BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) It was a circuitous route that brought Sophie Leclerc back to Gutterson Fieldhouse over Thanksgiving weekend.
"As soon as our coach here said we were playing UVM, I circled the date on the calendar," said Leclerc, now an assistant women's hockey coach at Colgate University.
The Barre native was a star at Spaulding high school, as she lead the Tide to its only girls hockey state title back in 2002 and claimed the 2005 "Miss Hockey" award from the Burlington Free Press. Leclerc then joined the only D-I college hockey program in the state.
"Kinda the dream spot for sure, close to home," she said. "Watching the teams here compete from such a young age, it was really kind of a dream come true."
But a career at UVM was not to be. Leclerc sat her freshman year with an ACL injury, and after tearing the ligament again, her time as a Catamount was over.
"It was my fourth knee surgery, second ACL surgery. It was one of those things where it was definitely unexpected. Long rehab, led to me kind of second guessing playing hockey, thought about quitting, actually wasn't quite sure, and then Norwich...that's when that kind of came into the picture."
At the time, the Norwich women's hockey program was transitioning from the club level to Division III. Getting a D1 caliber recruit was a major coup for Cadets head coach Mark Bolding.
"As lucky as you can be. It's like having a #1 draft pick for a new program and here she was, a high end player," said Bolding. "But not just that, a high end athlete and leader and so we instantaneously had a leader who eventually became our long term captain, and the rest is history."
With her eligibility in tact, Leclerc starred for the Cadets for four years, and in 2011, she captained the team to its first national title
"I think the fact that it did start from absolutely nothing and then to have it four years later, the group who started end out in the top, it was just such an incredible way to end such a unique career," said Leclerc. "Not at all what I would have ever thought, but it's something I'm extremely grateful for."
With her playing career finished, Leclerc couldn't say goodbye to the game that had given her so much. She served as head coach at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire for a year before returning to Norwich as the top assistant
"She's such a competitive young lady and always, it doesn't matter what the sport is or what the activity. She wants to be successful and have fun and smile and joke, and I think coaching is a very natural fit for her," said Bolding.
"(I) spent two years coaching there under Mark Bolding again, which was really interesting to see it from the other side of the fence. And then after spending two years there, I ended up here at Colgate," Leclerc said.
And that's what brought Sophie Leclerc back to The Gut. Her team didn't win the Windjammer Classic, but in her tenure, Colgate has gone from an afterthought to one of the best teams in the country, ranked 4th in this week's USCHO poll. It's not hard to see the parallel between those Raiders and Leclerc's Cadets.
"It was a very similar path this program has taken, starting a bit on the lower end of women's hockey and then all of a sudden now, it's just absolutely taken off," she said. "And to see that kind of success in a short period of time, it really resembles my experience as a player and it kind of makes it really familiar as a coach too, to be able to kind of navigate through that."
Only time will tell if it ends the same way.