building from the ice, up …

Hockey at Paul Smith’s College has been on ice since 2003, which was the last season for the Bobcat’s men’s varsity program. Fifteen years later, the sport returns to the only four-year college in the Adirondacks with the introduction of women’s hockey under the direction of Saranac Lake’s Andrea Kilbourne-Hill. Last December, the Olympic silver medalist with USA Hockey in 2002, was named the college’s Director of Hockey.

“It was around Thanksgiving that John Morgan and I started formalizing a plan, he met with the Trustees during their first fall meeting and that’s where it all started,” said Kilbourne-Hill. “It’s been a long and a short year, all at the same time. We’ve done quite a bit of planning and we’ve got a lot done, but at the same time, things are moving a little slower than I would like, but that’s to be expected.”

Kilbourne-Hill, who coached the Lake Placid High School girl’s hockey program for three years before guiding Northwood School from 2008-2016, wasn’t actively searching out opportunities to return to the game. It had been only two years since the St. Bernard’s Elementary School fourth-grade teacher left her alma mater Northwood so that she could spend more time in the classroom.

She initially thought that when Morgan first approached her, he was seeking advice because she was a “hockey person,” who he could bounce some ideas off of. But as they continued to talk, it became apparent that Morgan wanted her to be in charge.

So since then, she’s been trying to balance being a teacher and mother while building a start-up program.

“So far it’s worked out well because we have really great people at Paul Smith’s and everyone at the college is committed to making this work,” she noted.

Topping Kilbourne-Hill’s list of responsibilities was finding a coach. She originally hoped to fill the position in the spring, however; it took a little longer than anticipated. She believed that hiring the right person was more important than following an arbitrary date.

In October, she tabbed Casey Gerrish as coach. Gerrish, a Paul Smith’s College graduate, with roots in the area, his uncle Tim Gerrish, coached North Country Community College’s men’s hockey program for 25 years, leading the Saints to a national championship, checked a lot of boxes she was looking for.

She wanted someone who’s committed to the welfare of the student-athletes and at the same time be invested in the college and a part of its community. She was also seeking someone who would understand that wins and losses are important, but the goal is not to lift a championship banner in five years. Instead, this is an opportunity for kids to play college hockey, who might otherwise not have the opportunity and at the same time increase the school’s female enrollment.

“The competitive level at division one is through the roof and division three is now really, really strong, so we have a lot of really good local girls that are good hockey players that could be good athletes.”

She continued, “It’s also important that we get the right girl who understands that hockey is just a small portion of being at school. For an 18 year-old, hockey might be the biggest piece in their mind, but it shouldn’t be. Instead, we’re searching out kids who are psyched about playing hockey, who want to contribute to a team, want to be the best hockey player that she can be, but we also want them to love the school, love the area and appreciated how unique Paul Smith’s and its campus really are, and feel a part of something bigger than themselves.”

The 16 game season began in mid-October and while the Yankee Small College Conference (Paul Smith’s is a member of for soccer and basketball) offers men’s hockey it does not have a women’s hockey program. Therefore, the Lady Bobcats will play in the Independent Women’s Club Hockey League and face teams from Vermont and New Hampshire.

Home games will be played at the Saranac Lake Civic Center, but some of the games will also be held in Lake Placid’s Olympic Center which Kilbourne-Hill believes is exciting for not only her team, but for the opponents.

“I want to see at the civic center a lot of excitement and a lot of crowd support, a lot of girls … 10 year-old girls in the stands will be exciting to see,” she mentioned. “The kids are also excited about playing at the Olympic Center too. I’m hoping that when we have a two-game series, it’s one game in Saranac Lake and another game in Lake Placid. This will be cool to offer, playing in such a historic setting.”

Kilbourne-Hill is relying a lot on her playing background to build this program. She’s using the experiences learned at Princeton University, where she was a leading scorer for coach Jeff Kampersal and the Tigers (tallying a total of 76 goals and 94 assists) and with Team USA where she not only won an Olympic silver medal, but also claimed silver medals during both the 2004 Four Nations Cup and 2004 Women’s World Ice Hockey Championship tournaments with coach Ben Smith.

She hopes the hockey program will help to put the college on the map and in the minds of coaches and players. Right now there aren’t a lot of guidance counselors and administrators in states like Massachusetts, Minnesota or Wisconsin, who will put Paul Smith’s on a kid’s list. But over time she expects to break down those barriers and prove that Paul Smith’s is a great place, for the right student-athlete, to extend a hockey career and receive a great education preparing them for life beyond the game.