Katey Stone: a woman’s place is behind the bench

A woman has run for president and vice-president of the United States. Women have been running the marathon at the Olympic Games since 1984. There will be female boxers this summer in London and female ski jumpers in Sochi in 2014.

There will come a time, surely, when those of us in the media no longer have to write columns that say so-and-so is the first woman to do such-and-such.

That time, though, is not yet upon us, and so the symbolism is inescapable with the announcement Friday that Katey Stone will be the American women’s ice hockey coach in Sochi. She is the first woman to lead a U.S. Olympic ice hockey team.

Stone, 46, the longtime Harvard coach who knows what it takes to win on the biggest stage, understands that she is — even in 2012 — a pioneer. She also has the pitch-perfect answer to the obvious question about being the first woman, all the better because like everything about her it’s direct and transparent, not canned or the least bit packaged for media consumption.

“I have been involved in sports for so long that I know that the most important thing, the No. 1 ingredient, is competency,” she said. “I certainly hope I am not the last female. I know I am the first. But I don’t want to be the last.”

She also said, “I’m one of those kids who just keeps doing the job in front of them. I have to be honest … it’s starting to get to me. My friends and family keep reminding me: you’re the first woman. I obviously want to be the best at it. It is significant. There is no question. I understand that. It comes with the responsibility — that there is an extremely high level of competency.”

That’s what you get with Katey Stone. Extreme, if not extraordinary, competency.

Don’t misunderstand. That is by every measure a compliment.

In 18 years at Harvard, Stone has coached nine Olympic athletes and six Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winners, the trophy given annually to the top player in NCAA Division I women’s hockey. One of those award winners: Angela Ruggiero, a member of the 1998 gold medal-winning U.S. women’s team, now an International Olympic Committee member.

Stone’s Harvard teams have a record over those 18 years of 378-164-32; she is the all-time wins leader in women’s college hockey.

Stone said she will take a leave of absence from Harvard, beginning in July 2013 and returning in April 2014, emphasizing that the university has been “extremely supportive,” and that her “incredibly competent” — there’s that word again — coaching staff will see the team through the 2013-14 ECAC season. For emphasis, during that season she will not be on the Crimson bench.

“I don’t believe that would be a fair thing to do,” she said.

Stone has been involved with the U.S. national team program since 2006. She has served as head coach of a U.S. team on four occasions, including the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation women’s world championship in Zurich, Switzerland, which saw the American team’s third straight world championship gold medal.

The Canadians won the 2012 worlds, and 39-year-old Dan Church, who led that team, was this week named the Canadian coach for the Sochi 2014 Olympics. Church has coached the women’s team at York University in Toronto for nine years.

The 2012 worlds title was Canada’s first since 2007. The Canadians, however, have won gold at the last three Olympic Games.

IOC president Jacques Rogge has emphasized the need to grow women’s hockey beyond the powerhouse American and Canadian teams, and though significant efforts are indeed being made to do just that, it figures that in Sochi the Olympic gold medal game may yet again come down to the U.S. and Canada.

Again, the obvious question: what will it take for the Americans to prevail in 2014?

“Commitment to little things,” Stone said. “It’s not a complicated answer. It’s commitment to little things and everyone buying into a ‘team-first’ mantra, which encompasses little things. It’s not a complicated game. We are just trying to get everyone to play their best when they need to play their best.”

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