Apr 2, 2014
Taft School Girls' Hockey Rebuilds, With Olympic Gold Medalist Coach
Walter Kidd/Passport magazine
Gretchen Silverman working with the girls' hockey team at The Taft School in Watertown.
Silverman doesn’t need to drag her impressive credentials with her to get her young women to pay attention. She exudes leadership and there certainly is no need to wear the gold medal she won at the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan, as a member of the U.S. Women’s hockey team around her neck to prove the point. Silverman has a deep knowledge of the game and was bent on beginning to turn around the Taft girls' program in her first year as head coach of the Big Red this past winter.
“We were in a building year,” says Silverman, who is also active with the Watertown Youth Hockey Program as well, coaching its Peewee A team. “We currently have 15 girls on the varsity roster, including two goalies, so we are slim and trim. Despite our small numbers, we were in just about every game.”
Silverman graduated from Loomis Chaffee and Dartmouth College. She was a member of the U.S. gold medal-winning team with Taft alumna A.J. Mleczko. At Dartmouth, she was a standout hockey player and remains the program’s all-time leading scorer with 189 goals and 312 points.
She was named Ivy League Rookie of the year as a freshman, was a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, and captained the Dartmouth Big Green during the 1993-94 season. She played on several U.S. Women’s National teams before earning a spot on the 1998 Olympic team.
As a member of the Olympic team, Silverman contributed a team-leading eight points with three goals and five assists and had a dream come true when she scored the first goal of the U.S. gold-medal game against Canada—the first goal ever in a women’s Olympic ice hockey gold-medal game.
After graduating from Dartmouth, she began her independent school teaching and coaching career at Pingree School in South Hamilton, Mass., where she taught history and algebra and coached girls varsity soccer, hockey, and lacrosse. In her first year of coaching soccer at Pingree, she was honored as the Eastern Independent League Coach of the Year. During her final year at Pingree and for four years following, she founded and directed Northshore Hockey School for Girls. During this time she also earned her Master’s in elementary education from Lesley College.
After marrying, she and her husband, Steve, moved to California, where she taught third grade at Madonna del Sasso in Salinas, Calif. After her move back to New England, she taught at The Summit Montessori School in Framingham, Mass., and after a move to Torrington she taught at Litchfield’s Montessori School. She also teaches algebra and conducts admission interviews at Taft.
She says, “I have high expectations for the girls and they have been working hard to implement my plan. We have focused on making quick, but smart decisions with the puck, remaining patient with our breakout and attacking the net. I emphasize a physical game within the no-check rules of girls hockey. Our girls have been taught how to gain the advantage by blocking out their opponents bodies and winning the lane to the puck.”
She continued, “We developed a great deal since the beginning of the season and I encouraged the girls to push each other in practice to make everyone better. Through working hard, we have found the fun and satisfaction in a job well-done. The girls are really enjoying the season and I am thrilled to have such hard-working athletes to coach. Something that is super important to success is the team concept and our girls exemplify what it means to be good, supportive teammates.”
It is quite clear that Silverman ascribes to the tried-and-true formula of private college preparatory education that sports should used as a teaching tool. Just as a math instructor brings out the best in his or her students, coaches are there to not only get wins for the school but to also nourish the children under their care.
“The Montessori School programs (she taught 3 through 6-years-olds) is based on the education of the whole child. So, that philosophy and that of The Taft School mesh perfectly. Sports is all about teamwork, sacrificing your own priorities for the greater good of the team. Sure, I am here to develop hockey players and win games. But I’m also here to develop good teammates and good people.”
On her coaching style, she says, “I am flexible enough to adjust to the group of kids I have at a given time. It varies according to the skill level of the players and the focus to the sport that they can bring to the rink. I build a foundation but I can only build what the kids are willing to give me. I do have high expectations for my players.”
She knows that while teaching set plays and how to defend against opposing teams is her daily chore as a hockey coach there is so much more that a mentor is called upon to do.
“Kids will confide in their coaches and I have to be there for them when they need me. I want them to be advocates for themselves but I also know we must serve as role models. There’s a lot of stuff that gets thrown at teenagers these days and it’s difficult for them to navigate through it all. We must do what we can to help them reach their goals.”
Silverman applied previously for the position she now holds but chose to take a post at another school. When the position of girls hockey coach opened up once again, she was asked by members of the school’s administration to reapply.
“I was familiar with the Taft community and I had worked with some of the Taft faculty’s children in the Watertown Youth Hockey program. I was encouraged by the administration reaching out to me and that led me to reapply. I was fortunate enough to get the position and here I am.” She and her husband and children live on campus.
She didn’t directly ask her former teammate, Mleczko, if she should go after the job at Taft but she knew the Taft grad had a wonderful experience at the Watertown school.
“A.J. went here and I knew loved the experience. When I was playing at Loomis Chaffee, we had great rivalries with Taft. Patsy Odden was coaching the Taft girls and the schools were playing the best female hockey around. I really want to reestablish that level of excellence at Taft and I know we can do it.”
Today’s opportunities for young girls to play hockey are certainly a far cry from when Silverman was growing up and involved as youngster in the sport.
“I played on all-boys teams when I was a young girl until one day when I got checked from behind into the ice and a whole incident started. My parents said that was that and I wasn’t playing with the boys anymore.”
Ironically, she would go on to skate with a men’s team in Boston where she and her future husband were living at the time leading up to and following her Olympic journey. She still skates whenever she can, often paying in men’s pickup games.
“The chances for girls in hockey have grown leaps and bounds. You look at where it is now, with the women’s college Frozen Four and the schools that have girls and women’s teams in the Midwest and that just didn’t exist 20 years ago. We didn’t think of ourselves as pioneers when we were on the Olympic team but now I look back and know that we were.”
She continues, “I was making an appearance some years back and the current captain of the U.S. national team, Meghan Duggan, was there. She related that the few moments I spent with her at that event made a lasting impression on her as a young girl and served as inspiration for launching her own career in the sport. That’s pretty neat when you hear things like that.”
Ms. Silverman said her Olympic experience was one of a kind.
“To see the crowds that we had was amazing. I mean, we were playing in front of family and a few friends at Dartmouth and here we were in a packed arena. To get the first goal of the game in a gold medal game still resonates with me. My husband and parents were there along with some friends and to do that in front of them was special.”
Gretchen Silverman is hoping she can help make the hockey dreams of young women attending Taft during the coming years become reality. She would like nothing better than to see one or more of her players go on, just like she and Mleczko did, to play before a packed house at the Winter Olympics.
Taft School Girls' Hockey Rebuilds, With Olympic Gold Medalist Coach