Goalie Stops Pucks — and Cancer, Too: Hartford Netminder Doesn't Let Illness Get in Way
Sharon Academy senior Beth Potter, prior to taking the net for the Hartford High girls hockey team in a game with Harwood last month. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
The inscription on the skull plate of Hartford High goaltender Beth Potter — “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn” — speaks as much to life in general as to her recent bout with cancer, the Sharon Academy senior says. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
Hartford goalie Beth Potter knocks aside a Harwood shot as teammates Haley Grigel (16) and Elizabeth Bergeron (17) defend during a game last month at Wendell Barwood Arena. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
Junior Erin Hudson (1) and senior Beth Potter (30) have given the Hartford High girls hockey team a solid goaltending tandem during a season when their parsimonious play has come in handy. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
White River Junction — Beth Potter returned from a chemotherapy session last spring with a message for her family.
A Sharon Academy senior and three-year goaltender for the Hartford High girls hockey team, Beth informed her mother, Holly, that she’d just selected her spring elective at school. “What did you sign up for?” Holly asked.
Came the teenager’s response: “Zumba!”
Holly Potter’s mild disbelief could be felt down a phone line as she discussed the moment this week. “She was having cancer treatments, playing hockey and doing Zumba,” she recalled. “And some days she would have all three.”
Know these things, then, about Beth Potter:
Making use of the Vermont Principals Association’s member-to-member program, she’s played goal for the Hurricanes for three of the past four winters.
Late last season, after an extended stretch of ill health, she was diagnosed with third-stage Hodgkins disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. In addition to her lymph nodes, the disease had shown signs of reaching her spleen. It’s one of the most treatable forms of cancer, with a five-year survival rate of 80 percent for those diagnosed where Potter was, according to the American Cancer Society.
The news ended her junior season with Hartford just before the playoffs and put her on a six-month regimen of chemo and radiation. It didn’t, however, prevent her from stopping pucks over the spring and summer, or from holding down a 40-hours-per-week landscaping job last summer.
She also didn’t miss a beat with the Hurricanes this winter, rejoining a team she adores and a sport she won’t be giving up anytime soon.
Potter pulled her goalie helmet from her equipment bag after the Canes’ practice at Wendell Barwood Arena on Wednesday. The rear skull plate bore a quote from author Harriet Beecher Stowe: “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”
“I’ve always kind of been into quotes; I have quotes all over my room,” the 18-year-old confessed. “It was just a really good quote that kind of represents my hockey career.”
Not to mention her life, too.
As one of the smaller people on the ice, Beth Potter is accustomed to hearing what people think she can’t do. Then she proves them wrong.
She wasn’t supposed to be Hartford’s every-game goalie as a freshman, but she was thrown into the position when the Hurricanes’ regular tore a knee ligament during warm-ups for a game at Burr & Burton early in the season. With the exception of sophomore year — when a disagreement over Hartford’s payment plan led to a winter with a U19 girls team in Exeter, N.H. — Potter has been part of the Hurricanes’ goaltending plans since.
“I am very impressed with the fact that she’s back with us,” Hartford coach Nelson Fogg said this week. “I knew she would recover — the recovery rate’s very high — but I also didn’t think she’d be strong enough to start the year with us. She’s been great, and she hasn’t really missed a beat in terms of her energy and her enthusiasm.”
It’s been an education for all involved.
Holly Potter, who runs Dartmouth College’s tutor clearinghouse, which provides academic support for the school’s undergraduate population, grew up at a time “when any mention of the ‘C’ word was devastating,” she said. “I had a pretty visceral reaction to the whole thing. It’s not anything that you would want anybody to go through — anybody, including your worst enemies. It’s a horrible thing to have a child be faced with something like this.”
Her daughter’s case isn’t unusual, however. According to the ACS, Hodgkins typically strikes those in early adulthood (15 to 40 years of age, especially in the 20s) and late adulthood (after 55).
Beth felt swollen bumps at the base of her neck early in her junior year, but she figured it was her lymph nodes just fighting off an illness. But her symptoms didn’t change over time, and by last February she had her diagnosis.
“When I told her that it was my understanding that it was a form of cancer, out of the corner of my eye I could see her put her head down and say, ‘Oh God,’ ” Holly Potter said of delivering the news on the way to a biopsy. “Then she went at it like a battering ram. She put her shoulder to the wheel and kept on grinding.”
Once a week for six months, Beth reported to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for outpatient chemotherapy. While the expected nausea occasionally flared up, it didn’t interfere with her summer job.
Beyond ending her Hartford High season prematurely, it didn’t put a big kink in hockey, either. She returned to practice over the spring and summer in Waterbury, Vt., with the Vermont Stars select program when she wasn’t tending net in Campion Rink women’s mud league games.
Not being able to backstop her Hartford teammates may have been the biggest disappointment of the diagnosis. Potter missed a game in Burlington the day she learned of her cancer, yet convinced her parents to drive north to watch anyway. Fogg gave Potter a period in goal in the Hurricanes’ quarterfinal loss at South Burlington before she began chemo.
“I didn’t struggle too much with it,” Potter said. “I worked 40 hours a week this summer landscaping outside, so it wasn’t that bad. There’s the emotional toll of not even knowing where to begin to process it. I had no idea how to deal with it. It was definitely a bit of a challenge.”
Holly and her husband, Bob, came to understand that cancer isn’t an automatic death sentence anymore. They dove into educating themselves about the disease and took advantage of the support systems DHMC had to offer.
“She’s made it easy to support her,” Bob Potter said. “To a large extent, she’s just viewed it as, ‘Oh crap, that’s another thing I have to deal with. We will get through it; it’s just going to be a grind.’ ”
“One thing I’ve come to grips with is you go when your number’s up, and hers is clearly not up,” Holly Potter added. “She’s got a lot of energy, a lot of positivity to share with the rest of the world. I haven’t seen what she’s written for her college-entrance essay, but I would be willing to bet my bottom dollar it’s about whatever amount of Zen she’s learned from this experience.”
A successful bout with cancer is bound to be life-changing, and it has been for Beth Potter.
According to her mother, Beth once displayed perfectionist tendencies, wanting “all her Ts crossed and Is dotted in just the right way.” Beth admits she would “stress out about school, trying to do really well.”
If the past year has taught her anything, it’s that some things in life can’t be controlled. Workloads, for one. Or lymphoma.
“One of my advisers described it as I’ve just chilled out,” she admitted with a giggle. “I’m not nearly as stressed out. I have fun; I work hard, but I have fun with my friends. I work hard with hockey, but I’ve had to say, ‘No, I can’t do this,’ or, ‘No, I can’t go to school today.’
“Physically, I’m not where I was before. But I’m at a place where I can get to where I was before. My lungs are still having a hard time; it makes it difficult to get back in shape, but I go hard in practice. I put my all into it.”
Hockey has played a significant and positive role in Beth’s recovery, her parents believe.
Beth missed five months of action two summers ago recovering from a concussion sustained at a regional USA Hockey developmental camp but, come winter, she was back with the Hurricanes when it mattered. The same is the case this winter, where Potter and junior Erin Hudson have given light-scoring Hartford a needed defensive boost.
The sport has given Beth Potter’s life structure, a point upon which to focus.
“Part of it is I’ve been with these girls since I was 11,” said Potter, who played her youth hockey in Hartford. “I really like the whole feeling of being around a local team. It’s a bunch of girls who are good friends; we all support each other. Part of it also is the whole challenge of being in D-I. I really enjoy it; it’s where I’ve grown up.”
Holly Potter once hoped her only child would play soccer, but the family’s frequent visits to Dartmouth women’s and men’s hockey games set the hook, and for more people than simply Beth. Bob Potter became so interested in helping his daughter improve, he acquired his youth coaching license.
“When she was in fifth grade, she said, ‘I will be going to college, and I’m going to major in hockey,’ ” Holly Potter recalled. “Given what I do, I looked at her and said, ‘I don’t think so.’ She looked at me with her hands on her hips, chest puffed out. ‘What happens if you break you legs and can’t skate?’ So she chewed on that for a while.
“Hockey has helped form who she is. I think that because of having hockey in her life, and because of the strength and the confidence that’s developed in her, I think that has contributed significantly in her ability to wage war against lymphoma.”
Hockey will play a role in Beth Potter’s life “until she’s too old to skate,” her mother predicted.
Now, what kind of chance does cancer have against that?
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.