WILMINGTON, MA -- The Boston Shamrocks, simply put, just do things differently. What other girls’ hockey programs boast a former NHL practice facility at their complete disposal and an organization completely built around the pure all-around development of each and every player? Not many, if any, to say the least.
It’s those differences that have made the Boston Shamrocks one of the featured girls hockey organizations in the country and a desired spot for young, aspiring female hockey players to venture to Wilmington, MA for a chance to further their hockey careers.
Founded by Bob Rotondo about 10 years ago, the Shamrocks quickly became the preeminent girls hockey organization in the Northeast. Rotondo had been at the forefront for women’s/ girl’s hockey in New England, starting the Northeast Women’s Hockey League, which featured players from junior high and high school in the Boston area. He later helped establish the East Coast Wizards, then after a few years, went out on his own and founded the Boston Shamrocks.
Hannah Irving has been the Shamrocks’ academic coordinator since 2013. Aside from tutoring math and science, she is responsible for setting up and monitoring all academic services the Shamrocks offer their players.
From day one, Rotondo has set out to provide a quality hockey option for girls to develop into well-rounded women’s hockey players.
The organizational vision reads -- “Developing Women who are self- confident student athletes, with strong moral character, who have respect for themselves and others, and are the role models for our future women.”
The mission statement of the Shamrocks takes it a step further:
“The Boston Shamrocks Hockey Academy focuses on encouraging young ladies to work outside of their comfort zone, learn from their experiences, and have fun.”
“We accomplish this by providing a structured environment with a focus placed on the seven Shamrock values of; Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Integrity, and Personal Courage (LDRSHIP).”
The Shamrocks accomplish their vision and mission statements by offering as many development options as possible. Their efforts are aided, in part, by calling the beautiful Ristuccia Arena, the former practice facility of the Boston Bruins, home, but as those within the organization often point out, it is more than just a building that prompted this culture of well-rounded success.
From a facility standpoint, the Shamrocks have their own dedicated locker room, a players’ lounge, a full service pro shop, and study areas at their disposal to handle all on- and off-ice needs.
The girls are treated to amenities that often exceed those provided by the college teams they’ll soon be a part of. That is not to slight the college programs out there that don’t have a former NHL practice facility just sitting on their campus, those are few and far between, it is only just to point out the quality situation girls walk in to when they commit to playing for the Shamrocks. It’s an immense recruiting advantage and coupled with the newly-launched development program, announced last summer and still coming into form, will completely lift the Shamrocks organization to new heights.
Rotondo is quick to note that while the Shamrocks do have facilities that are second-to-none, facilities only go so far. To fulfill the organization’s vision, there has to be a top-to-bottom focus on the end goal and that is achieved through the team’s personnel.
He knows exactly how he wants the Shamrocks to operate in the girls’ junior hockey landscape, but he has surrounded himself with people that believe in that same vision 100 percent and have helped cultivate the culture that has led to 94 total NCAA/CIS commits in 10 years.
He has quality people at every level of his organization and is never shy to speak their praises. Let’s run through the head coaches of the two senior JWHL teams the U19s and the U16s:
Kristi Kehoe, the U19 head coach, is a former Northeastern University standout and excelled as a coach at New England College (NCAA Division III) and with China’s U18 National Team. In addition to being the U19 head coach, she is the Shamrocks’ program director and serves as the Director of Girls Player Development for the New England district of USA Hockey.
U16 head coach Molly Corl played four years at Division II Saint Anselm College, leaving as the program’s all-time leader in assists and sixth in points as a defensemen, but before she was setting team records, she came up through the Shamrocks.
Those three have the hockey side of things moving rapidly in the right direction. But, the unsung hero of the Boston Shamrocks Hockey Academy would have to be Hannah Irving, the team’s academic coordinator.
Irving, a 2010 graduate of Franklin Pierce University, began her post-grad life as a high school tutor, working mainly with athletes. In 2013, Irving was approached by Rotondo and was offered the position of Academic Coordinator.
The hockey part of the Shamrocks’ development program is completely laid out. They have a comprehensive plan in place that will take a girl at the U16 or U19 levels and give her every opportunity to better her skills. The rink is available for players during the day to work on individual skills, practices are held nightly, and strength and conditioning workouts are conducted in the weight room and on the outdoor track.
But it’s the academic part that Irving was brought in to anchor. And according to Kehoe, when you talk about academics and the Shamrocks organization, that starts and ends with Irving.
“Hannah is absolutely phenomenal,” said Kehoe. “We can’t do what we do without her. All of the academic accomplishments, the team GPAs, the commitments to top academic institutions, that is all because of her efforts with our girls.”
Irving, as academic coordinator, is completely hands-on in the players’ learning environment. She tutors math and science, but also monitors grades and is the point person in ensuring each girl is on track to be eligible for college hockey as per the Division I NCAA Eligibility Center standards. She reviews transcripts to make sure they’re on track for meeting core course and GPA requirements dictated by the NCAA.
Academic environments are mixed amongst players. Some players attend local schools and have traditional school- day schedules. Others take advantage of online learning. No matter which system the players utilize, the Shamrocks still hold each and every one of them to high standards. Irving is on top of the online learners even more so than the classroom learners. She has to, otherwise the relaxed nature of online classes, where, without monitoring, you could take classes in your pajamas from your bed if you wanted, could swallow up even the best of students.
“Girls who do online school arrive at the rink by 8:00 AM,” stated Irving. “Throughout the day, which ends at 2:00 PM, the girls are scheduled to meet with various tutors depending on their course loads. We have fun, but the girls understand showing up each day ready to work is truly the only way to accomplish all that needs to be done in order to get on the ice.”
All players are expected to maintain at least an 80 percent average in each of her courses. Additionally, it is required that all of the girls have completed their complete work load from the prior week before stepping on to the ice on Monday.
Irving is meticulous in her monitoring of each player. Without her work, no one gets better.
“When a player has grades below 80 percent or is missing assignments, that information is sent to the coaches,” said Irving. “Together, we work to make a plan to get the player’s grades up and/or get missing work completed. It is only when these two tasks are accomplished that the player is able to attend practice.”
Irving runs a tight ship academically, but in today’s age of competitiveness, there are only so many scholarships available for women’s hockey players, it can be the girl’s academics that helps get them that commitment. That’s not meant to scare anyone about their prospects of playing at a Division I or even Division III institution, where all financial aid is based on academic merit, it is simply to showcase why the Shamrocks put such emphasis on academic development. To be a truly diverse, well-rounded person upon leaving the Shamrocks, they must focus on personal, academic, and hockey development.
And that brings us back to Irving. While she keeps on top of the girls and their studies, she is by no means a drill sergeant. She readily meets with all the girls on the Shamrocks, whether they do online schooling or traditional schooling.
“I make myself available after school hours to help girls who weren’t scheduled to meet with me that day but have questions or those who attend local schools,” said Irving.
The Shamrocks have all players who complete their studies online do one-on- one tutoring sessions. They’re required to do one one-on-one tutoring session per week for every course they’re taking, so five courses equals five one-on-one tutoring sessions per week.
“We believe working with tutors is a wonderful way to supplement online curriculums,” said Irving. “It provides opportunities to check understanding and comprehension and ask questions while verbally engaging and expanding on the material being learned.”
Tutoring services aren’t just for online learners though. The reality is that junior hockey players are going to miss school. For the online learners, the time away from home is more manageable than those in physical classrooms. But for those girls who are attending local schools, tutors help make up the time lost with the extensive travel that goes into a JWHL season.
“The reality is that playing for the Shamrocks will result in absences from school given the rigorous travel schedule,” said Irving. “Having a tutoring staff available to help and support our players has made a huge difference in their academic success.”
Speaking of success, both the U19 and U16 teams are full of it.
The U19 team carried a 3.91 overall GPA for the 2018-19 academic year. Five players were taking college courses and nine of 11 high school players finished with 3.5 GPAs or higher. Of those nine, six wrapped-up the year with 4.0 GPAs or higher.
The U16 team had a 3.71 overall GPA for 2018-19. 12 of 16 players had 3.5 GPAs or higher at the conclusion of the year and three of those 12 had 4.0 GPAs or higher.
The numbers speak for themselves, but are a true testament to the work by Irving and her group of tutors, the buy-in from the coaching staffs, and the dedication to learning by the girls themselves.
The dedication to individual academics is not always a given for players when they come to the team. Sometimes it is due to previous struggles, other times it takes a back seat to hockey when it comes to priorities. But, the Shamrocks, as an organization, stress the importance of education and the doors it opens as the girls advance in their hockey careers.
“We’re very fortunate in that many of our players join the Shamrocks believing their academics are at least as important as their hockey skills. On many afternoons, after the school day has ended, there are a number of girls continuing to work until they have to get on the ice for practice,” said Irving.
She continued “There are some players, however, who don’t have this same academic drive when they join our organization. Most who fall into this category have struggled academically before coming to the Shamrocks. This, in and of itself, leads some to believe school is not for them and is not an area in which they can excel. Many are, however, able to be successful given the right environment and support. The majority of our players who complete their studies online have higher GPA’s than they did at traditional schools.”
There’s a method behind the madness. By placing such a focus on academics but still encouraging the girls to explore their most productive learning environments, the Shamrocks are setting the girls up for success at the next level. College course loads are already rigorous for the average student, but being a student-athlete is truly an immense time commitment. The time management aspect can put a strain on even the best student, which is why the Shamrocks train the girls to recognize the importance of academics in addition to hockey early on.
“Even though we are a hockey team, the value we place on academics forces the girls to recognize they are first and foremost students. Only after they are able to be successful in the classroom, evidenced by their grades and progress, are they able to work on themselves as athletes,” stated Irving. “We definitely remind the girls that our expectations are similar to those which their future colleges will maintain. Moreover, given that athletic scholarships are so limited, having good grades and high standardized test scores can make a huge difference in the number of academic scholarships available to the girls.”
As previously mentioned, the Shamrocks have sent 94 girls on to NCAA/CIS college hockey programs. Of those 94, 39 have played at the NCAA/ CIS Division I level.
Shamrocks alumnae have been All- Americans, won national championships, and gone on to play professionally in both the CWHL and NWHL.
The success, though, can only be achieved if the players first get to school. It’s the academic success programs in place within the Shamrocks organization that makes it possible. In addition to the general schooling and tutoring options, Irving coordinates SAT and ACT tutoring sessions leading up to exam dates in the fall and sets up sessions with seniors to assist in college application essay writing.
“When the season starts, one of our top priorities is making sure the seniors get started on their application essays,” said Irving. “We try to impress the importance of effectively communicating pieces of information, which make the girls who they are, to admissions departments that may not be obvious given the rest of their application.”
The overarching theme here is that the Shamrocks offer the complete package of support for their girl’s/women’s hockey players. It’s a culture of development that has taken years to build but helps set up each and every girl for success once they leave the organization.
“We have worked hard over the years to create an environment that focuses on development ON and OFF the ice,” stated Kehoe. “We believe it is important to create a highly competitive environment that encourages the girls to learn from experiences, grow, and reach their potential.”
The girls have the full spectrum of academic support: online learning or classroom learning, one-on-one tutoring, an academic coordinator around the team every day, SAT and ACT prep classes, and application essay assistance. Follow that with the hockey side of things: Ristuccia Arena, a dedicated locker room, full- service pro shop, weight room, study room, players’ lounge, and experienced and passionate coaches.
Maybe the best part? Once you’re a Shamrock, you’re a Shamrock for life.
It truly is a family atmosphere that one becomes a part of. From top to bottom, every person within the Shamrocks organization is as invested in a player’s success both on and off the ice as their own parents. The players are pushed towards success through a plethora of opportunities and utilizing every resource necessary. Then, even after they move on to college or pro opportunities, each and every alumna is welcomed back with open arms.
“We have a family environment here where current and former players feel that they can be themselves, and call this place home,” said Kehoe. “During the summer, we see just as many Alumni come through our doors to hangout and skate as we do our current players. We are proud of the players that have represented us as they have moved on in their careers beyond high school, and we are proud to have created a place for new and current players to come in and build on that culture.”
Also showing pride is Irving, whose investment in the players’ academic growth and success pays off hugely each year when the players get those acceptance letters.
“I truly believe playing for the Shamrocks allows our players the independence and support to develop skills vital for success as college athletes. Watching our players go on to both play college hockey and do well academically is hugely rewarding for me,” said Irving. “For most, college will be the end of the girls’ hockey careers. While that is certainly the end of an era for them, it’s also the beginning of the next. I believe my work with the girls in helping them learn the necessary skills to be successful as they move on to college will help them build the foundation they need as they move on to their careers.”
There is plenty that goes into creating the family atmosphere and the culture of all-around development that the Shamrocks have going right now. It’s 10 years in the making and only getting stronger for hockey, personal, and academic growth. The man who sits at the top, Bob Rotondo, continues to see his vision take shape in the form of his teams on the ice and the alumnae who play in college, earn college degrees, play professionally or start off-ice careers.
When you ask him about how he sells that vision and cultivates individual development, he gets straight to the point:
“There are 1,460 days in a player’s high school career. We ask each girl, ‘Do you have a plan?’. It truly doesn’t matter if the answer is yes or no. We are the only program that gives you a road map – from Freshman to Senior year - and guides you through it. So if that answer is yes, we build on it. If it’s no, we build one for them. It starts with Hannah (Irving) and includes the rest of our staff. We focus on everything - Academics, Culture, and Hockey. That is how we are able to help our players reach both their academic AND athletic goals in the end.”