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Women in Sports: Laura Brennan: The Connecticut Whale’s Jack of All Trades

We recently had the opportunity to chat with the remarkable #33 Laura Brennan, Goaltender, Coach, and everything in between for the Connecticut Whale of the NWHL. In addition to her professional hockey career,  Laura is also the Director of the Fairfield Ice Academy (www.fairfieldiceacademy.com), and is especially happy for the opportunity to give young athletes there first taste of life on the ice, and it comes early.The process, begins as Laura explained: “….from when they first crawl on the Ice, to standing, to skating, to playing hockey”. She also oversees multi sport camps at the Academy, that often serve as the youngster’s first exposure to skating or hockey. Laura added these thoughts: “Through my career at Fairfield Ice Academy, I have dedicated my life to growing the sport. I believe that skating is an important life skill that everyone should have. I love seeing our students build confidence and their passion for the game grow. I am very fortunate in that some of my teammates also work at the rink and help teach classes and clinics. I love having them out there as it shows the girls that they can strive to be professional hockey players and the boys learn that girls are great hockey players too.”

Laura continued “Having the opportunity to introduce children to the game that has given so much back to me is something that I am truly grateful for.” We also asked Laura about the number of women coaches in hockey, particularly in the NWHL, and she gave us an interesting insight on why that should increase. She replied “As the league grows, I think that we will see more female coaches behind the bench. Our sport is still young but more and more women are getting to the age of retirement from playing who are passionate and knowledgeable about the game who would make excellent coaches.”

So in addition to her full time job,  Laura could be found at the twice a week Whale practices during  weekdays, and games on Saturday and/or Sunday during a six month season. You saw her in coach mode, player mode, in the crease or behind the bench. And in a season where the Connecticut Whale broke the mold in signing players from overseas, including two premiere goalies in Meeri Raisanen and Mariya Sorokina. Laura also willingly volunteered to take on even more responsibility with the pair. In additional to her on ice tutoring of her Finnish and Russian stars, she was also instrumental in the off ice adaptation of the two into the new, and unfamiliar culture of the NWHL, and life in Connecticut, USA

As Laura prepared for the 2018-2019 season as one of the Whale goalies, she was unexpectedly persuaded to give up her roster spot. Laura explained.”At the beginning of the season I was brought on as one of the three Whale goalies (along with Sam Walther & Mariya Sorokina) When given the opportunity to sign Meeri Räisänen Coach Equale had to jump at it. We met up over lunch one day to discuss my role and bringing Meeri in. Coach explained the situation and said that he valued my contributions to the team and my hockey IQ and would love to have me on the coaching staff as the team goalie coach. I knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sign a goalie like Meeri and had thought that this would be my last year playing so I agreed to give up my player spot and turned my focus to coaching. The caveat here was that Mariya and Meeri wouldn’t be in the country at the beginning of the season so I was still playing until they arrived (Which turned into me practicing at almost all of our practices during the season).”

So how did Laura wind up back on the ice? She explains, “As the season progressed with trades, injuries and other commitments I found myself being the only goalie left and in need of some additional partners. I made a list of potential candidates and started reaching out to see if there was interest and where people were with their game. I knew Shenae from season 2 and she lives locally so I had her come out to practice with the team and was very happy with how she preformed. Erin O’Neil had come highly recommended from Shannon Doyle and Nina Rodgers but I had never seen her play and she lived in MN. To have her evaluated I called my friends at The Goalie Club in MN and had Erin skate in one of their clinics and give me their thoughts and video. We decided to bring Erin on board as well and I am very happy with how that worked out. Both goalies (Shenae & Erin) had to come into a tough situation late in the season and I think they both did a great job. I’ve always said it’s a goalies job to give their team a chance to win games and they both were able to do that for us late in the season.”

So in the course of this season, Laura not only had to play the position, but coach five other goaltenders for the Whale. Laura explained how she approached that. “As a coach, I try to get to know each of the goalies on a personal level and adjust my coaching style to connect with the individual to make sure they are getting what they need to be in their top playing shape physically and mentally. At this level, all of the goalies are already great technically and very knowledgeable about the position so if I saw something that may help them we’d talk about it and they were able to make that small tweak or adjustment to clean up their game.”

Laura elaborated on her coaching style, telling us, “Goalies are currently evolving their style as the speed and strength of the players continues to increase. My biggest goalie influences are Des Christopher of The Goalie Club (TGC) and Shari Vogt Dickerman my goalie partner from MSU-Mankato and fellow TGC’er. I worked goalie camps and clinics with TGC throughout my college career. It was there that I learned how to break skills down for beginners and developed a GO FOR IT attitude where hard work is fun! Des taught me how to be a student of the game and watch the goalies in the NHL to see what they are doing and what works and what doesn’t work to incorporate the latest trends and techniques into my own game and also my coaching. Now instagram is a huge tool for me as I continue to coach. There are many goalie coaches out there who share information, drills, and video critiques. It is fun to be part of a community of goalies who are all trying to share their love for the game and the position.”

Laura had a stellar early playing career, starting at White Bear Lake High School in Minnesota, and continuing through her years between the pipes at Minnesota State and Quinnipiac University. There was no NWHL wLaura graduated QU, but she did play a season in a women’s league in Sweden. Laura joined up with her present employer, Fairfield Ice Academy in 2011, and although involved in the sport through her work there, she spent roughly eight years without playing competitive hockey. At that time you were more likely to see her honing her managerial skills than stopping pucks. That could have been a happy ending to an a great hockey story, but it wasn’t. Goalies are used to bouncing back up, and Laura bounced back up and into the crease. And it was her extended hockey family that brought her back onto the ice as a player. The Assistant Coach she played for at Quinnipiac, Lisa Giovanelli, was now the Assistant Coach in the newly formed NWHL for the Connecticut Whale! She reached out to Laura, who went through the tryout process, and pulled her #33 sweater back on. This time as a member of the Connecticut Whale., where she has been for the last three years.

But that was just her first time. Because after not starting the season on the roster, Laura Bremen became the first ever “Once and Future Whale”. Laura  was re-activated in Week 10, and the #33 sweater was back on the ice. Laura explains “The first game that I suited up this year was in January vs. The Whitecaps. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being in uniform with the team. I think the best way to describe it is to look at pictures of me on that day. The Minnesota trip was something that I was looking forward to all season. I am from White Bear Lake, MN and have friends and family that are still in the area who came to see the team play. Until about a week out, I thought that I’d be traveling to MN as a coach but when Sam Walther left the team, I knew I’d be traveling as a player and that my family would be able to see me suit up. Tickets were hard to come by in MN so I had about 10 family members at each game. My family got there early to see me play in warm ups and had made a bunch of signs. It felt amazing to be back in my home state playing in front of a big crowd that was full of energy. It brought me back to my high school and college days.”

Laura continued, “On Saturday, my family was blown away by how good Meeri is. They were happy to meet her and other members of the team. They came back on Sunday with two additional signs. One for Meeri and one for Juice (#25 forward Juana Baribeau) When Meeri got injured and I went in, I had good feelings about how I’d do. I was playing in my home state, in front of a large crowd. Those are the moments where I usually shine as a goalie. Even in hostile territory as an away player, I love that spotlight. Unfortunately, I went in and had the worst period of hockey in my entire career and had it in front of a large crowd and family members. I felt so many emotions after the game; angry, frustrated, embarrassed and also worried about Meeri. In such a tough situation is was so nice to have my family there to comfort me. I remember my brother saying, “I’m just happy we got to see you play, I’d watch you give up 100 goals and still be happy.” We watched that game a couple of times, and although a few goals got in,Laura also made some terrific saves, against what proved to be the best women’s professional hockey team in the world.

In light of Merri’s season ending injury, we asked Laura about goalie safety. She replied “Goalies are in such a vulnerable position during a game. They are basically standing still while players skate at them at full speed. I do believe something needs to be done to prevent goalies from getting crashed into so frequently and subsequently getting injured. The first and easiest step would be to call more goalie interference penalties when players do make contact with a goalie in their crease. Players need to be aware of their surroundings on the ice and be held accountable for their actions. Also, we need to do a better job at disallowing goals where there is contact with the goalie” Laura continued “As a goalie coach to young goalies. I teach them early on about the dangers of covering the puck with your head down. I tell them to keep their head up, cover the puck with their glove with their stick on top of it. That way, if they see a player coming in fast they can use their stick and blocker to protect themselves in case of a collision.”

We asked Laura what other advice she would offer to the parents whose daughters may be interested in becoming a goalie. Laura gave this insightful reply “Advice that I would give to parents is let them play hockey! If your daughter shows interest, let her try it. There are so many positive things that come from young girls playing hockey. Confidence, work ethic, joy, humbleness, and life long friendships to name just a few. As far as goalie goes, the position isn’t for everyone but if your daughter shows interest let her try it. A lot of times kids think it looks fun and easy but once they try they realize how hard it is and know it really isn’t for them. If that’s the case I think its a good thing because then they have more understanding and compassion for what their team goalie has to deal with.”

Laura added, “If your daughter tries it and loves it, then you’re in for a wild ride. Get ready for ultimate highs, very low lows. Moments of triumph and moments of defeat. Moments where the puck is the size of a beach ball and she’s stopping everything and moments where no matter how hard she’s trying the pucks squeak past her. Through all of the ups and downs it is your job to be loving and supportive and make sure that she’s having fun. Hockey is a game after all. We can’t let the highs get to high or the lows too low. Like I said, Goalie isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who are Goalies, we are a special breed :)” we can’t speak on all goalies, but we can attest that the remarkable #33 for the Connecticut Whale is a breed apart. And so, I think we are safe to take her word about the lot of them! 

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