Feb. 21, 2008
NEW HAVEN, Conn. - It was the spring of 2004, and defenseman Ann-Renée Guillemette had just seen her team's bid to make the finals at the Ontario Women's Hockey Association provincials derailed by a shutout at the hands of the Aurora Panthers. As Guillemette recalled, "that long-haired goalie" for Aurora had cost her a shot at the finals. And then Guillemette's mother, Carmen, provided a twist to the story: that long-haired goalie was coming to Yale, and she and Guillemette were about to become teammates.
Thus the two members of the Yale women's hockey Class of 2008 received their informal introduction. Now, four years later, Guillemette and Shivon Zilis enter the final stage of their careers as close friends and key parts of the turnaround that Yale has accomplished during their careers.
"We hit it off pretty well," Guillemette recalled. "Our class was really small. Shivon and I bonded."
The two had much in common, starting with the fact that they came from Ontario (Zilis is from Markham, Guillemette is from North Bay).
"It's been really rewarding to have Ann here in the sense that we have the same basic heritage," Zilis said. "We're both from Ontario and have grown up with an extreme love for hockey. Things change so drastically when you come to the States and come to college. It's been very grounding ... I always have Ann to remind me of my heritage."
The two knew what they were signing up for. The Bulldogs had struggled on the ice in previous seasons, losing 20 games seven times between 1994-95 and 2002-03.
"The greatest challenge is to turn a team that is below.500 into a winning team," Zilis said. "I was really excited to come to Yale at a time when the program seemed to hit a turning point."
Yale had a relatively new coach -- Hilary Witt took over in 2002-03. The year before Guillemette and Zilis arrived the Bulldogs brought in a large group -- eight people -- as the Class of 2007. Guillemette, Zilis and defenseman Helen Resor represented a relatively small addition in 2004-05 (the Class of 2008 became even smaller when Resor took the 2005-06 season to play in the Olympics; she returned as a member of the Class of 2009).
That 2004-05 season wound up being one of the best in school history, as the Bulldogs established the school record for wins with 16. Guillemette took the ice for the first time in the season opener at Quinnipiac.
"I remember being really nervous, but after warmups I felt comfortable," Guillemette recalled. "I was really excited to start playing ... It was such an adrenaline rush, and I remember being so thankful I was there."
The Bulldogs won that game 4-2, but the turnaround's most dramatic step came four games later. Yale's 3-2 win over Harvard at Ingalls Rink ended a 20-year losing streak against the powerful Crimson.
Guillemette is actually the last player left on the Yale roster to have played in that historic game -- Zilis was a backup to record-setting Sarah Love '06 that year, and Resor was out with an injury.
"That was one of the games I'll never forget," Guillemette said. "It was incredible to do it in our own rink. We were just so happy."
More milestones came, including Yale's first trip to the ECAC semifinals. In addition to snapping the streak against Harvard the Bulldogs also ended double-digit losing skids against Brown, Dartmouth and Northeastern in subsequent years.
While Zilis spent most of her first two seasons as Love's backup, Guillemette saw regular action on the blue line. She contributed a goal and an assist in a 5-5 tie with Princeton her sophomore season, her first collegiate goal.
The pair's junior season saw Zilis take over as Yale's starting goalie, and she posted the fifth-best save percentage (.908) and goals-against average (2.69) in school history. Guillemette appeared in 21 games and had one goal and one assist.
After the season Guillemette was elected captain by her teammates. She had the daunting challenge of taking over after Kristin Savard '07, widely regarded as one of the best leaders Yale has had.
"I talked to Savard and she made me really comfortable with it," Guillemette said. "To follow somebody like Savard, who had accomplished all these things the year before, was intimidating. But I had such a great team behind me I wasn't really nervous. Every class, especially our junior class, has great people and they help me lead."
In turn, Guillemette has made her impact on the team.
"I've really seen Ann come out of her shell," said Zilis. "I think she's a great captain because she has an incredible strength of character and is not going to be easily swayed. She's always going to stay grounded and do what she thinks is best."
As coach, Witt appreciates the way Guillemette has taken on the added responsibility.
"Ann-Renée has worked hard for four years," Witt said. "She's taken the honor of being named captain and come in with a great attitude. It's different when you only have two people in your class. The junior class has done a nice job of stepping up and helping out. To Ann-Renée's credit she has accepted that help, because sometimes that's tough for a captain to do."
For her part, Zilis has been the consummate teammate in handling this year's goalie situation. With talented freshman Jackee Snikeris on board, Witt has had to exercise the wisdom of Solomon and divide the goalie playing time equally. Each goalie has been getting one start per weekend.
Instead of lamenting having her playing time cut in half by a newcomer, Zilis embraced her role.
"I've known forever that Shivon would be okay with having another goalie who was very good," Witt said. "It's helped push her in practice, and it's taken a little bit off Shivon's shoulders, knowing there's someone else there that can start. Shivon's been a great teammate and she's been a great mentor."
As a result, both Zilis and Snikeris have prospered and are in the top 15 nationally in save percentage. Just as importantly, Zilis leaves Yale knowing that part of her legacy will be the way that Snikeris performs in the coming years.
"Hopefully I've given a little bit of the experience [that I've had] to Snik," Zilis said. "This 50/50 situation has been great. We really hope that we're both going to play well ... I'm sad that I have to leave now that we have this phenomenal situation."
"Playing with Shivvy has been awesome in every way possible, on and off the ice," said Snikeris. "She really helped me ease into college hockey, and I think splitting time, or as we call it `Friday, Saturday', has helped both of us stay prepared in practice and not get too tired. I admire her love for the game, and her high spirits and humor brings out the best in anyone she plays with."
Humor is definitely one of Zilis' defining traits, one she often showcases in the preseason survey forms the team fills out for the media guide and website.
Her pregame routine?
"Buying a Porsche or Alfa Romeo ... it tends to give me good luck in the net."
Her most prized possession?
"Justin Timberlake's toenail clippings. They were $697 on eBay ... what a steal."
All jokes aside, Zilis has been a major contributor on the ice. From her humble beginnings as a backup to the legendary Love, Zilis has emerged as an impact player who has delivered some of her best performances against Yale's toughest competition. She made 50 saves last season against Mercyhurst when the Lakers were the No. 1 team in the country. She stopped 48 of 51 shots over the course of two games in the 2007 Nutmeg Classic to help Yale win the tournament title, earning the Laurie Belliveau Award as top goaltender in the process. She has reached the 40-save plateau three times this season, including in a crucial 5-3 road win at Princeton.
Zilis does it all with a unique style that often sees her making saves that seemingly no-one else can. One particular stop late last season at Harvard against Canadian Olympian Sarah Vaillancourt had some veteran hockey observers at the Bright Center searching their memory banks for a more impressive save ... and coming up empty.
"It was the most acrobatic goalie save I've seen in my life," said Witt. "It was unbelievable. She had to come over from the other side of the net, flip over backwards, then use her leg ... I can't even describe it, really."
Snikeris has had an up-close view of Zilis' skills for nearly a year now.
"Shivvy impresses me in so many ways," Snikeris said. "She is incredibly quick for one. She reacts super fast and reads the shot extremely well. Whether it's in practice or in games, she always battles for the puck and makes some pretty sick saves."
That has helped Zilis earn a place in the Yale record book. She enters the final weekend of the regular season with a 2.66 career goals-against average, .02 better than Love's school record. Her .911 career save percentage has her tied for second with All-American Laurie Belliveau '98 in that category, four percentage points behind Love's school record. Still, she remains humble in assessing her place in Yale's pantheon of great goaltenders.
"I don't think I'm in that category, but if I am it's an absolute honor," said Zilis. "You always hear about Laurie as this heroic figure. To even come close to being in the same group as her and Sarah Love is almost unthinkable."
And in the end, Zilis does not use individual stats as her measuring stick.
"To be honest, I just want to see the Bulldogs win," Zilis said. "That's what my main focus is."
Zilis is also quick to credit associate head coach Harry Rosenholtz, who works with the goalies, as one of her greatest influences.
"Harry was the first person I met when I was considering Yale," Zilis said. "The emotion that he had for the team made me realize that it was something really special and something that was really unique. From the moment we had our first conversation I wanted to put everything towards making this a better program because I saw how important it was to him."
Witt has also been a key figure.
"We respect Hilary a ton," Zilis said. "She's helped us realize we have to invest more, take the game seriously. This year as we've grown and learned to take the game very seriously ... [she'll tell us] `You've got to go out there and have fun. Remember that you love the game.'"
Guillemette also acknowledges the role her teammates have had in making the Yale experience special.
"The girls on the team have been a great influence on me," said Guillemette. "To have a group of girls who are as passionate about something as you are is unbelievable."
Both seniors are on track to receive ECAC Hockey All-Academic honors this season. After graduation, Guillemette will take her economics degree to Toronto with her career plans still to be determined. Zilis, an economics/philosophy major, will be in New York City doing strategy consulting for IBM. She jokes that she'll still play hockey "if I can find an apartment big enough to house my equipment."
With time running out on their Yale hockey careers, the pair can look back with a unique perspective on the many accomplishments they have been a part of in the last four years.
"Now that we're seniors it seems that our team has gone through a lot of developments," Guillemette said. "To see the team grow as a whole has been very rewarding."
story by Sam Rubin '95 (email@example.com), Yale Sports Publicity