By the time Alex Carpenter had arrived on the Boston College campus in Chestnut Hill – at the age of 17– it was clear that, as one of the best players in the nation, playing college hockey seemed a virtual lock.
But that wasn’t always the case. Not even as a young multisport athlete whose famous father was playing for the New Jersey Devils. Back then, Bobby Carpenter (who reached phenom status of his own when he landed on a 1981 cover of Sports Illustrated as “The Can’t-Miss Kid) would go on to play more than 1,000 games in the NHL, but his daughter’s path to college hockey didn’t get the head start many might expect.
While, yes, she was on the ice at age 2, thanks in part to her figure skater mom, and, yes, she was watching her dad’s games and running around the halls with mini sticks, Alex didn’t play organized hockey until years later.
“Ever since I was really young, I loved the game,” she says. “I finally started playing at seven, probably a lot later than most people, but I always loved it growing up.”
Love of the game, says Carpenter, is key to any path that might lead to playing women’s college hockey.
Of course, Carpenter’s career has become something of a dream that has included remarkable success at the prep, college and international level. For Governors Academy, she amassed 427 points in 100 career games. At BC, she scored 133 goals and set a school record with 278 points in a 150-game career that includes winning the 2015 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award.
For Team USA, in addition to playing in the IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship as a 15-year-old, she has worn the red, white and blue in nearly 70 games and led the United States in goal-scoring at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.
And while it seems Alex herself is “The Can’t-Miss Kid,” she has learned a great deal on her journey to and through Boston College.
Why college hockey?
Playing hockey nearly every day, along with carrying a college course load, isn’t easy. But there are rewards.
“I just like being able to focus on hockey,” Alex says of the college experience. “Obviously, there's schoolwork involved, but you have more time dedicated to training and you could walk to your facilities. That's what I like the most, being able to focus on your athletics as equally as your academics.”
The social aspect of such an immersive experience is hard to replicate, too.
“It was pretty cool, obviously,” she says. “Your teammates are some of your best friends and some of the funny things that go on in the locker room, I don't forget them.”
Finding the right program
More than 30 years ago, Sports Illustrated speculated that Bobby, if he hadn’t jumped straight to the NHL, would lean toward Boston College. Decades later, his daughter did pick the Eagles.
“My dad definitely gave me advice,” Alex says. “He didn't go to college, but he went through the process, and he obviously wanted it to be my choice in the end. We were looking for a school that had equally good athletics and academics.”
Staying local was important, too.
“I definitely wanted to stay in Boston,” says Alex, whose two brothers play hockey and football at Boston University and Endicott College, respectively. “That was a big thing for me. My whole family was here and it's where I've grown up. And I went to visit three or four schools, and, everybody says, you just fall in love with the campus.”
The coaching staff made an impact, too.
“I had coach Katie King [now Crowley] when I played Under-18s for the national team, and she was a great coach,” Alex says. “I loved her from when I was, I think, 14 or 15, and that was a big part of it. It was the tight-knit community that I liked about it.
Figure out what important to you
If you do find yourself in the enviable position of thinking seriously about college hockey, take the time to consider what truly may help your development as a player and a person.
“I think a lot of times schools will tell you what you want to hear, that you're going to get this playing time,” Alex says. “I think they try to sell you on a lot of the material things like locker rooms, the equipment you get, the rink. At BC we didn't have the greatest locker room – it was a locker room and that's all we needed. In my opinion, you don't need to have the best facilities in the nation, you just need coaches who are going to develop you as a player and you need some great teammates.”
Be the best prospect you can be
There’s a lot that goes in to becoming an elite college prospect. There is the hockey, of course, but it’s not likely to be that simple.
“I always prided myself in [my grades],” Alex says. “I'd lock myself in the library and get my work done so I could go to practice. I knew I could probably get in on hockey, but it was something my family really worked hard at. It’s something we learned at a young age, to work hard at everything you do. It obviously translated to our academics.”
Which is partially what made Boston College so appealing. But program fit is something that cuts both ways. What did these elite programs see in Alex that made her a better prospect?
“I was never the most vocal on the ice,” Alex says. “I'd say something if I felt it needed to be said, but I was kind of one of those people who put their head down and went to work, and you try to make your teammates better. I think that something I prided myself in. And I'd like to think that's what they saw in me.”
Stick with it
Believe it or not, before making her first Olympic team, Carpenter ran into a number of doors at the elite level that closed on her. And it was unfamiliar.
“I always talk about leading up to the Olympics, a couple years before, I'd get cut from various camps and Four Nations and Worlds teams, and what I had to do to get back,” she says. “For me, it was something I wasn't used to. My dad was able to help me, and that was sort of the turning point.”
For any player who has been cut from a team, Carpenter’s experience can be a study in finding ways for the journey to pay off in the long run.
“I think the thing that really helped me the most was advice from my dad, importantly,” she recalled. “Obviously, there are some things you don't want to hear, and people try not to step on your toes or tell you the things that you need to work on, and I think he was brutally honest with me. And I think that that's what made the switch in my head. I was like. ‘I think he's right, I have to change these things if I want to get anywhere or move any farther in my sport.’”
Seek opportunities to improve
Even for an elite player, there is room for improvement.
“I ended up going to train with Mike Boyle in Woburn, and I think that had a huge impact on my game,” says Alex, who is now playing for the Boston Pride in the National Women’s Hockey League. “I was never the prettiest skater growing up, but I think I got from Point A to Point B because he helped me become a faster player, despite my size. So, I think that was one thing that helped. And then my coaches at BC – they were willing to do anything. I'd jump out early with them and do skill sessions one-on-one with them, so I think little things like that played a huge impact on my development as a player.”
Even now, while playing for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, there’s an eye toward the future. Alex knows that the 2018 Olympic Winter Games will be here before we know it.
“I think right now I've been categorized as a pretty fast player,” she says. “I think that's still something I'm trying to work on. I’m skating against the boys a couple times a week trying to keep my speed up, and I think I'm feeling pretty good right now. And the Pride season has been going pretty well, and, at this point, it's just continuing to keep that level of intensity and keep my conditioning and training.”
Play multiple sports
Before she was a college hockey prospect, Alex was a college softball prospect.
“Yeah, I actually got recruited for softball before anything,” she says. “My softball coach asked my dad about it, and he said, ‘Don't even have them contact us, she wants to play hockey.’ But it was pretty cool to know that you had those chances to go play another sport.”
And it wasn’t until college that Alex focused entirely on hockey.
“When we were growing up, our family made us take the summers off,” she says. “Just from a really young age, we did other things. We played a lot of different sports because our parents didn't want to force us to play hockey. They kind of wanted us to find what we wanted to do. And it just turned out that we all loved hockey.”
Parents, take note
When her family returned to the Boston area (the legend of “The Can’t-Miss Kid” began for Bobby in Peabody, when he was considered perhaps the best U.S.-born prospect ever), Alex began to make hockey her own. In her estimation, though baseball and soccer were very much a part of her athletic world, her hockey career began to soar around the age of 11.
But for every parent who has ever wondered whether his or her young athlete has what it takes to reach the next level, Alex has some advice.
“Everybody comes into their own at a certain age,” she says. “There are late bloomers who aren't good until they're in high school, or even college. I think how you can tell that is how much they love the sport. I think that's the most important thing. You have a lot of kids who play year-round and get tired of it. Their parents have to drag them to practice. And I just don't think that's a healthy way to do it. I think you have to let them love the sport on their own. You can't force them to do anything. That's what I like about my parents. They didn't force us to play any sport. They let us choose what we wanted to do.”