Girls hockey: Kerri Rowland’s journey a life lesson

Kerri Rowland has always believed in bringing down barriers.

As the head coach of the Notre Dame-Fairfield girls hockey team, which also includes players from Foran High, Jonathan Law and Weston High, she encourages her players to seek out challenges and to never let the negative effects of sexism interfere with their ambitions.

"It's a little different time now," she said. "But these young girls still face stereotypes. I remember a time when girls were told that they had to be figure skaters, not hockey players. I try to instill in my players how important it is to push their way past that. I coach because I love to see kids develop, get stronger, become better players and be successful."

Rowland's road to coaching took her through some enormous hurdles.

She grew up in a hockey family where her father, Neil Tiernan, a former player at West Haven High in the early 1960s and a hockey official for many years, was also her coach during the formative stages of her life.

Born in 1970, Rowland came close to being born at the old New Haven Arena. The antiquated building located on Grove Street in New Haven was the home of the New Haven Blades of the Eastern Hockey League.

"My parents (Neil and Susan) always went to the games," Rowland said. "They were scheduled to play on January and my mom was due. She decided to stay home. Otherwise, I might've have been born at the Arena.”

Seven years later, she made her hockey debut. Her father coached a Squirt team in the Milford Youth Program.

"It raised some eyebrows," she recalled. "People couldn't understand why I wasn't a figure skater. I wanted to play hockey and my father said 'Don't worry about it.'"

Early in the season, the team's goaltender, a boy, didn't show up for a game. Rowland went into the nets, beginning an endeavor that would take her to the Taft School in Watertown and on to Boston College, one of the country's bastions of hockey.

Why Boston College?

"It's really about the whole Doug Flutie thing and his Hail Mary pass which earned Boston College a Cotton Bowl win in 1984," she said. "Actually, I was looking at the University of New Hampshire. Their coach, however, thought I wasn't good enough. So much for UNH."

She began her collegiate career while the school was still playing club hockey on the women's level. Two years later, the program went varsity.

"I had four great years as a college hockey goalie," she said. "I still get to see some of the players from back then. Recently, one of them was here (at the Milford Ice Pavilion) because her son was playing. We had a nice time reminiscing about those times. It's an honor being an alumnus from such a prestigious hockey school."

Rowland earned her degree in english with a minor in secondary education. Teaching became part of what she wanted to do. She found herself getting into politics and ran for an Alderman's spot in Milford in 2005 and came up short. She also ran for Mayor in 2007. She then found her calling and was hired as the city's Registrar of Voters.

And, of course, she was hired to coach girls hockey at Notre Dame of Fairfield back in 2005.

She began at ND with a team that consisted of 12 players. It soon reached a high of 20, but, when the numbers fell off again, the school decided to go the co-op route.

This year's team has an 8-6 record and is currently fourth among Southern Connecticut Conference Division 2 teams. The top four will make the playoffs.

Her daughter, Emily, is a senior defenseman, and loves having her mom as a coach.

"She's coached me in one way or another since I was five," Emily said. "It's an interesting dynamic. We seem to manage it well. She's my mom as soon as we leave the rink. As soon as we get here, she's my coach."

Rowland has 14 assists this season and loves to fed the puck up-ice and she one of her teammates score a goal.

Rebecca Paine, a junior at Foran, is the goalie.

"I hadn't planned on playing the position originally," Paine said. "But two years ago, when I was a freshman, the team needed someone there. I was a little nervous at first, but I soon found out that it would be okay. Now we're trying to build this team for the future."

Senior Delaney O'Keefe is a senior at Notre Dame who lives in Milford. She, along with Rowland, serve as captain.

"I found hockey to be so much different from the other two sports (soccer and lacrosse) that I play," O'Keefe said. "We have a great support system among the players and a wonderful team chemistry. There's lots of respect on this team for both the players and the coaches."

Law’s Laura Dennigan is one of several players who competes both on the high school and the travel team level. Teams can do that because they don't fall under CIAC jurisdiction. The CIAC has a mandate for it's hockey playing schools. The one roster rules states that players must make a choice between high school hockey and travel teams. They can't play both during the season.

"I grew up at this rink," Dennigan said. "I've always felt a comfortable playing for this team. "I go to Law, but I've made so many friends now with kids that go to Notre Dame. It all happened because of hockey."

Rowland has a strong corps of freshman which includes Lexi Burwell and Leigha Howland from Foran; Desiree Sleath from Law and Meghan Piorek and Marina Cartiglia-Hernandez of ND.

"Playing high school hockey was a big step up for me," said Burwell, whose brother, Jake, plays for the Milford co-op high school team. "The skating is more intense as is the play. It's tougher, but I'm having fun doing it."

"This has been my best hockey experience so far," said Howland. "We've been facing some challenges, but I know that we're going to continue to win more games."

Senior Kelly Kuryla of Foran was a figure skater. One day she tried on her brother's (Tom) skates. Soon thereafter, she made the transition. "They felt great," she said. "I've really gotten into the game. There's such an adrenaline rush to playing."

Rowland's staff includes three assistants — Jenn Schell, a 2008 ND grad and her first goalie; Kristin Dehm and Tony Bonetti.

Kerri Rowland knows that there's still some distance to go. More roadblocks to get through to further the sport for young girls.

"Sometimes, along the way, I'd get a little bent out of shape," she said. "I may have had a chip on my shoulder. But I've always tried to show the girls that they need to stick up for themselves. It allows them to do whatever they want to do."