Ask a young goalie who their “hockey hero” might be, and the answer I receive most often these days is Carey Price. Not in every instance, but definitely more often than any other response. So I am floored when I ask Elisabeth Hill who her hockey hero is and she tells me matter of factly: “Ron Hextall”. Are you serious? What 18-year old girl has Ron Hextall as her favorite goaltender? Hextall, the first goaltender to ever score a goal by firing it into the opponent’s net, which he actually did twice. Hextall, the 1987 winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Vezina. And Hextall the goaltender who had over 100-minutes in penalties in each of his first three seasons in the NHL due to his tendency towards stickwork and getting his blocker up in opposing shooters faces; on top of the fact that he was very much an elite goalie in addition to his junkyard dog-ishness. Needless to say, I am highly impressed by this answer, and I love meeting individuals who break stereotypes and go totally against the norm. Elisabeth Hill possesses strong individuality, and she is also pretty darn good at stopping pieces of vulcanized rubber. Hence her nickname, “The Puckslayer”.
Hill is a originally from Midlothian, Texas but is attending a preparatory school in Middletown, New Jersey called Mater Dei Prep. “I am 18-years old now, but I was about 8 or 9 when I started playing. Both of my parents were Dallas Stars fans, and as I got a little older I started to watch the games with them. I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm. That looks fun and aggressive; I kinda think I would like to try that out. My parents put my in a “Learn to Skate” program and then a “Learn to Play” through USA Hockey. In “Learn to Play” I found myself always gravitating towards the net. You don’t really expect someone to be a goaltender right off the bat, but a few weeks later this guy came up to my mom and said, ‘You do know she’s going to be a goalie, right?’. At first my mom was like, ‘oh please! God no!’, but here I am”, Hill tells me with a chuckle.
Though the state of Texas has the Stars and a large number of minor league teams, I was not sure how much youth hockey was available to Hill in order to grow in the game and foster her goaltending skills. “I mostly played boys hockey in Texas because that was the level of play where I felt that I would do better in. I did play girls, but there is only one girls hockey organization in the entire state, but at the time it was very much a different organization than what it is now. I ended up only playing girls hockey for 2-years before I went back to playing boys. The competition was a lot better in boys hockey and everybody actually wanted to play”.
There is a brief, completely kidding of course, moment of contention between Hill and I considering that her 1999 Dallas Stars beat my Buffalo Sabres in the Stanley Cup Finals. “Yeah… sorry ’bout that”, she says. All kidding aside, Hill looks fondly upon that ’99 Stars team that won it all, particularly their Hall of Fame netminder. “My favorite player from that team is Eddie Belfour. He was very aggressive, but was one of the best of all time”.
Speaking of goaltender aggressiveness though, Hill tells me more about how she idolizes Ron Hextall. “When I tell people that it always gets a few headshakes with people saying, ‘wait, what?’. Even my teammates who I play with have no idea who that even is; my coach does, but they don’t. Hextall is the reason why I wear number-27. I actually met him when I was about 12, and my first words to him were ‘Can I hug you?’. He was kind of like, ‘What?… Oh, yeah. Okay, sure’. My mom was friends with someone who worked for the (Manchester) Monarchs of the AHL”. Hextall was at one time the General Manager of the Manchester Monarchs, the former top minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. “He had actually signed some stuff for me when I was younger, and I had a nationals tournament in California and that was where the opportunity to meet him presented itself”.
Now living in New Jersey, Hill is a goaltender for her prep school’s women’s ice hockey program, the Mater Dei Seraphs, as well as for the Jersey Shore Wildcats of the New Jersey Youth Hockey League (NJYHL). We talk first about the Seraphs and their fairly new women’s hockey program which is only in its third year. As a senior now, Hill is one of the program’s original startup players for the school. “Originally I was recruited by a local girls youth team and they had an agreement with Mater Dei for a number of girls to attend there and help start the program which was my sophomore year of high school. Education wise, Mater Dei made everything possible for me, and hockey wise it was the best fit. We started my sophomore year, but we actually did not get into league play until just this year. We had a thing to prove our first two years, and I think we proved it very well”.
A new experience for sure for the teenage Hill who prior to attending Mater Dei had never lived outside of Texas before. “Usually I go home for Christmas. Sometimes my mom will make plans to come up to New Jersey to see me and sometime she has plans through work too that bring her up this way, which is really nice”. The Serhaps’ playoff season will begin the second full week of February, and Hill’s mother has already scheduled the trip to be there in attendance. “It is kind of funny; the older I get the more I actually miss my family and being at home. At 16 I was like, “Yes! I’m on my own! I’m independent!”, but now I’m 18 and it’s more like, ‘Oh man, I miss my mom!’. In her three years with Mater Dei, Hill has compiled a total of 151-career saves to go along with a 0.873-save percentage while allowing just 22-goals.
Coinciding with her play with the Seraphs, Hill also tends net for the Jersey Shore Wildcats, a team in the fairly expansive youth hockey program throughout the state of New Jersey; a whole bunch of teams comprise the competition in this league. Hill tells me, “This is the first year for the Wildcats to have a girls program. My two coaches from the Seraphs and the Wildcats actually know each other, so they try to work around each other’s schedules. The Wildcats have another goalie but she attends prep school in another state, so there are times when I am the only goalie for both teams”. Personally, I think it is quite commendable how Hill’s two coaches are able to share her goaltending capabilities for their respective teams while not putting any undue pressure or unfair circumstances onto their young netminder. “Sometimes even if there is a scheduling conflict, the U16 goalie for the Wildcats will come up and play, and she is a very nice girl; she and I get along really well”, Hill says.
Elisabeth Hill has really good size for a women’s goalie standing at 5’9.5″ and 145-pounds. “In girls hockey I am considered a big goalie, but I also think that my tracking and my speed are some of my best attributes in addition to my size. Some people think that as a goalie you are just kind of standing there by yourself, but you actually set the mood and the pace of the game. You set an attitude for the game as well. If you have a good attitude and work ethic that sets the mood for your entire team”. When Hill explained it to me as such, I realized that she is a very cerebral goaltender even at her young age, and that she is an astute player that “feels” the game as much as she thinks it. Off the ice Hill greatly enjoys free-writing, developing short stories, and photography, so she is very much in tune with herself as both a person and as an athlete; something that carries over onto the ice and has been a quintessential part of who she is as a goalie. “Especially when you have so many different thoughts and ideas going through your head, and you are able to put it all down on paper, it is a really nice feeling”. Playing goaltender out on the ice affords a similar sort of release and oneness.
Now that she is well into her senior year of high school, Hill already has her sights set on playing hockey collegiately. “The goal is to go NCAA and I have two schools in mind, and I love both equally; Plymouth State University and Norwich University. Both have really good hockey programs and both are very good educational schools too. I am a big fan of the small school atmosphere and you get a better learning environment. You get to know everybody and nobody is really a stranger; it is definitely a nice feeling. You get a lot of one-on-one with teachers”. Hailing from a small private college myself, I agree with Hill completely on the benefits that schools of this nature tend to offer.
While she still has some time to ponder it, Hill has aspirations of playing hockey professionally someday too. A supporter of the NWHL’s New York Riveters, Hill has even attended some of the Rivs’ home games. “I would love to play in the NWHL or even the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). I would be fine with playing in either of those leagues for sure. I would love it if they merged. Just absolutely love it. In the CWHL there is only one American team and the rest are Canadian. If they could merge, it would just expand women’s hockey in general. With the NWHL All-Star Game going to be in Pittsburgh very soon, I am just thinking to myself, ‘Please put a team there too!’. That would be so nice! And I really wish that the NHL would get a little more involved with supporting both leagues”. Wise words from a very bright young woman. National Hockey League, are you listening?
Intellectual. I think that is the word that I like best for describing Elisabeth Hill. Her words ring true to me, and I think that they apply greatly to the current status of women’s hockey, perhaps especially the NWHL. “Hockey has taught me that working hard in general does not have a guaranteed success. You need to keep working harder, so that when you do have success it is much, much sweeter”. Hill has some words of advice to me even. “I think that you should keep interviewing female athletes and other female hockey players just to get the word out. The more people that you tell, they’re going to keep telling other people. You will get more interest, and those people will start looking at women’s hockey too”. The more buzz there is about it, the more support there will be. “People should know that when things get hard, especially in sports, you should just keep going. The harder you work, the more success you’ll have. You learn something from someone new everyday”.
Elisabeth would like to add a special note of thanks to her coach at Mater Dei, Coach Oktay: “For his belief in us as a team, for never giving up on us when things got tough, and for teaching us lessons on and off the ice. Coach Oktay makes us well-rounded players all the way through. Some girls have for sure changed in 3-years, but in all the best ways. He may be a tough coach, but he is tough in all the right ways. I would also like to thank him for pushing me beyond limits I never thought I had, and always expecting nothing less than the best from me. Coach Oktay helped shape me into the person and the player that I am today”. Thank you, Coach Oktay.