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Lessons Learned

North Pomfret’s DesMeules Copes With Highs, Lows At Yale

Yale’s Emily DesMeules, a former North Pomfret resident, didn’t let injuries stop her from enjoying her time in college. (Yale Sports Publicity - Sam Rubin)

Yale’s Emily DesMeules, a former North Pomfret resident, didn’t let injuries stop her from enjoying her time in college. (Yale Sports Publicity - Sam Rubin)

Hanover — College sports careers, like life in general, do not always end as the participant hoped they would. For every player who scores a winning goal in a championship contest, there are numerous others who barely receive playing time or who are cut from the roster before the season even starts.

For former North Pomfret resident and Yale University hockey player Emily DesMeules, there was certainly no title game or triumphant final lap in front of adoring fans. But the senior defender isn’t complaining, either. Not when she’ll walk away with her health, a prestigious degree and warm memories of her Bulldogs teammates.

DesMeules’ hockey career actually ended in November, when she was sidelined by a herniated disc in her back. That followed a junior season shortened when she broke an ankle during the first period of Yale’s first game. DesMeules wound up playing in 74 college contests, scoring twice and adding three assists.

“It was like deja vu from last year,” said the political science major, sitting in the Thompson Arena stands last month before her team lost at Dartmouth. “You’re on the team, but when you’re not doing the same things at the same time as the other players, you feel separated a bit. I feel like I did a slow fade because I played a little bit at the start. I was able to ease into an early retirement.”

DesMeules’ father competed in club hockey at Lehigh (Pa.) University and she began playing the sport as a fourth-grader at Hartford’s Wendall Barwood Arena after learning to skate on Hanover’s Occom Pond. She played on boys teams and then for Woodstock High’s girls team as a freshman, but also for the Vermont Stars club program out of Waterbury. Because DesMeules excelled at hockey and loved playing it, she and her parents agreed she would try a school year at the North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, a boarding school for girls in the eighth through 12th grades, as well as those interested in a postgraduate year.

At the time, NAHA offered a year-round boarding option, which DesMeules said she participated in with roughly 10 of the 40 girls there during the hockey season. She graduated with a class of eight, and loved the 2-hour daily practices and schedules that resulted in as many as 80 games during the winter.

“It was like going to an intense summer hockey camp, but for three years,” DesMeules said. “The school house was a trailer out behind an Austrian ski inn they’d converted into dorms and a dining hall. They used teachers who had retired or who taught at the ski academy up the road.”

DesMeules applied early to Yale and was accepted, ending her perusal of colleges and universities. Union and assorted Division III schools had also been suitors, but DesMeules had her sights set on receiving the best education possible.

“My decision was pretty much purely based on academics,” she said. “Yale (women’s hockey) at that time was kind of middle of the pack and always going for that last (ECAC) playoff spot.”

Historically, the Bulldogs women’s program has been dreadful. Yale finished last in the Ivy League every season from 1982 to 1998 and has managed winning seasons just twice during the last 15 winters. The program was a combined 25-74-10 overall and 16-67-7 in league play during DesMeules’ tenure, although she missed roughly the equivalent of one season because of injuries. Yale coach Hilary Witt resigned after DesMeules’ freshman year, a move cheered by some players.

“She’s a great lady, but she butted heads with a lot of players and we weren’t upset to see her go,” DesMeules said of Witt, now part of the U.S. women’s national team coaching staff. “She’d skate us for an entire practice on Mondays after a bad game and she was intense and intimidating. No one messed around and everyone was at attention. If you weren’t, you were all getting in trouble for it.”

Witt’s successor, former Minnesota-Duluth and Harvard assistant Joakim Flygh, won one game his first season at Yale and five this winter. DesMeules said the Swede, who played at New England College, doesn’t elicit as much respect and fear as Witt and emphasizes a thorough understanding of various systems as opposed to playing the game at a breakneck pace. For his part, Flygh said the team missed DesMeules’ poise with the puck and that he uses her situation as a teaching point for others.

“I tell the kids you never know when it could be your last game or your last shift of college hockey and unfortunately, Emily’s an example of that,” Flygh said. “This season, when her back got bad, she would last 10 or 15 minutes into practice and we were just trying to patch her together to play in games.”

DesMeules said her back first ached in high school, but that the discomfort would come and go. It became much more severe late last summer, and she also began experiencing tingling and numbness down one of her legs. That hampered her skating and eventually led to career-ending surgery.

“I got two cortisone injections and the first one helped but the second one didn’t,” DesMeules said. “We had exhausted all the treatment options so I got surgery at (Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center) on Jan. 2. I had become useless on the ice and I figured I needed to get healthy and not mess anything up for the long term.”

DesMeules underwent a 90-minute procedure and walked out of the hospital an hour later. Although she needed pain medication for only three days and quickly felt better, doctors cautioned that she needed a minimum of three months to fully heal. That left her videotaping her team’s games and mulling over why Yale, which consistently wins in men’s hockey, can’t achieve similar success with its women’s program.

“It seems like the administration isn’t worried about having successful athletic teams,” DesMeules said. “Yale doesn’t accept mediocrity in any other area, so why should it be acceptable in athletics? Yale has a ton of money and could whatever it wanted to have better teams and facilities, but there’s been an anti-athletic feeling ever since I got there.”

Working to make the student-athlete experience better could be in DesMeules’ future, as she’s considering teaching and coaching at the prep-school level after her Yale graduation. Law school and a government career are other options she’s considering.

“I could not be happier with the overall Yale experience,” DesMeules said. “The hockey, I’m a little bit less happy with, because we haven’t been as successful as we wanted to be. But I’m really lucky to have been part of an amazing group of girls on the team and I’ve grown so much.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.