December 22, 2009

Paton a small wonder at UNH

Kelly Paton (photo: Mike Silverwood)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Ever since she picked up the game, Kelly Paton, the University of New Hampshire’s diminutive point machine, has been looking up at other players.

“All the girls I would compete against, for the most part, had five or six inches on me,” said the 5-foot-1 senior.

Not in hockey. In golf.

Paton, an Ontario native, led all Division 1 players in scoring as November ended, and a big reason No. 4 UNH was off to a 10-1-4 start. But hockey is not the only thing she does well.

A former champion junior golfer who was a 4 handicap at one point, Paton was good enough on the links to finish 9th out of 95 golfers at the 2004 Canadian Junior Golf Championship, shooting all three rounds in the 70s.

“I used to golf every day in the summer,” she said. “I loved it. There was a point where I had to choose between hockey and golf. What it came down to is that hockey is more of a team sport. I get to be around people. Maybe my abilities can make other people better. And golf can be frustrating at times.”

Paton plays golf the way she plays hockey. Not a big hitter, she keeps her shots on target and scores well. Since arriving at UNH, she hasn’t found as much time to indulge her warm-weather passion, or as many takers.

“She asked me one time,” said defenseman Courtney Birchard. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to get beat that bad.’”

Despite her small stature, Paton was firmly on the Division 1 radar as a junior and senior at the public Huron Park Secondary School in Woodstock, Ont., located roughly midway between Hamilton and London. She narrowed her choices down to Wisconsin and UNH, but visited Durham first and felt it would be a perfect fit.

Of course, the Wildcats have a proud track record of pint-sized stars. It doesn’t hurt that the Olympic-sized ice at the Whittemore Center gives a small, speedy player like Paton more room to operate.

“I think I have the ability to relate to undersized athletes,” said UNH coach Brian McCloskey, who spent most of the 1990s assisting Dick Umile (Melrose, Mass.) with the men’s team. “We’ve had a fair bit of success with Steve Saviano (Reading, Mass.) and Darren Haydar. Krogger (former Hobey Baker Award winner Jason Krog) wasn’t huge.

“We’ve had a lot of diminutive players that have been elite. And what’s set a lot of these players apart has been their hockey IQ.”

Paton has been both productive – her 54 career goals and 85 assists rank her 21st all-time at UNH – and consistent. When she was held off the scoresheet in a 1-1 tie at Harvard last month, it was the first time in 22 games she’d failed to notch at least one point. She’s not big, but she is strong on her skates.

“The biggest knock on smaller players is their durability or strength,” said McCloskey. “Kelly’s a smaller player who’s very dynamic and strong.”

“I’ve always thought my best attribute is my playmaking,” said Paton. “And to be a playmaker you don’t have to be six feet tall.”

UNH’s 10-1-4 start – and early rise to the top in Women’s Hockey East – has been a pleasant surprise for a team littered with a dozen freshmen and sophomores, and one that lost its best offensive player — Jenn Wakefield — to the Canadian national team.

Paton’s 11 goals and 17 assists as November closed put her all alone atop Division 1 with 28 points, two more than a trio of other players.

As the team’s only captain, Paton is more a guide-by-example leader than an emotional one. She roomed last year with captain Kacey Bellamy (Westfield, Mass.), who’ll be one of Team USA’s top defensemen at the 2010 Olympics, and has captained in a similar style.

“Her leadership shines through with the way she practices, battles hard and works out,” said Birchard.

Paton also had a chance to represent her country on the ice. She and Birchard both were invited to Canada’s Under-22 national camp over the summer.

Birchard went and made the Under-22 team, joining Jenelle Kohanchuk and Tara Watchorn of Boston University, and goalie Christina Kessler of Harvard. But Paton bypassed the invite, mainly because the Under-22 championships – the 2010 MLP Cup in Germany -- would rob her of a chance to skate at Fenway Park. UNH was tabbed to play Northeastern as part of a women’s and men’s outdoor Hockey East doubleheader there on Jan. 8.

“It’s probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make in hockey to this point,” she said. “I want to play at Fenway, is what it comes down to. If I did make that (Under-22) team, we’d be missing the Fenway game. … No women’s college hockey player has ever got to experience it. I definitely think it’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.

“Some people probably think I’m crazy for not choosing a chance to be on a national team, but I evaluated where I was: I’m going into my fourth year of hockey. I’m more than likely going to be done after this year. I just thought this would be a good way to cap off my senior year, by playing in this game.”

So far, Paton’s senior year has been every bit as productive as her past ones, and UNH is winning games like it always has.

Guess you could say it’s par for the course.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com.