hen the sport of ice hockey is brought up in conversation, perhaps the last place anyone thinks of is Florida. Known for its palm trees and warm winters, the Sunshine State should be the place any great athlete goes at the end of their career, not at the start of it. For Boston College women’s hockey defenseman Kali Flanagan, however, it was the most important step in her journey to becoming a gold medal Olympian.
Growing up in Burlington, Mass., Flanagan was essentially raised in the hub of hockey culture. The town was the homeland of Olympians even before she was born, when Mark and Scott Fusco competed for the U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team in 1984, and Peter and Kat Carruthers took home the silver medal in figure skating the same year.
Burlington’s location was perfect, too. Fifteen miles from downtown Boston, and a 10-minute drive to Ristuccia Arena—the Boston Bruins’ practice facility until 2016—it was impossible for Flanagan to avoid hockey at just about any turn.
But maybe Flanagan’s biggest influence was her father, Bill, who played hockey himself for four years at Rensselaer Polytechnic. Even now as a former junior hockey coach and cofounder of the Flanagan Hockey School, his daughter may be his most successful student of the game.
“I guess I just wanted to be like my dad when I was little,” Kali said.
The young Burlington athlete began as a figure skater, but soon pivoted to hockey, a move she would never regret. Flanagan became a fantastic skater, and shined in her high school years at the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, N.Y. Her prowess on the ice was so noticeable that as a junior in high school, she received an invitation to tryout for the U.S. Under-18 Women’s National Team.
Flanagan was one of many young skaters brought in to compete for a spot on the nation’s most promising young roster. What began as a giant camp quickly narrowed. She made the first cut—an achievement in itself—but, as the roster bubble shrunk further, in this case from a group of 28 to 23, Flanagan found herself as one of the five on the outside.
“At the time, it felt like it was a super big deal, and I was really upset,” Flanagan said, “but I think it only helped me because it just put a chip on my shoulder, and I just had to work and fight that much harder.”
While most kids her age that summer spent their time worrying about upcoming SATs, Flanagan learned something important about herself: In order to be an Olympian, she would have to step it up a notch.
After spending three years at a prep school in upstate New York, Flanagan’s decision to come to BC brought her much closer to home, but it wasn’t long before she was back on the road again.
Flanagan remained active on the national stage even throughout her time at BC, traveling to various locations across the country to attend clinics and tryouts. As early as her freshman year she went to senior camps, even making the U.S. Under-22 Women’s National Team that summer, a team full of players from the U-18 team Flanagan had been cut from two years earlier.
Along the way, Flanagan was naturally supported by longtime friends and family, but an unlikely source of comfort came from the connections she made throughout her journey.
“Before I even made the national team there were always BC—either alums or people who are also here—at [Olympic training camps],” Flanagan said, “so you’d always see a familiar face and have automatic friends, which makes you feel so much more comfortable.”
At the start of her junior year, Flanagan headed south for national team tryouts.
“I didn’t really know anyone and she took me under her wing and was just a great role model for me during that whole process. She’s a great presence in the locker room and on the ice. She kept things real fun and loose.” — Cayla Barnes '22
ere, at the Florida Hospital Center Ice in Tampa Bay, she and 41 other American hockey phenoms duked it out over the course of four months to secure one of 23 spots on the Olympic roster. Again, though, Flanagan’s experience in traveling proved to be a huge advantage.
“I think it’s totally different from playing close to home where your family gets to see you all the time,” she said. “You have a new family, your team, when you’re down there, and you get really close with them.”
With such a commitment at hand, Flanagan decided to redshirt her junior year at BC. She wasn’t the only Eagle to press the pause button on her college career. In fact, both Megan Keller and Cayla Barnes also took the year off. Barnes—an incoming freshman at BC—actually made the same move as Flanagan. The two ended up as roommates in Florida.
Barnes immediately recognized Flanagan’s abilities as a leader. It certainly wasn’t Flanagan’s first time put into the whirlwind of competitive tryouts, and she did her part to pass her wisdom down the ladder.
“I didn’t really know anyone and she took me under her wing and was just a great role model for me during that whole process,” Barnes said. “She’s a great presence in the locker room and on the ice. She kept things real fun and loose.”
Yet, in a flashback to her U-18 tryout, Flanagan saw a massive list of the nation’s best skaters get shorter and shorter. This time, though, hers remained on the sheet throughout the month of December.
For whatever twisted reason, the final cuts were to be made and announced on Christmas Day. For many of the athletes, their grueling four-month battle would end on what otherwise should have been the happiest day of the year. Fortunately for both Flanagan and Barnes, the two BC skaters would earn the best Christmas present they could have asked for: a spot on the 2018 Winter Olympic team.
“When we both found out when we were in that room it was just a really special moment to be able to share,” Barnes said. “Not only being first-time Olympians but the veterans too, they’re just so happy for you.”
or Flanagan, such an incredible moment didn’t feel official until well after the team touched down in Seoul, South Korea.
“The older girls told us that you’re not a real Olympian until you take your first step on the ice,” she said. “Your first shift in the Olympics is only something you ever dream about as a little girl so to actually set foot on an Olympic ice sheet and to have the Team U.S.A. sweater on is just surreal, and priceless, and honestly just so hard to put into words.”
Even better were the results that Flanagan and Co. were getting on the ice, notably a 3-1 win over Finland and a 5-0 demolition of the Olympic athletes from Russia. The only blemish in the preliminary rounds for Team U.S.A. came in a 2-1 loss to Canada, but the two squads would inevitably meet again.
After relocating its mojo in a 5-0 win over Finland in the semifinal game, Team U.S.A. faced Canada in a much anticipated rematch. Down one goal at the end of the second period, Flanagan remembers adrenaline bouncing off the walls of the locker room, but that the team managed to remain light and energetic, even cracking jokes throughout the intense intermission.
Monique Lamoureux would end up extending the game with a goal in the waning minutes for Team U.S.A., and the two North American countries best known as bitter hockey rivals soon found themselves in an overtime shootout.
“In the shootout we were sitting there arm’s length just shaking,” Flanagan said, “and then when we won it was just absolutely insane. It was the coolest thing ever.”
The gold medals received after the game would be the first for any American women’s hockey player in 20 years. For the team to win the Games’ most critical match against the nation that had beat them four years prior made the victory even sweeter.
“In the shootout we were sitting there arm's length just shaking and then when we won, it was just absolutely insane. It was the coolest thing ever.” — Kali Flanagan
eyond the excitement from the win, Flanagan’s stock as a celebrity rose, too. She remembers being in the airport, swarmed by fans who were amazed to catch a glimpse of some of Team U.S.A.’s latest champions.
In fact, one of the team’s biggest fans was BC women’s hockey coach Katie Crowley, who was in contact with five of her former and current players throughout their time in Florida and South Korea.
A gold medal winner herself, Crowley’s pride in her players came from knowing just how amazing the moment was. Having missed out on their contributions that season on the ice at Kelley Rink, though, she was just as happy to have them back in Chestnut Hill.
“I thought they did such a good job of representing BC in their journey, and we couldn’t wait to see them when they came back and give them all big hugs,” Crowley said with a laugh. “After that it was like ‘Alright, so when do you guys come back to our team?’”
Flanagan, too, knows that the taste of victory on the world stage isn’t the end of the line for her. The end goal of winning it all is the same, but this time the hope is that the banner will be raised within the confines of Conte Forum. After all, at least for Kali Flanagan, there’s no place like home.
“It’s so great to be back at Boston College,” Flanagan said, “because it’s, like, the best place on earth.”
Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Senior Staff
Images by Bradley Smart / Heights Editor