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BC Women's Hockey vs. UNH: Q&A With UNH Hockey Alum Deb Cunningham '82

Revered UNH Women's Hockey alum Deb Cunningham shares her thoughts with BCI in advance of Friday night's BC-UNH Hockey East quarterfinal showdown

Joseph Gravellese

Boston College women's hockey will continue its quest for hardware on Friday night in the Hockey East quarterfinals against UNH at Conte Forum. This single-elimination tilt will determine who goes to Cape Cod for the Hockey East semifinals next weekend.

Deb Cunningham is a UNH women's hockey legend as one of the program's true trailblazers, starting with the team in its second year of existence and graduating in 1982. She is also one of the team's most ardent supporters, and remains active with the Friends of UNH Women's Hockey booster club. She can be found offering her pearls of wisdom on the world of women's hockey in Durham and beyond on the USCHO message boards as "DC 78-82." Deb graciously agreed to answer some questions for us about UNH in advance of the game.

I know this group might not be the UNH teams of past years, but I was certainly surprised to see them finish 8th in Hockey East, based on the talent level on the team. Would you agree with my assessment that they're better than their record would indicate?

Let me start by thanking you for asking me to participate. I am honored!

That this has been a tough year in Durham goes without saying, although it sure has been the talk of the town. I do think the team is better than their record indicates to an extent. While they have had a couple of big wins, they have struggled with consistency and injuries. I could say that we were better than Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, and Providence, who are all above us in the standings, but it's really hard to justify that statement when there were three opportunities to prove it, and we came up on the wrong side of the results at least two out of three times against everyone but the Friars.

Did they have the potential to win some of those series? Absolutely. In my estimation, the failure to do so was not in lack of effort or talent, but in the failure to do the little things right - unforced turnovers, puck mismanagement, and losing the little battles caused a lot of games to slip away.

UNH has played BC tough this year, beating them in the fall and playing a couple of tight games against the Eagles last month, including one where BC needed a late goal to win up at the Whittemore Center. Why do you think UNH has been able to give BC such fits? What do the 'Cats need to do in order to stop the Eagles on Friday night?

UNH gets up to play BC because they know they have to. As I said, when they do the little things right, and execute what they are capable of, good things happen. What has to happen for the Wildcats to find success on Friday is for them to play a solid game mentally, and a confident game physically. Talking to them after the Northeastern series last week, they were excited to draw BC. They need to take that excitement and make it work positively for them.

If you're going to spring an upset in a playoff game you're usually going to rely heavily on your goaltending to do so - last year, Maine came to Conte in the quarterfinals and pushed BC to overtime on the strength of 70 saves by Brittany Ott. How do you assess UNH goaltending, and who do you think gets the start Friday night?

Unfortunately, the one and done nature of the quarters in Hockey East beg for upsets, and Maine's herculean effort last year nearly caused a big one. I think our goaltending is much stronger than our record indicates - they have been the victim of the aforementioned mistakes in front of them more than their own. As for who starts, that's a great question! Vilma Vaattovaara has gotten most of the year end minutes, but Ashley Wilkes has been solid in her freshman campaign. Marie-Eve Jean has also played, but not as much as the other two, so I suspect it to Be Vilma, but Wilkes could certainly win the coin toss.

Having followed Hockey East all season, I'm of the opinion that it's a major down year for the conference, and that the middle to bottom teams in the league don't stack up with those of the ECAC and the WCHA (I'm less sure about the WCHA since we don't get to see them as much, but that's the impression I get). Do you agree with this?

It's hard not to agree now that we can look at the season's results, but I don't like the sound of it!

I know you're one of the most avid followers of the sport, so I'm wondering if we could get your perspective on why Katie King Crowley and BC have been able to be so successful in building up their recruiting classes over the past 5 years -- and what you think UNH needs to do program-wide to get back to stocking up with that level of talent?

I think you need to include Courtney Kennedy in the BC recipe for success as well. One thing that really jump started the program is the advent of the USA U-18 Select / National Team. Both Coaches King-Crowley and Kennedy have been behind the bench in different years, and a fair number of them decided to go maroon and gold when they aged out of the Red, White, and Blue. Once the Eagles started winning games and making NCAA appearances, between the school's reputation and the lure of a National Championship, the pipeline was greased.

UNH, despite the underwhelming season, was a better team than they have been for the past two years. There is some solid, young talent on this team. Unfortunately, several of them suffered season ending injuries, and our Hockey East Rookie and Second Team defender last year, Alexis Crossley, had some nagging injuries that had to be surgically corrected mid-season, so I think she is still looking to get her stride back. While we don't have a trail of U-18's beating the path down to get to Durham, there are some very good recruits headed our way. It's hard to predict what has to happen at this point to get the Blue chippers flowing our way, but stability in the front office is certainly a good place to start!

Do you see UNH improving considerably next year or is the light at the tunnel still a bit off? Obviously there were off-the-ice circumstances that likely really hurt the team this year, so do you think it's reasonable to expect improvement in 2014-15?

It's hard to imagine things in Durham getting much worse. I think you can safely throw out the second semester. Despite Captain Nicole Gifford's titan-like attempts to pull the team together, the distractions, especially mid-season, were just more than a team that was struggling to reach and stay at .500 could bear.
Nest year, with a fresh start, renewed expectations, and a healthy roster, at least they will have the tools to make a better showing.

Obviously, the Eagles are not looking past UNH and neither are we. However, since we have you, I'm curious as to your thoughts about how BC stacks up, talent-wise, with some of the other elite teams that they might run into in a couple of weeks, especially the eastern teams they are likely to play in the quarterfinal (Harvard, Clarkson, Cornell).

I certainly think BC has a good a chance of playing on March 23 as any of the top 8. I expect Minnesota will be there too. BC got stuck in a bad pairing last year, because they otherwise would have been in the final in my opinion. I saw the Beanpot, and BC was clearly the cream of the crop. I saw Clarkson play Harvard the other week, and Clarkson looked very good. A Clarkson - BC match would be a hard call, but I'd put my money on BC over any other team.

Other than BC, who would you set as the next favorite to win the Hockey East title?

Northeastern, but if Vermont pulled it out, I wouldn't be incredulous.

As a pioneer in women's hockey -- and thank you, by the way, for the work you and many others did to plant the seed for the growth of the women's game -- I'd love to hear your reactions to the fact that the USA/Canada women's gold medal game had 4.9 million viewers, making it the most watched hockey game of the entire Olympics, men or women. What do you see as the next steps in the growth of the women's game?

My favorite part of the Women's Hockey in these Olympics was how well received, attended, and watched all of the games were. The new format was very successful in creating fun to watch, competitive games. I know true fans of the women's game aren't over the top about the pre-Olympic fighting between the USA and Canada, but the replays and press they produced contributed to the viewing numbers. That they saw a Gold Medal game as exciting as this was will hopefully convince some of the newbies in that 4.9 million to not wait four more years to see the next one.

Our game has grown so much in the past 30, 20, 10 years! Of course the end goal is a professional league that is a viable career is the ultimate, but that will take a few more years and a new set of pioneers from not just North America, but overseas.

Any predictions for Friday night's game? Be bold!

If UNH wins, they are the better team that day, and the best team this year has a bye week before NCAA's. Let's leave it there!

The Eagles and the Wildcats face off Friday night at 7:00 at Conte Forum.