February 5, 2014

Pearl River's Josephine Pucci chases gold at Sochi Games

By Phil Shore

Former Ramapo Saints player Josephine Pucci toiled at Harvard before concussions derailed her career, but she fought back to earn a coveted spot on Team USA. (Photo by Mike Gridley/New York Hockey Journal)

The first time Josephine Pucci wore a USA hockey jersey was in the Under-22 Series in August 2010.

At that festival, she received another piece of USA apparel — a T-shirt that said “Road to Sochi” on it, referring to the 2014 Winter Olympics.

It would seem so far away and there would be a long, challenging road to make the Olympic roster, but the 2014 Winter Olympics have arrived and Pucci (Pearl River, N.Y.) has earned a spot on the 21-player U.S. team. She is the lone player from New York or New Jersey on the roster.

“It was just so surreal. I don’t know if it still has hit me yet,” Pucci said of her selection that was announced at the NHL’s Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. “Just everything coming to fruition is an incredible feeling. There’s so many things along the way you think of, and people that helped you, and times throughout the past year when there were some bumps in the road. There’s just a lot of people that helped me.”

The journey to Olympic hockey player has been one full of obstacles for Pucci, beginning when she started playing the sport in Pearl River. Despite her interest in hockey, not many other people shared that passion with her.

“I played boys hockey, and I’m so thankful my parents signed me up. I played for the Ramapo Saints,” she said. “For girls hockey, when I was playing there weren’t many girls playing at all, and in Pearl River there were maybe six girls playing hockey — and three of them were myself and my two sisters.”

Pucci went to St. Margaret School in Pearl River and played for the Saints growing up, then went to high school at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. She was the team’s MVP her junior and senior seasons and led her team to the 2008 Founders League championship.

After Choate, Pucci went to Harvard to continue her hockey career. The defender put up 59 points in her first three seasons with the Crimson and earned All-Ivy League first-team and All-ECAC Hockey second-team honors as a sophomore.

On the eve of her senior year, however, in August 2012, Pucci suffered a concussion while playing for the national team. She took time off from Harvard to recover properly.

“It was incredibly difficult just to watch her get back from camp, and she was trying to make it work and feel good enough by the time the season started, but the writing was on the wall,” said interim Harvard head coach Maura Crowell, a former assistant who is running the team this year with Katey Stone overseeing Team USA. “Losing a player like her is devastating to the team, in what would be her senior year. (It) was heartbreaking, but the help she got, the resources and her dedication to getting better, it was pretty inspiring.”

Although she ended up withdrawing from Harvard after the latest concussion, Pucci was invited to the Olympic tryouts, which began last June in Lake Placid, N.Y. After a series of games and practices over the next couple months, Pucci said she didn’t know where she stood.

“I just did the best I could and was hoping it would pay off,” she said. “I’m not a returning Olympian and by no means was I a lock for the team. I was coming off the injury last year and didn’t have much game experience, but I had a lot to build off of. I just tried to learn as much as I could and did the best I could and, fortunately, it paid off.”

Crowell said Pucci is a natural fit for the roster. “I had a chance to see them practice and play quite a bit,” she said. “It’s definitely a fast team and Pucci is one of the fastest out there. She’s in phenomenal shape and always has been. If she gets in a jam in open ice, she’s quick enough to cover up. She’s an offensive defenseman. She knows when to jump and knows when to stay back. She’s pretty dynamic, and she’s not afraid to get physical.”

The fact that the USA head coach — Stone, the winningest coach in women’s college hockey history — was her coach at Harvard should help Pucci in Russia. Pucci said she is excited to be going to the Olympics with a familiar face.

“My freshman year at Harvard, she really introduced a lot to me. I developed a lot as a player my first year, and she’s continued to help me throughout the past few years,” Pucci said. “Now she has even higher expectations for her players. She never lets you be content. She’s always expecting more. She believes in you, brings out the best in you and continues to challenge you.”

There was a moment of relief, knowing that all her hard work to get back on the ice and on the Olympic roster paid off, but Pucci admitted it was only a brief one. She enjoyed the holidays at home with her family but said it was right back to work after that.

Her goal of making the team was accomplished, but now her attention is on winning gold at the Olympics. To do that, the U.S. needs to be able to knock off Canada, winner of the previous three Olympic gold medals.

“We ended up beating Canada four times in a row recently. It shows us how if we really push the pace and continue to work hard and execute the plan, that’s how we’re going to get it done,” Pucci said. “Throughout the last few years, the whole focus has been the road to Sochi and winning the gold in Sochi. It really is incredible to finally be here.”

Pucci is excited for the opportunity. Playing in the Olympics means another season away from Harvard, but those with the Crimson hockey program are happy to see her succeed.

“We’re happy for her and very proud of her. She turned one of the worst experiences into something amazing,” Crowell said. “She’s a very humble and modest kid. She’s awesome. She’s an easy person to cheer for.”