By ANTHONY LABOR
For any successful hockey program, it’s easy to see who scores the points and who makes the saves.
But there are also players whose production can’t be quantified to the stat sheet, but play just a big a role in the success of a program.
Cue Missisquoi senior Abby Bessette of the Thunderbirds girls hockey team.
The senior defenseman might not be jumping off the scoresheet every night, but what she has meant to the Thunderbirds program in her three-plus years are unmeasurable as the program has seen continued success during her career.
“Abby is extremely hard-working and I’ve seen her in practice and play through injuries and she always gives you everything she has,” said MVU coach Brian Fortin. “She rarely gets beat and if she does, nine out of 10 times she is going to catch up.
“And I think her vision on the ice this year has been her biggest improvement,” he added. “She has worked extremely hard on the offensive side of her game, and even though we tell her she doesn’t have to be putting up points to contribute, she wants to and that drive has made her way more dangerous this season.”
Through three-years plus with the program, Bessette has 21 points with one goal and 20 assists with five assists coming in the first five games this season.
As a shutdown defenseman, she has continued to produce for the Thunderbirds helping the program to a state championship during her sophomore year campaign.
“Playing defense and not getting on the scoresheet was something that used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore,” she said. “At this point, I measure my performance by how well I can shut down girls from the other team, hold the blue line and how positive I can be with my teammates.”
Bessette was part of a three-player rotation on defense during MVU’s championship run during the 2018-19 season along with Renee Bouchard and Haley Stefaniak, as the three were a big reason the team only allowed three goals in four playoff games that season.
“The year we won the championship, defense was a big part of our success,” said former MVU head coach Wynn Paradee, who was head coach during Bessette’s first two years with the program and during the championship season. “Those girls logged a ton of ice time and they just played so solid in the playoffs. That’s when Abby turned into the leader that she is today.”
Aside from the championship season, Bessette has also been part of a team that reached the finals during her freshman year and to the semifinals last year during her junior year.
The team’s record during her three-plus years is 37-36-1, which is impressive considering the difficulty of their schedule over those seasons playing up against a number of Div. I opponents.
Bessette’s ability to shut down opponents top players and keep them off the stat sheet is a big reason for that success.
“I’ve seen her defensive game get better and better every year,” said Fortin. “Her positioning and gap to oncoming forwards is usually perfect and she makes it look easy. Her conditioning and endurance has also been impressive.
“She has probably logged more ice time than any other defenseman in the state over her four years with being one of three defenseman during her sophomore year and doing the same thing last year after some injuries,” he added. “No matter how long her previous shift or how tired she is, she is always ready to go. Her work ethic is unmatched.”
Bessette started playing hockey when she was four-years old growing up through the Missisquoi Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) with a mix of playing on the girls and boys teams.
She played two years at the bantam level with herself and current teammate Madison Conley being the only girls on the team.
“I started hockey after I had gone to watch an MVU varsity girls hockey game in 2008,” she said. “Competitiveness is something that has kept me interested playing with people who take something as seriously as I do. Also the people I have played with has been great throughout my years playing with the sense of family and teamwork you get from playing with each other and being around each other so often.”
As soon as Bessette got to the high school level, Paradee knew he had a solid foundational player in the program which had him excited to see what she was going to accomplish from day one.
“Abby had been playing at the youth level for several years and had the basic skills down pat by the time she got to high school,” he said. “She is strong and knows how to use her body to shield the puck or separate the puck from opposing players and she doesn’t hesitate which so many players do. And another big plus is her personality. She wanted to learn right from the start and felt comfortable with the coaches. Her attitude is top tier.”
Not only has Bessette been a very good player throughout the program, but she has also been a solid leader for them as well.
Fortin named Bessette as a captain last year during her junior year along with Brianna Parent.
“Having such a young team last year and needing to pick new captains after our previous two graduated, we picked Breezy Parent because she leads by example, always works hard and can put the team on her back offensively,” said Fortin. “But also being a young team, we needed a vocal captain and that’s where Abby comes in. She calls herself the ‘Team Mom’ and she is easily approachable for the younger teammates to talk to and feel comfortable around, which has been a huge asset for me as a coach for the younger players to have her to look up to.”
It was a role that Bessette has embraced over the past two years going from one of the younger players to becoming one of the key leaders of the team.
“It was nice to move into that leadership role my junior and senior year because I had watched the older girls be captains my freshman and sophomore years and one that stuck out to me was Callie Parks,” said Bessette. “She knew what it meant to be a leader, so it was nice to have girls to look up to and know what a leader looked like. Being in that role the last two years, I just wanted to make sure that everyone was comfortable, especially with the transition to having eighth-graders on the team and make sure everyone had fun and enjoyed being at practice and the games.”
This year, Bessette’s role as a captain on the team has been important not only for the team this season as it has gone through all the uncertainties of the season due to the pandemic, but she has also been leading for the future of the program as well.
She has been on a defensive pairing with freshman Lindsey Gagne for the past two seasons, and her leadership has been something that has stuck out to her defensive partner.
“As a freshman, having Abby there for me to look up to has been extremely motivating,” said Gagne. “She sets such a good example on and off the ice whether it’s pushing me to improve myself during game and practice or trying to make me a better person. Abby is more like an older sister to me than a defense partner and she has taught me so much.”
The Thunderbirds record might have some people looking past them, but they could surprise some people going forward into the postseason.
Sitting at 1-5 heading into their final regular season game against North Country/Lyndon on Wednesday, the team is in a similar situation to what they were during their championship season. They have played extremely tough opponents and depending how the Tier System for the girls hockey playoffs play out could end up going against four teams that will play in the Division I playoffs and that’s not even counting the game that was canceled against perennial Div. I powerhouse BFA-St. Albans.
It’s a similar situation to what the team faced during its championship run when it finished the regular season 6-14, but ended the season raising a championship.
“With the shortened season and playing some Div. I teams, we have just been trying to convey that we have to stay positive and stay in the game,” said Bessette. “Even though our record doesn’t look the greatest, it doesn’t always reflect how we play on the ice.”
After graduating this year, Bessette is planning to attend the University of Vermont to major in exercise science to get into the field of either physical therapy or athletic training and is planning on trying out for the club hockey team in attendance.
Bessette said the support she has received from her family and teammates over the years is something that has kept her motivated throughout her life both on and off the ice.
“This being my senior season and very possibly my last year playing, I just want to say thank you to my mom and dad for everything they have done for me with the long drives, late nights and early mornings,” she said. “And also a huge thank you to my teammates for the last four years. It wouldn’t be the same without any of them.”
And from the way teammates and coaches talk about Bessette, the feeling is mutual.
“Abby makes our team feel more like a family than a high school hockey team,” said Gagne. “She takes those extra steps and creates those personal connections. She is an amazing teammate and I am so lucky to have been her partner for the past two years. She has been amazing to work with and look up to. I know she is going to have a rewarding future. She definitely deserves it.”
Fortin shared the same sentiments.
“Being involved in MAHA and MVU hockey, I have gotten to know Abby and her family really well, and coaching her for the last four years has been a joy,” he said. “Her hard work and bubbly personality will carry her far after high school and I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes. She’s the kind of player one and off the ice that coaches dream of having.”