Wilton assistant coach Dougherty finds new life in professional hockey

If players on the Wilton-Norwalk girls hockey team this past season ever wondered where hockey might lead them, they didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

She was right there on their bench.

Brittany Dougherty, who joined the Warriors as an assistant coach last year, not only played four years of college hockey but was part of the inaugural season of the National Women’s Hockey League this past winter.

A professional women’s hockey player.

“I never thought that playing professionally was possible when I was younger,” said Dougherty, who plays for the Connecticut Whale, based in Stamford. “The only other thing that I would dream about was college hockey. The top players in youth go on to play Division 1 college hockey, and from there the dream has been the Olympics.”

Dougherty, who grew up playing hockey in Michigan, achieved her goal of D1 college hockey, playing four years for the University of Maine, where she was a two-time all-conference forward for the Black Bears.

When she played her last game for Maine in 2013, she figured she had taken hockey as far as she could.

“That was it for me. I had to find a job because my hockey career couldn’t be a profession. It could be a side job, something I can play but not get paid for,” she said.

With the founding of the four-team NWHL in March 2015, all of that changed. Dougherty signed with the Connecticut Whale last summer, and in October found herself ready to embark on a professional hockey career.

“On that first day on Oct. 11, when we first stepped onto the ice as a team, I had tears in my eyes of pure joy. And so did the rest of the players on that ice that day,” she said. “We are writing history for professional women’s hockey.”

Her journey is indicative of how far women’s hockey has come the last 20 years. Dougherty grew up in Chesterfield, Mich., about 25 miles north of Detroit. Hockey wasn’t a sport that girls played in her area, or aspired to play. When she was 4 or 5 years old, however, Dougherty saw the movie The Mighty Ducks and became hooked.

“At first, (my parents) tried getting me to agree to playing roller hockey, but I wanted to be just like a Mighty Duck. I fought it until they started me in a ‘learn to ice skate’ program. Then, a year later, I started in Mini Mites at the age of 6,” she said. “For most of my childhood, I just played with the guys. There weren’t any girls teams at that time. I was the only girl on any team, until I moved to girls when I was in the eighth grade.”

At Maine, Dougherty finished her collegiate career with 46 goals and 54 assists, and earned a reputation as a “physically punishing” forward who battled for the puck.

“I am the gritty forward. I like to go into battle along the boards and I like to get physical. I like to get those goals that you have to battle for in front of the net and just throw your body to win,” she said. “That’s what’s fun for me. And you need those types of players just as much as you need those finesse players.”

It’s something she’s been able to continue doing in the NWHL.

“The level of competition in the NWHL is absolutely amazing. You are taking the best of the best from all the colleges in the United States and placing them onto only four teams,” she said. “Playing in the new league is inspiring as well, because you have so many youth girls and even boys who look up to you. You are making a difference and giving young girls something to strive for after college.”

Since NWHL players on average make $15,000 per season, it is something they have to fit around their day jobs. During the season, the Whale had two practices a week, with a game on weekends. Players lift and work out on their own, in their free time. The 18-game regular season ended in early March, with best-two-out-of-three semifinal and final rounds later in the month.

“A lot of us have to still hold other jobs, which for the most part involves coaching,” she said.

It was the Whale’s old general manager who helped Dougherty set up an interview with the Wilton High girls hockey team’s new head coach, Pete Maxfield. She had never coached at the high school level, and done little coaching except for some youth clinics at Maine.

But it proved to be a great match for both Dougherty and the Wilton team.

“The Wilton High girls are so fun to coach. Many of them have just started skating and just seeing the progress from the beginning of the year to the end is so amazing,” she said. “It’s just so fun at every practice, and we have a great group of girls who support one another, and the most important part is that they are having so much fun playing.”

“She was really inspirational to all the players. To have a coach who is getting paid to play hockey, as a woman, is a big deal,” said coach Maxfield. “It was great to have her on the team.”

“She is such an inspiration. She loves the sport and it’s awesome to see her on the ice doing what she loves,” said WHS senior captain Elizabeth Craven.

Her sister, Amanda Craven (also a senior captain for the Wilton team), said the Warriors were a little overwhelmed at first when they learned their assistant coach was a professional player, but Dougherty quickly put them at ease.

“She turned out to be the sweetest girl ever,” she said, adding that it was great to have a women’s hockey coach who showed that “if you stay with it, (hockey) can be career.”

That example — showing young players where hockey can take you — is something that Dougherty and fellow professional players take very seriously.

“We are doing tons of different things to get the word out about the league, and more importantly for girls hockey. A couple of our teammates talked at a local school about their experience with the league, and we are all being proactive across social media to grab people’s attention and to show them that women can be just as good as men,” she said. “And we get people that will say they love watching our games more than they like the NHL games. It’s just so good to hear what a difference we are making.”