie on all three teams, her fellow Whale rookie Sam Walther.
Cetacean Nation wondered how Sarah came to choose Elmira College, and her Gunnery experience was prominent in her answer. She stated “So when I visited Elmira and learned about their own traditions including their own type of all school walk (Mountain Day), and the obsession with purple, octagons, and Mark Twain. I got the same good feeling when I visited Elmira that I did when I was at Gunnery. I knew right away that that was where I needed to be. And luckily they had an amazing hockey team with really great people on the team that made me feel right at home.” Sarah had a stellar hockey career at Elmira, and as mentioned earlier, she earned All-American honors her breakout Senior year tallying twenty-eight goals and twenty two assists. We asked Sarah about competing as a two sport athlete at Elmira. She described it this way “Being a two sport athlete at Elmira was a great experience! When you grow up playing so many different sports and then playing three sports in high school it is hard to just give up all of them but one. When I was looking at colleges I originally wanted to play soccer and hockey but found that it would have been really hard to do so because the end of soccer season overlaps with the beginning of hockey season and since I was looking to be recruited for hockey I didn't want to miss out on anything during preseason. So I chose Elmira to play hockey and the lacrosse coach reached out to me asking about my lacrosse career and if I was interested in playing on the team at Elmira so of course I figured why not!”
Sarah continued “Playing two sports at Elmira was a great experience and wasn't as stressful as I would have thought. But that really depends on the school you go to and the sport programs you want to join. Hockey at Elmira is a full year round commitment, we are fortunate enough to be treated as if we were a D1 program. We get on the ice the first week we get back to campus and post season ends when we go home for summer. In season begins early in the year and goes all the way to March, which overlaps with the first couple weeks of lacrosse season. Playing lacrosse and being apart of that team was a nice change from hockey. It opened me up to meeting more people on campus and allowed me to stay in shape while playing a sport I loved in the springtime. I was not able to play soccer at Elmira, as I really didn't want to miss out on anything that related to hockey. I wanted to get better and be a better player for the team and felt if I played soccer I would have missed some of the opportunities that I would need. I did have a teammate who played soccer, hockey, and lacrosse her senior year so it is definitely possible if you are willing to commit to it!”
Cetacean Nation also asked Sarah to discuss her experiences at the NCAA Tournament during her hockey career with the Screaming Eagles. She began “ I have been very fortunate to be able to experience the NCAA tourney four times, all with very different perspectives. My freshman and sophomore years I wasn't in the role of the player who was relied on on the ice. I was a young player on a very talented veteran team filled with amazing players, who I still look up to today. So my NCAA tourney experience those two years were through my teammates, I really got to see how much it took to be where they are, in the roles that they were in, giving everything they had on the ice for the team. My junior year, I finally got the chance to really make a difference on the team. So when we lost in quarterfinals I was heartbroken and knew that next season would be my season and I would give everything I had to get back to that tournament. I think my senior year was as successful as it was because of how much I learned from my past teammates. I saw what it took and I did whatever I could to do the same ( to help my teammates) so when we got to the quarterfinal game vs Adrian at home there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to win. We had to win, I had to get back to the final four. We went 0-0 until the last couple minutes of the third period when I got an amazing pass from my linemate, Shannon Strawinski. It just somehow trickled in when I shot it, and we finalized the game 2-0 and I couldn't have been happier. I knew I had two games left in my career.And I remembered watching my seniors my freshman year, give it everything they had. So I knew I was ready and felt I was meant to be there.”
There are no easy play-off games anywhere, and earlier in the season Elmira and Plattsburgh had skated to a 3-3 draw. Sarah continued her recollections “The Plattsburgh game was unreal. They scored on us the first shift of the game which was not a good start on our part, but we have never been a team to give up. The game was back and forth all five periods but I can honestly say that I don't remember being tired at all. There was too much adrenaline. I remember the OT goal perfectly. The puck had just chipped out of our zone past the defender and I had beat her to the puck by the red line coming down on a two on two. Shannon was right next to me and the Platty girl was right on my back. So I just tried to protect the puck as close to the net as I could and when I could I just dropped it back to Shannon, who just buried it. I don’t think I have never been more happy in my life. We were all so pumped because no one thought we were going to win that game besides us. Everyone believed that we were the underdogs in the tournament which was just not the case. All of our hard work: every practice, sprints, lifts, games, just all came together in that moment. The next day we were so excited still from the day before but ready to get back to work. It was another really tough game and I really believe that that game could have gone either way. Norwich was a very good, strong team and so were we and it was just a great game to be apart of. As much of a bummer it is to get that close and not win it all I was so proud of my team and everything that we had accomplished. I'll miss it every day” Sarah subsequently made an excellent video for the tournament for her video art class Cetacean Nation recommends checking out at : https://vimeo.com/262458451
Sarah graduated Elmira magna cum laude with a 3.67 GPA in Business Administration, and we asked her to tell us about her degree and career path. She revealed “I originally went into my freshman year as an undecided major because I wasn't very sure of what I was interested in yet. Luckily Elmira had a few options that I could have chosen when I was ready. After taking an intro to marketing class my freshman year I knew that was exactly what I wanted to get in to. So I declared as a Business Admin Major with a concentration in Marketing. I was drawn to the creative and content aspects of marketing; including making videos, graphic design, running social media channels and marketing people's passions or organizations through those means. While at Elmira I was very fortunate to be able to do many different types of internships. I did a promotions/game day operations internship with the Elmira Jackals, a semi professional men's hockey program. The Community Outreach and Marketing Internship was a lot of fun. I was able to work with the Elmira Athletic department on working with the Elmira community and the college campus to try to get a bigger audience/fan presence at the college's athletic events. Since we are a very small school it was hard to get athletes to go to each others games all the time, because of the overlapping of schedules. So we wanted to get as much of the community to the games as possible. On top of that I was a graphic design intern for a small art gallery in Corning, NY called the ARTs Council of the Southern Tier, an amazing gallery! “
We also asked Sarah about her social media experiences, as that has been a key factor in the growing of the NWHL and Cetacean Nation, the Whale fan base. Sarah explained “As for social media, I ran all of the social media channels for our hockey team. I loved doing that, making hype videos, getting the fans involved in our experience as much as possible. So anything that was posted by Elmira College Women's Ice Hockey the past year was my work, which was rewarding and exciting. I would love to continue to do that and make a career out of it in the future, that is definitely a goal of mine. And I am hoping to get a coaching job at a boarding school or a sports marketing job along side with playing for the Whale this season.”
Cetacean Nation is not surprised that there is some coaching on the radar for Sarah. During our chat, we discussed some hockey strategy, and asked her to specifically give us some thoughts on her play on two key units, the penalty kill and the power play. As to the power play, she asserted “I am someone who does well in small areas and tends to find myself in the right place at the right time. At Elmira we have changed our PP up quite a bit depending on who we play so I have played on the side looking for the back door pass or a pass to the slot, I have been the one right in front of the crease because I have done well with tipping the shots from the point, and I have been one to camp out right on the post for a back door pass or a loose puck in front. Those have really been my best roles on the powerplay but I honestly give a lot of credit to my teammates for all of their work on the power play and have been fortunate enough to be able to bury it when we need it. My biggest strengths and my philosophy, since I am a smaller player, is to get lost in the play and not be so much of a threat until the right time. When I sneak in and get the loose puck in front or the back door pass. I believe if you work hard enough in front you can get yourself in the right position at the right time.“
In discussing penalty killing, Sarah further observed “For me I never really was involved in the PK until the end of my junior year, and all of my senior year. The PK is definitely a different scene for me since I am a more of an offensive player than having a defensive mindset. But when I am on the PK i do whatever it takes to deny the other team. I found myself diving for pucks to get out of the zone, blocking shots in any way that I can, and when I get the chance, I try to use my offensive skills as much as I can. Meaning, I love beating the D to an icing and freezing the puck along the boards to waste time. That and if I can block a shot, are my two favorite parts to the PK but that is definitely a challenging aspect of the game.” Sarah didn’t mention it, but In the NCAA Final her senior year, she scored Elmira’s lone goal vs Norwich short-handed.
Players of Sarah’s graduation year class have had the NWHL and the possibility of professional hockey as a reality the bulk of their collegiate careers. Cetacean Nation asked when she began to consider the possibility post-collegiate hockey, and how she swam into the Pod. She told us “ I never really thought too much about the NWHL and playing more after college at a very competitive level until my senior season. I was so excited about the way the season went and just wasn't ready to give that all up. When you get to play in college it doesn't really hit you that you could be really done at the end of your senior season. That is when you think about how much the sport has meant to you for your entire life. I was fortunate to have had a great senior season and felt as though I still wanted to get better and play at a competitive level longer, I couldn't just end my hockey career on that. So I began reaching out to coaches overseas to see if there was any opportunity of me playing over there, which would allow me to travel and play at the same time. Unfortunately I looked into it a little late and most of the teams who needed imports were full. So I joined the NWHL Free Agency and reached out to the Whale showing my interest. I gave them a few of my stats from the season and they got back to me pretty quickly. It was just so amazing to me that everything just kind of fell together. I didn't really believe it at first but I am so excited to prove myself at the next level and am so thankful for this opportunity”
Since this represents Sarah’s first post-collegiate off-season. We wanted to know how she was handling her training and conditioning. She said “Yeah, it is definitely weird coming off of my collegiate season and I probably won't really believe it until I don't go back to Elmira when the rest of my teammates do. Everything I have heard about the NWHL is that it is a very physical and fast league so I have been working really hard at building my strength and speed so that I am prepared for the season. I believe that my training at Elmira for the past four years has set me up pretty well to continue at this level but it is definitely a goal of mine to increase my training, strength and conditioning over the summer so I will be ready. It will definitely be a challenge for me since I am not the biggest player but I am really committing myself to be ready.” Sarah stopped to reflect on where she is at this point in her life and said “ It is crazy how being put in hockey gear at age 4 without any real concept of hockey turns into something that has really determined my path throughout my life so far. I honestly don't know who or where I would be if my parents didn't drop me off at the rink that one day and then continued to give me the opportunity to play even after we moved.”
As we concluded our chat, Sarah offered s few words to our growing Cetacean Nation fan base. Enthusiastically she told us “I am som excited to represent the Whale this season! As someone who is from CT and hasn't really played in the state in a long time,I I am excited to share my hockey experience with those closest to me. I guess I just would love to be a player that the fans look up to. I have worked very hard to get to where I am and hope that younger players know that if you work hard enough and love something as much as you can then it really does make all the difference. I hope that we can build such a great fan experience, I already know that the fans of the Whale are awesome so I hope we can give back as much as we can, and play for them every game. I can't wait! Fins Up!”
Cetacean Nation also offers two Fins Up to our new Whale, Sarah Hughson, for giving the fans a chance to get to know her a little better. In closing, we’d like to share this quote (author unknown) we stumbled upon during our research. Sarah had used it in her social media work at Elmira, and it is one of her favorites. And now it is one of ours:
“To play the game is good, to win the game is better, but to love the game is best of all.”