Hockey glory isn’t expected in the Cavanagh family. Other pursuits are perfectly fine, too. But if hockey’s the choice for a Cavanagh, then the skates are laced up with a lot of history.
The Cavanaghs could well be called the first family of Rhode Island hockey. Joe Cavanagh was perhaps the state’s greatest high-school hockey player and is a member of the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. The late Tom Cavanagh played in the NHL. Dave and John led Toll Gate on one of the most memorable storybook rides in Rhode Island sports history.
The list goes on, but every entry tells the same story. There’s a path to follow for a hockey Cavanagh, and there’s a tremendous level of success to aspire to.
Susie Cavanagh always planned to add her name to the list. In 2004, she watched her cousins, Dave and John, help Toll Gate end Mount St. Charles’s streak of 26 consecutive state championships. She was playing Warwick Junior Hockey at the time, and she could imagine, someday, finding her own hockey glory.
“Hockey’s just always been there,” she said. “There was no pressure or anything. Seeing my cousins beat Mount – that was just one more thing that really made me want to play.”
When Cavanagh got to high school at Pilgrim, she joined the girls’ hockey co-op team and promptly led the squad with nine goals and seven assists. She was a freshman, poised to become a star. It was easy to envision her someday turning into the best player in the state, another Cavanagh with her name in lights.
Glory was within sight.
And then Susie Cavanagh took a detour.
She’s a senior now and is the second-line center for the Pilgrim boys’ hockey team. She has scored six goals in her career, and if opposing teams pay special attention to her, it’s more about the ponytail sticking out of her helmet than her skills.
There isn’t much glory.
But Cavanagh doesn’t mind a bit. She’s long wanted to play hockey in college and knew she needed to improve. She felt that playing for the boys would help in that effort.
“She put personal achievements aside in order to make herself a better player,” said Pilgrim head coach Dave Tober. “It’s nothing glorious. She’s my second line center. She probably would have been a three-year All-Stater, scoring champ every year, all kinds of accolades – probably her name in the paper every week. She put that aside to come play Division II boys’ hockey.”
And she wouldn’t change a thing.
In her third year with the Pilgrim boys, Cavanagh isn’t a star, but she’s become a key player. She has four goals and four assists this season, she’s the most experienced player on the second line and she plays on both the power play and penalty kill units. She’s helped lead the Pats to a 9-2-1 record.
Glory or not, it’s been just what she hoped for.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s good hockey – fast and challenging.”
Cavanagh played with boys in Warwick Junior Hockey and had considered doing it in high school. As a freshman, though, she didn’t think she could, so she played for the girls’ team.
The next fall, she learned she could try out like everybody else for the boys’ team. She took the plunge.
“They’re all great girls and the coaches were great, but just the whole level in Rhode Island is lower than I wanted to play,” Cavanagh said. “I wanted to challenge myself and I wanted to get better. It was a little nerve-wracking but I had nothing to lose. I just said, ‘I’ll go as hard as I can and see what happens.’”
At the time, Pilgrim had big numbers, but Cavanagh did well enough in the tryouts to make an impression. She earned herself a spot.
“It wasn’t a gift,” Tober said. “She put herself in a category of being a third or fourth liner, which was good enough to keep her. I had a conversation with her dad. They felt this would help set her up beyond high school, and it was a challenge for her. She wanted to take that challenge.”
It wasn’t easy. Cavanagh saw some minutes as a sophomore but she wasn’t used to the speed of the game. It was going to take a while.
“She wasn’t afraid but she was borderline timid,” Tober said “The speed of the game was different. I’d say it took her until halfway through last year.”
That’s when something clicked.
“All of a sudden, not only did she belong, she was a contributor,” Tober said. “Whether something clicked and she realized she could do this or whatever it was, something happened. January of last year, she just hit her stride.”
Cavanagh has carried that momentum into this season. She sees as many minutes as anyone on the team, and she’ll be a key part of whatever success the Pats achieve the rest of the way.
Tober is glad to have her.
“I’ve had a lot of fun coaching her,” he said. “She’s been outstanding. She’s suffered shoulder injuries, she’s taken shots in the ribs, and she has never said a word. I ask her if she’s okay, she nods her head and goes out there. She’s someone other guys on the team can watch play and become inspired by, just because of how hard she plays the game.”
And just as she hoped, that hard work has led to improvement. Cavanagh is looking into playing girls’ hockey in the prep-school ranks next year, and she feels fully prepared for it. After that, she’ll shoot for her goal of playing in college.
Cavanagh was a first-team All-State field hockey selection in the fall, and she’ll likely be an All-State golfer in the spring. She won’t be an All-State hockey player, but she doesn’t mind.
She wouldn’t trade her improvement for anything.
“I think I’ve done a 180,” Cavanagh said. “Just the speed and things like skating with your head up – everything has changed. It’s helped a lot.”
For now, Cavanagh hopes her improvement can help the Pats bring home a championship. With three weeks left in the regular season, they’re sitting in second place in Division II-North and they’re gearing up to make a run.
If it ends with a title, Tober said Cavanagh’s presence would be one of his favorite storylines. But whatever happens, glory or not, Cavanagh has already made her presence felt.
She’s taken her own path – and she’s added her own chapter in a hockey family’s history.
“She plays the game as hard, if not harder, than every boy in that locker room and every boy in the league,” Tober said. “She plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”