ST ALBANS/BOSTON, Mass. — Ellen Sargent brought smiles to Franklin County faces this spring when she took photos of local families on their front porches during the COVID-19 shutdown.
It’s not the first time Sargent has made the community smile. During her high school hockey career, Sargent was a driving force on the fledgling Comet hockey team.
This winter, the Comets celebrated their 20th anniversary, and Sargent and many other Comet players returned to celebrate.
“It was awesome. We told stories, laughed, and looked over old newspaper articles; it was amazing to see it all.
“I was part of the original team; it was good to see some of the girls who graduated the program ahead of me--Meredith Johnson, Kristine Dodd, Ashley Stebbins, and Jen Bergeron,” said Sargent.
“We joked that we’d have been fine to hang out in the locker room. It was good to get that core group together.”
Sargent almost missed her time as a Comet; she loved the sport and considered attending the Stowe Academy, the North American Hockey Academy, or a boarding school to prepare for college hockey.
Sargent’s sophomore year was the inaugural season of the BFA girls’ hockey program; she opted to stay and see what would come of the Comets.
“I wanted to be part of creating something for the girls in the area, and I quickly realized that Mr. Cioffi (Luke) and Mr. Rouleau (Jeff) cared about us as players and people,” said Sargent.
After graduation, Sargent played four years of hockey at Middlebury College.
“I had a rough time during my freshman year of college, and Luke and Jeff reached out and made sure I was okay,” said Sargent.
“The Comets had a game in Middlebury that year, and Luke and Jeff brought the whole team to watch my game. That was a really special moment.”
During her years at Middlebury, Sargent competed in and won NCAA championships with her college teammates.
“We lost the NCAA championship my senior year, and that was tough for me. Mr. Cioffi and Mr. Rouleau emailed me, and their words put things in perspective,” said Sargent.
“They reminded me that the rough times that aren’t celebrated are the times you remember. That’s part of the Comet hockey tradition--you have the successes and the hardships.”
Sargent’s success began in St. Albans, and she’s carried the lessons learned with her Comet family into the rest of her life.
During her junior year at BFA, she played with two young ladies who left a lasting impression on her.
“That was a season that transformed our perspective; it was about more than hockey. Emmy Handy and Kristine Dodd had heart issues, Christi Corrigan had cystic fibrosis,” recalled Sargent.
“We kept it light, but I always knew our coaches would never put us in harm’s way.
“I had asthma, and I remember that Mr. Rouleau used to carry a brown paper bag to the rinks to make sure I could breathe into it! We still joke about that today.”
Sargent recalled the love and support the coaches poured into the team on and off the ice.
“They helped us hit challenges head-on. Kristine missed the semi-final game because she was sick,” said Sargent.
“She came back for the championship game and scored the game-winning goal. I’ve been on very successful teams, but that is a game I will never forget.
“Kristine was amazing. At the start of her senior year, she was told she couldn’t play hockey, but she did, and it ended with that goal; it was like a Disney movie.”
Cioffi and Rouleau, Sargent noted, had spent quite a few years coaching boys’ teams before taking the girls’ team.
“They had to make the transition from coaching boys to coaching girls. We joke about how they had to change that mentality,” said Sargent.
One of those ‘transitional’ moments came after the Comets played rival Hartford at Hartford.
“We were playing terribly; in between periods, Mr. Cioffi and Mr. Rouleau came in and gave us a reality check,” said Sargent, chuckling.
“They took our jerseys, told us we weren’t living up to the name on the front, and walked out to leave us there in our undershirts and shoulder pads. They got out of the locker room and realized what they’d done and thought they’d get fired.”
After the moment of contemplation, the coaches returned the jerseys, and the Comets took the ice.
“That it lit a fire under us, and we won the game.”
Sargent also recalled the infamous Skittles incident. The girls were caught snacking on candy during a game against Middlebury.
“The next practice we spent an hour and a half on the ice skating back and forth and eating one Skittle at a time out of paper cups as a disciplinary action! We still don’t eat them,” said Sargent, laughing.
“Mr. Rouleau and Mr. Cioffi never cared how good the team was; they wanted us to learn what we needed to learn to be good people.”
While the coaches learned how to better communicate with their female players, they kept a high bar and expected the Comets to be hard working and competitive.
Sargent was selected as a Vermont Senior All-Star and also made the Make A Wish team.
“One of the coaches from another high school team led the practice, and we weren’t being pushed at all,” said Sargent.
“I remember going back to Mr. Cioffi and telling him how grateful I was for the competition level at our Comet practices; that helped us be so successful.”
During those early years in the Comet hockey program, there were sometimes holes that needed to be filled.
“We didn’t have a goalie, so they took a soccer goalie, Ashley Stebbins, transformed her into a hockey goalie, and she won a state championship,” said Sargent.
“There is so much effort and intention in the Comet hockey family.”
That effort and intention are still at work today, twenty years after Cioffi and Rouleau laid the Comet family’s foundation.
“There wasn’t any real road map; all this just happened organically. This network of alumni--the intention was there to keep people in touch.
“The coaches fostered that environment and made it possible to have that connection with them. They know they have made something special,” said Sargent.
“They care about keeping people updated, whether through the Facebook page or through emails.”
Sargent graduated from Middlebury and began teaching. She also began coaching hockey teams.
“I’ve used a lot of what I learned from them. I coached girls’ and boys’ hockey. It was the flip side of what they did,” said Sargent.
Three years ago, Sargent began her own photography business; last year, she left her teaching career and went full-time with photography.
COVID-19 restrictions have wreaked havoc on weddings and large gatherings.
“I remember the ‘figure it out, and take it one day at a time’ motto. It’s all about controlling what you can control, and right now, there’s a lot of things that are out of our control,” said Sargent.
“There are thoughts and concepts that Luke and Jeff taught me that come back to me all the time.”
Sargent speaks for herself, but her voice echoes that of so many.
“I want to say thank you to Coach Cioffi and Coach Rouleau for what they’ve done on a small and large scale, truly investing in every player they’ve had the opportunity to coach,” said Sargent.
“I think they are somewhat aware of the impact they’ve had on us, but I don’t know if they will ever be able to absorb and understand what they’ve truly taught each of us.
“They instilled confidence in us, and they were always realistic. We knew we’d have to work hard to reach our goals.
“All eight years of my hockey career (college and high school), were built on the truth that I’d have to work to be good. Putting on the jersey isn’t going to get you across the finish line. You had to work for all you had.”