by Brittany Bugalski
If I could give freshman year Brittany one piece of advice, it would be to stop and appreciate more – embrace the people, the highlights, the failures and the day-to-day moments that you will never get back because this is what will shape you into the person you are now.
I was the starting goalie that helped bring our team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history – a huge accomplishment for the program. I received Hockey East All-Star honors, a handful of Defensive Player of the Week and Player of the Month awards, the Bertagna Award during the 2017 Beanpot and became the first freshman goaltender in program history to win 20+ games in a season. I capped off a successful 2016 campaign by competing with the US U22 Select Team later that summer in Calgary. I was fueled by the recognition and the statistical achievements. I was ambitious and wanted to be best goalie that had ever come through this program – which includes four-time Swiss Olympian Florence Schelling. And when you are young, you only think in terms of personal stats, number of wins, records broken, etc.
All of this only sets up a rollercoaster of emotions my junior year. A new freshman goalie had just joined our team, Aerin Frankel. I wanted to guide Aerin while showing her the ropes here – I knew she would be my successor and I wanted to leave her with as much knowledge as possible.
I was in the best physical shape I had ever been. I had proven myself the previous two years. I had people who believed in me.
And yet…my play slowly started to crumble.
I couldn’t even seem to make it through a practice without feeling frustration deep enough that it consumed my every thought. The idea of making it through a full game without getting pulled seemed like an impossible task to conquer. I prided myself on my consistent play year after year – this was the first time in my playing career that I had ever been in a slump this significant, and I had no idea how to pull myself out of it.
I didn’t understand why I had been putting out poor performances when I did all the right things to set myself up for success. I knew our coach believed in me; he had given me so many chances to continue to prove myself. It got to a point where I literally didn’t want to be in the net anymore and disappoint my teammates and my coaching staff – something freshman Brittany could never imagine believing. It was a hard way of thinking – but the goaltender position is mentally challenging even when you’re doing well, not to mention when things aren’t going your way.
I had been playing fine through the end of October and that’s when things started to trend downward. Long story short, I lost my job as the starter to Aerin, and we began to switch off game by game before she ultimately took the reins late in the season.
But a funny thing happened when our coaches finally gave Aerin the starting job she had rightfully earned. The typical narrative you read and hear from the Michael Jordans of the world is one of anger, but I immediately felt at peace. This whole time I had been questioning what my role was, what my teammates thought of me, the value I brought to the team each day – so many questions ran through my head. But now I knew exactly what I had to do.
My role shifted into supporting my teammates each day and finding a way to contribute to our team’s success without actually being in the net. And then we turned a disappointing .500 season into a Hockey East Championship – our first in program history. It was incredibly special to be a part of something so memorable to this program, especially after all the adversity we had faced over the course of the season. I had won a gold medal at the U18 Women’s World Championships, and this trumped that feeling. When what felt like the world’s longest season finally ended, I was ready for a much needed break from the ice. Over the next few months, I don’t think I thought about hockey once – I didn’t want to resurrect any of the feelings I had felt throughout the season, so I just avoided them. I was on co-op through the end of June, which provided a great distraction and escape for me during those few months.
Our head coach called me on my way to work during the summer to inform me that my teammates voted for me to be the captain of our team for the 2018-2019 season. I will never forget that phone call. In that moment I felt excited, honored and ready for what was to come. I felt like I had rediscovered my purpose and my role on this team. In that moment I felt a rush of confidence that I hadn’t felt in months. I continued my usual off-season training regimen, with the same intensity that I had brought every summer before that. However, I dedicated a substantial amount of my energy and focus to becoming the best leader I could possibly be for the group of girls I was given the privilege of leading. I read a handful of various leadership books, including: Crucial Conversations, The Power of a Positive Team, and The Power of Positive Leadership, furiously taking notes and highlighting ideas that I could bring back to the team and present to the leadership group in the fall.
One of those was Jon Gordon’s “One Word” idea – where each team member chooses one word that will inspire them to live with more meaning, mission, passion and purpose for the year. We took a spin on this and wrote each of our words down on small pieces of paper, encapsulating them in an empty bottle of Mojo Cold Brew Coffee – as one player each day would receive the bottle for bringing the mojo to the ice and to our team that day, which became something we looked forward to at the end of each practice and game.
I knew that being in this role meant my teammates respected me, valued my opinion and believed that I could lead them to where we wanted to go. Oddly enough, knowing this gave me back all of the confidence I had lost in myself last season. I felt like captaining this team was my purpose at Northeastern and why I was meant to be here. Our leadership group established a value system, listing the values that embody a Women’s Ice Hockey player at Northeastern – positive, humble, grateful, respectful, selfless. Our team mantra, decided by the upperclassman who have helped shape this program over the years – “Unity in Adversity.” We sat down with our strength coach bi-weekly to discuss what our values meant to each of us to ensure everybody understood why we had them. We brought back a clear sense of purpose and direction that we had lacked in years prior – we knew exactly where we wanted to go and how we were going to get this team there. Most importantly, we brought back a sense of family. Many teams refer to themselves as a “family,” but few teams actually feel what this truly means, and this was the first year we had genuinely felt that bond with one another. I made a personal effort to get to know each and every player a little better, and ensure that they knew how much I cared for them, and how much they were valued and appreciated on this team – we needed everyone on board if we were going to make a run at something special.
We closed out the season with a 27-6-5 record, winning not only a Hockey East regular season championship for the second time in program history, but also a Hockey East Championship for the second time in program history – in back to back seasons. In addition to that, we hosted a home ice NCAA Quarterfinal Game, another first for our program. Having sat comfortably at our highest rank in program history, No. 3 in country, through the final week of our season, it’s hard to look back now that it’s over and think that there is anything I would have changed about how this season went. However, one of my favorite parts of all of this is that this kind of success is now an expectation for the team here. Going forward, the standard has been raised, the foundation has been set and the potential is limitless.
I had one personal goal for myself at the start of the season: leave a lasting legacy and make a meaningful impact on my teammates’ lives. Being the captain of this team and having the opportunity to influence and impact each and every person has undoubtedly been the greatest honor I have ever received. At the end of the day, this is truly what it’s all about. Nobody is going to remember where you finish on the all-time wins list, or what your save percentage was that year – but what they are going to remember is what you left behind, the impact you had on them, and the genuine relationship you created with them. As this chapter of my life comes to an end, I realize how grateful I am to have been a part of something much bigger than myself. Having to go through the battles I was fighting in my own head during my junior year was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with, however, it lead me to the most memorable, rewarding and joyful season of hockey I’ve ever been a part of. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.