At last night’s Women’s Frozen Fenway matchup between Harvard and Boston College — both programs’ first opportunity to participate in the event — the Crimson wore black and gold “14” patches on their shoulders.
Denna Laing, sister of current Harvard players Lexie and Brianna Laing, was a former Princeton University standout who wore the number 14 for the CWHL’s Boston Blades. Denna Laing suffered a severe spinal injury at the 2015 Women’s Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium. She was left paralyzed with limited movement in her arms and no feeling in her legs.
The event was supposed to be a celebration of the growth of the women’s game. Instead, it resulted in one of the worst and most high-profile tragedies in the history of the sport. Laing’s was a non-contact injury, as she merely lost her footing and fell awkwardly into the boards. Players complained of soft and slushy ice conditions prior to the game, and it’s often argued that this was a contributing factor in the injury.
Just one year later, with their sister’s number on their shoulders, Lexie and Brianna Laing skated for the Harvard Crimson just a short drive from where Denna’s career ended on an ice surface that was inarguably worse.
The ice surface was absolutely unplayable. The rain fell on the ice not like a natural resurfacer but rippled like a rainstorm on a pond. Players alternated between trying to gather in a puck that wouldn’t settle and skating past a puck that got suctioned to the water ponding on the ice. The goalies spent every whistle squeegeeing their crease with their sticks trying to clear away some of the pooling water. It was, frankly, an embarrassment for the sport rather than a showcase of a longstanding women’s hockey rivalry like it should have been.
In 2014, rain affected both the Maine/BU and Lowell/Northeastern matchups at Frozen Fenway. At the time, two years before Denna Laing’s tragic injury, most of the concerns expressed were over the abysmal quality of play. League points and Pairwise implications rested on too many bounces of the puck. Like last night’s women’s matchup, those games should not have been played.
Three years later, those concerns still stand. But after the injury of a bright young woman in a similar event just a year ago, the women’s game has an even stronger reminder that it is essential that these games are not played on an unsafe surface.
With Denna Laing’s two sisters and every other Crimson player wearing that black and gold “14” on their shoulder, they are reminded of that tragedy each time they pull on their jerseys. For last night’s event to have gone forward despite last year’s injury being so clearly in focus is inexcusable.