It was Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Castleton’s women’s hockey team had just defeated their in-state rivals, the Norwich Cadets, 4-3 in overtime in that always-hostile cathedral of Vermont ice hockey, Kreitzberg Arena. Despite being out-shot 42-24, the Spartans carried the game into overtime where Emily Harris scored an early, game-winning goal. It was five years since the last victory over Norwich.
Five years since the first victory against Norwich.
Celebrating in the bowels of Kreitzberg’s hallowed, maroon and gold walls in the visitors’ locker room, far below dozens of championship banners hanging from the rafters was the Castleton University women’s hockey team.
Team Captain and then-senior Courtney Gauthier was home, watching the game healing from surgery to repair a torn meniscus, realizing full-well the magnitude of what had just been achieved by her teammates before her eyes on a TV screen. Silence replaced what could have been the deafening sound of a victory song or an impassioned post-game speech.
She wondered if she would ever have an opportunity to share in a moment like that.
She wondered if she would ever have a gloved hand in the downing of a powerhouse rival. The powerhouse rival.
The Norwich Cadets.
“They go to NCAA’s and compete for national championships,” she said.
Indeed, they do. Norwich has won the New England Hockey Conference Championship 10 times since 2009. In 2011 and 2018, they won the NCAA National division III crown.
“Not that I necessarily doubted us, but I know how hard it is to play a team like that,” she said.
Dad, can girls play hockey?
Gauthier was just five years old sitting in the stands under the supervision of the wives while their husbands played hockey below, her father among them. She had already been skating for two years after her Dad gave her skates for Christmas when she was three. Figure skating lessons followed at age four.
She soon asked Dad if girls could play hockey.
“He said ‘Yep, girls can do anything,’” Gauthier recalled. She never thought about figure skating again.
Mom was not as big a fan of the idea of Courtney the hockey player.
“It was definitely difficult for her to accept that that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
Her mom, the daughter of Greek immigrants in the restaurant business who were focused on getting their daughter educated in a way they never had an opportunity to themselves.
While they don’t share hockey, Gauthier followed her mother’s footsteps in education, acquiring an undergrad degree in the same field: Computer/Management Information Systems after completing early college and graduating high school with her Associates’ degree already in hand.
“She had the academics; dad had the athletics. It worked out,” she laughed.
“She just gets it.”
And so, the Tampa, Florida native’s life isn’t just about hockey, although it’s close. She is currently finishing up her MBA with a concentration in Business Analytics. She works at RNL and Associates, an investment firm in Rutland.
The job started as an internship that was quickly dashed amidst COVID times, until her boss, Katie Brady, came to speak at Castleton and sought her out for a second opportunity.
“We only had her for two months at the beginning of 2020,” Brady said. “She didn’t get to have her internship; we had an open position. It all just kind of fell together.”
Like many, Brady has nothing but good things to say about Gauthier, whose Captaincy of the hockey team has carried over well to the workplace.
“She’s done a lot with the other interns that have come in,” Brady said.
Additionally, Gauthier’s work is high quality and error-free. Brady doesn’t worry about her at all.
“She just gets it… She cares about the work she does and what other people think of the work she does,” Brady said.
As the senior leader and sole team captain, Gauthier cares about the work that other people do, too.
She leads a trio of assistant captains through not only hockey, but school and life.
“She right away gave us so much good advice, whether in the classroom or on the ice,” said Darby Palisi, one of those assistant captains and mentee to Gauthier.
A large part of her valued leadership comes from example. Things like working out in the weight room when she was on crutches and her stunningly speedy recovery time after the surgery come to mind.
“It was impressive to see her work on the things she could, even though she was limited. She just kept going,” Palisi said.
Coach Tim McAuliffe echoed that sentiment.
“I think her recovery time was what stood out…[She recovered] way quicker than she was expected to,” said the second-year Spartan coach.
Gauthier and McAuliffe cultivated a special relationship in their short time together at Castleton, where she was someone McAuliffe could rely on.
“You need someone who’s gonna be honest,” he said. “Courtney was always ready to give me push back as she saw fit.”
When the Spartans went six weeks without winning a game from November to January, it was Gauthier who helped McAuliffe direct a team-building exercise that turned things around and brought the team together, setting them up for an 8-3 run heading into the postseason.
Following the February, 2021 victory over Norwich amid a shortened season, Gauthier and company circled Norwich on the 2021-22 schedule.
“Our team had two guaranteed shots at Norwich, and then maybe if we played them in the playoffs we’d get another go,” said Gauthier.
In November, they suffered a crushing, 4-3 OT loss in Kreitzberg. Up 3-2 late, the Spartans were unable to stop a Norwich score after the Cadets yanked their netminder and were later dealt the final blow in the extra period.
“You would have thought we lost the Stanley Cup,” said Gauthier.
At home in January, they were shut out 6-0 by the Cadets.
On Feb. 26, 2022, came another go.
On a frigid day in Northfield, the Spartans marched into Kreitzberg for a NEHC semi-final game against the No. 9 ranked Norwich Cadets.
Nearly one year since Gauthier watched from home, longing for her own delivered fate against Norwich.
After 50 scoreless minutes of hockey that saw both goalies assailed with a barrage of 64 total shots, Gauthier received the puck from Emery Bonner and found Palisi for what ended up being the game-winning score with 6:33 left to play.
“Multiple people were crying just from being so happy we finally beat them,” said Gauthier.
The win coming in front of the rival crowd made it that much more satisfying, as did a surprise appearance from someone in Gauthier’s corner.
“My dad came up and surprised me, I had no idea he was coming…I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen any other way.”
Just a week after the jubilation and dreams of their own chance in the NCAA National Tournament, the Spartans were defeated 4-0 by first-year NEHC transplant Elmira College, previously undefeated for three seasons in the United Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“There’s only so much you can do against a team like that. They’ve got a lot of skill, a lot of heart and a lot of hard work,” said Gauthier.
Like many college athletes, the idea of no longer putting on a jersey is unsettling and disappointing for Gauthier, but it does not have to be her reality.
“I would love nothing more than to play in the PHF (Premiere Hockey Federation),” she said.
“I talked to coach a little bit…[I’m] definitely gonna ask if he can reach out to those coaches…I would do anything to keep playing hockey.”
Gauthier is headed to the Boston area when she leaves Castleton, she’s filled out free-agent paperwork with the PHF and McAuliffe has put the feelers out.
“I know there is interest. She’ll be able to play somewhere,” he said.