Barring a season-making upset, the college career of the most talented women’s hockey player the state has ever produced will end this weekend in Boston. Senior Amanda Pelkey will lead seventh seeded Vermont against No. 2 Boston University in a Hockey East playoff series at Walter Brown Arena, hoping she can extend the Catamounts’ season a little longer.
But while the college segment of Pelkey’s hockey life may be winding down, her involvement with the game is far from over. She has been part of the USA national program for seven years and is an alternate on the U.S. team that will compete for the World Championships in Sweden in April.
The value the national team places on Pelkey is an accurate measure of the talent the 5-3 dynamo from Montpelier possesses. She is UVM’s career leader in goals (48), assists (56) and points (104). She reached the 100-point plateau in dramatic fashion, scoring on a breakaway in overtime to beat Maine earlier this month.
Pelkey was invited to the USA Olympic tryout camp for the Sochi Games in 2014 and while she did not earn a roster spot then, she impressed the coaching staff with her speed and stickhandling abilities. Pelkey was a member of the U.S. squad that competed in the Four Nations Cup last fall and participated in the program’s winter training camp over the semester break.
“Amanda can play the game fast and the U.S. likes to play a fast game,” said UVM coach Jim Plumer. “She has quick speed, is a valuable penalty killer and is extremely versatile. I think she’s solidly in the [national team] mix and now it’s up to her to make something out of those opportunities.”
Pelkey seems to have been born to play the game. She was on skates – hockey, not figure – by age 3; wheeling around the backyard rink her father had built. Her youth was spent on the ice and soaking up college games at Norwich.
Pelkey honed her skills by attending high school at the North American Hockey Academy in Stowe and was selected at age 15 for the USA under-18 team that won a gold medal at the World Championships. The next big step was choosing a college and Vermont was an unlikely option.
UVM did not have a varsity program until 1995 and competed at the Division III level until 2001. In the decade before Pelkey arrived, the fledgling Catamounts went 53-249-26. When it joined Hockey East in 2005, Vermont finished 2-38-2 in its first two seasons.
Pelkey was on the radar of a lot of schools with infinitely stronger programs and tradition. So why Vermont?
“Being a part of Hockey East had always been attractive to me but it was a long process that took a long time to narrow down,” Pelkey said. “I made extremely detailed charts and probably re-did them five or six times.
“I did think strongly about being a part of building a program that was at my state school. The opportunity and experience I felt I would have if I came here was a high percentage factor. And I got exactly what I expected.”
But the journey got off to a rough start. Vermont was 4-22-6 Pelkey’s freshman year, the final season for coach Tim Bothwell. Recruited as a forward, Pelkey spent time on defense for a team with little talent and less chemistry. She wondered if she had made a mistake in coming to Burlington.
“Everyone knows my freshman year we had some difficulties,” she said. “But I ended up sticking with my teammates because I didn’t want to have any regrets. When Jim (Plumer) came in as coach, I think the whole culture of the program changed.”
Plumer had built Amherst into a Division III juggernaut that won back-to-back national championships before coming to Vermont. After a challenging first season that included the dismissal of a top player and in-season suspensions of others, the pieces came together last winter.
Vermont posted the program’s first winning record at 18-14-4 overall and 13-7-1 in Hockey East. Not surprisingly, the player smack in the middle of this advance was Pelkey, who poured in 21 goals and 19 assists.
“Amanda is a game-changer but I think she sees herself more as a playmaker than a finisher – her first instinct is to pass,” Plumer said. “That changed after her sophomore year when she went to the Olympic tryout. She played very well and she came back with confidence in her entire game.”
Pelkey’s numbers are down slightly this year (13 goals, 17 assists) as is Vermont’s record (15-17-2 and 6-14-1). But she has scored goals in four of UVM’s last five games heading into the playoffs.
“I think by nature, I’m a playmaker – if a teammate is open, 98 percent of the time I’m going to give them the puck,” Pelkey said. “But I want to be more diverse and have that finishing aspect of shooting more and taking it to the net.”
Pelkey has been a Catamount captain the last two years, a role in which teammate Dayna Colang (UVM’s leading scorer with 31 points) says Pelkey has excelled.
“She’s a very influential person, easy to approach – I’ve definitely looked up to her,” Colang said. “She’s a great leader who takes care of things on and off the ice.”
Taking care of herself on the ice is a challenge for Pelkey, but one she has mastered.
“It’s not unusual on the international stage to find everyone 5-9 or bigger and 30 pounds heavier than Amanda,” Plumer said. “But she plays big on her skates and pound for pound is very strong. The feedback we got from the USA staff was they were very pleased with her competition level and willingness to engage in 1-on-1 battles.”
Pelkey will graduate with a degree in exercise and movement science in May, shortly before her 22nd birthday. The plan then is to move to Boston and play for the Boston Blades team in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League as she pursues a spot on the USA national roster.
“Every step along the way has brought me closer and closer to reaching my dream,” she said. “I still have the mindset that I might play in the World Championships. (The coaching staff) told me I have to have that mentality to be ready to play until the day they leave."
“I could be there but if not, that’s fine because I worked hard at it, regardless. I will use every opportunity I have to make an impression and grow on and off the ice.”
First, there is the matter of the BU Terriers. Pelkey is still a college player.
“It’s hard to talk about because overall it’s been an amazing experience that just kept getting better and better each year,” she said of her UVM career. “It’s bittersweet because it all went so fast.”
Plumer knows the program may never see a player of Pelkey’s caliber again.
“People talk about when Marty (UVM All-American and NHL all-star Martin St. Louis) was here that every time he touched the puck everyone was on the edge of their seat,” Plumer said. “Amanda is like that as a woman. You see some things she does and say, ‘Wow. Did I just see that?’”