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How to Be a Leader (With or Without a Letter)

By Jamie MacDonald, 10/18/22, 3:00PM EDT


Sammy Davis shares tips for being a leader on and off the ice

Photo Credit: Boston University Athletics

Inching closer to what will be her third professional hockey season with the Boston Pride, Pembroke native Sammy Davis is no stranger to leadership roles.

When she was younger, Davis was the kid who shot holes in the net outside her house. At Boston University, where she scored 142 points in 147 games from 2015-20, she was a team captain. 

In 2020, Davis was the first player taken in the NWHL draft. 

These days, the 25-year-old works full time Sunday through Thursday, as part of a clinical rotation on Cape Cod while finishing a PhD program in Occupational Therapy. Then, three or four nights a week, she drives up to Braintree for practice with the Pride. She returns after 11 p.m. so she can sleep and be ready to report for work around 7 a.m. 

Having signed over the summer to return to the Pride — who won their second consecutive Isobel Cup this past season — her third season may bring with it that much more responsibility both on and off the ice. 

Listen up

“I think that you can always be a leader,” said Davis, who in 2018 served as assistant captain for Team USA at the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship. “I think a good leader is somebody that makes people around them better, makes them feel good about themselves and brings out the best version of themselves. I truly believe that to be a good leader, you have to be a good person — on and off the ice – and set a good example of who you want people to look up to.”

And there’s also no requirement for anyone to need a letter as a prerequisite for leadership in thoughts or in actions.

“Everybody can be a leader in their own way,” Davis says. “If I was younger, I would like to hear from somebody that you can be a leader no matter what.”

For Davis, leadership stems not only from the lessons she learned from a lifetime in hockey, where coaches and players can lead in myriad ways, but also from her family, which includes an older sister, twin brother and her parents.

“I think they taught me to kind of listen before you speak and take everybody's perspective into account,” she said. “It took me a long while to really understand what my parents meant by that.”

Listening over the years has paid off. Even as one of the Pride’s younger players, Davis can see the impact she’d like to make going forward. Remaining positive goes a long way. 

“In general, humans want affirmation,” said Davis, who has 17 points in 27 games with the Pride. “They want to be affirmed by other people. They want feedback that what they're doing is good. Even I like that. We tend to forget that you can give people confidence — or reaffirm and validate them. And that's something that I’m trying to do better, to breathe that culture that we could make people around us feel better and empower each other.”

Lifting up teammates

When things aren’t going well for a teammate, some of those leadership tactics can assist — particularly at the highest levels. The higher the stakes, oftentimes, the harder players can be on themselves. And, the closer hockey can become to a living, well, that can be a blessing and a curse.

“I'm trying this year, as one of my goals, to lift people up around me,” Davis said. “I've grown as a person. This is my third year on the team and I'm gaining my footing. I'm more confident in myself and in my voice as a player. Hopefully people value my words, so I think using my voice more as that positive reinforcement [is a goal].”

Helping her Pride teammates pull out of the inevitable ruts will be a focus this season for Davis, too. 

“I will always want to know what they're thinking,” she said. “‘What is going on in your brain? And what are you saying to yourself?' Once you figure out what they're saying to themselves, which is usually negative self-talk, you try to build them up. You can tell them, ‘This is why you’re on the team and this is why you were picked. These are your strengths. Everyone on this team believes in you and knows what you are capable of.’ And you lean in on their strengths.”

This, in turn, in the right culture, can lead to winning locker rooms at so many levels, especially when things are difficult. 

Working full time, driving hours to practice and competing at a high level isn’t without its challenges. And when the season ahead could mean a third third consecutive league title, the stakes feel high. 

“I have some really great teammates who are so supportive and they keep me going,” Davis said. “I try to walk into the locker room like, ‘Hey I'm not tired, I didn't just work 9 and a half hours and drive here.’ It's an hour of the day that makes me happy, so why do I have to be negative? So I'm very grateful. A lot of them go through the same thing. They work full-time jobs. We have nurses, we have teachers, we have engineers, we have scientists. And I do think a lot of my teammates are really proud of what I'm doing and I can feel that. I can feel their support.”

Learning from the best

The Pride’s roster includes women’s professional hockey veterans, Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award nominees and players who have represented their countries. While there can only be a handful of players who wear a letter, there’s always room for leaders.

“I think it's great because I'm learning through the older girls,” said Davis, who is quick to credit those who came before her. “I've been really lucky. I feel like I've had some really great leaders and really great role models.”

In fact, in college, Davis recalls a year where she could learn from three very different captains.

“It takes all different kinds to be a leader,” she said. “My freshman year at BU, we had three [captains]. One girl was quiet and would lead by example. One was more vocal and was more of a liaison between the coaching staff and the team. And one was very, very quiet, keeping to herself — but she was able to pull people aside to get through to them by having these important conversations. It's not one size fits all.”

The Terriers also set up a way to pay-it-forward for one of their most successful hockey alums.

“I had a few BU girls reach back out to me, and I've been helping out the team and their leaders and seniors,” said Davis. “It's been really full circle, kind of helping people develop their voice as a leader and how they want to create their legacy, how they can make people around them better. It's been really cool.”

Working to be better

Davis understands that she, too, is still that work in progress on a team where she is among the youngest players.

“I'm still developing, still learning, still growing and I still have to sometimes be able to understand other peoples’ perspectives,” she said. “You can do that at a young age. I think you can be a good person and be a good teammate at a really young age.”

Someday, those young players may see even more opportunities than Davis has enjoyed in women’s hockey. And, someday, Davis would like to see those breakthroughs grow even bigger. 

“I love being in OT, and I love playing ice hockey,” she said. “If I could pick one, it would be ice hockey. Right now, the money isn't really there for all of us to make a living. A lot of us are playing because we love ice hockey. I hope that, maybe, eventually, I'm going to be an OT. I've worked so hard to get that degree, and hopefully pass that exam in the next year. Maybe I could work part time and really invest a little bit more time in ice hockey. And maybe get a full night of rest and have my body feel like it is at its optimal place to perform. 

“That's my goal for the sport, to be able to hopefully make it, for some of us, a full-time job. Or full-time with a part-time job for some of us. It's OK for now. But I'm not going to say it's OK. I'm going to keep pushing for more, because we deserve more. We deserve to be heard. And we deserve to push for this change of making this league viable.”

For players who want to be leaders, Davis offers a little piece of advice. 

“Be kind,” Davis said. “Because you never know what other people are going through. They're going to appreciate your kindness and positivity. I would also say to just work hard. Make people around you better. Make people shine. Make people find the best version of themselves. I can't say how much that means to other people — and how much we can change somebody's day, or somebody's game, or somebody's outlook. If somebody makes me feel good, I'm going to listen to them all day.”