Of all the memories 18-year-old Mallory Rushton will pack up and bring home when she graduates from an American prep school this spring, the rink at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire will be a special one.
Not just because it’s the rink where she’s spent much of the last four years honing her hockey skills but also because the unique space is a reminder of how those skills developed: on her neighbours’ frozen pond next to her home in Brookdale, outside Amherst.
“It’s an indoor rink but the ends are off it,” Mallory explains about her school’s arena. “When I’m shooting on net, I can see the woods and the snow.”
But as you read this, Mallory isn’t thinking about graduation or the rink or how the homework is piling up as she misses a week of school. As a senior member of Team Nova Scotia, she’s at the Canada Games in Prince George, British Columbia.
She was 13 years old when she first made Team Nova Scotia.
“And I’ve made it every year since then,” Mallory explains. “The Canada Games happen every four years and my first year playing was a Canada Games year when it was hosted in Halifax in 2011. I was too young to play then so I’m the oldest on the team this year.”
Canada is the only country in the world that offers this calibre of competition for the 18-and-under age group. Mallory’s entire hockey experience to date – her natural ability on skates, her play with the boys’ teams, her decision to attend boarding school – have prepared her well for this one-in-a-lifetime event.
“My maturity definitely improved by going away to school,” she says. “I’m on the ice every day at school. I practice every day and we have games three or four times a week. At our school, it’s our rink; we don’t rent it out so I can go up and shoot around whenever I want. I think that’s when you get better, when you don’t have anyone watching you and there is no pressure on you. That’s where I’ve improved the most, playing around with my friends or pick-up hockey just for fun.”
This is a young woman who wanted to play hockey before she could skate. After watching her older brother at the rink, she told her parents she wanted to play and her father taught her to skate. She was four years old.
“She learned to skate just like that,” Mallory’s mother, Paula Rogers, says with a snap of her fingers. “She instantly had the knack.”
Mallory credits that natural talent for allowing her to not merely hold her own but to excel in the boys’ leagues in which she played.
“As I got older and more competitive, there were fewer girls playing and usually I was the only girl on the team,” Mallory remembers of her early years playing hockey in Amherst. “It was tough being alone in my own dressing room but it was also helpful because it helped me get focused for the game. I would go in the team dressing room before the game and I always felt like the boys treated me like a boy. I have an older brother so I knew what it was like to be around boys. I fit in fine.”
With two children playing hockey, it often was Mallory and her mother going to practices and games together. That forged a strong bond between mother and daughter. Paula is very proud of her daughter’s accomplishments.
“One of the seasons when she played with boys, she was the only girl in the league and got top defenseman which was pretty phenomenal,” she says.
Motivated by her own high expectations for her play, Mallory knew at the age of 11 that she needed to attend a private boarding school in order to be the best player she could be. Attending the [Atlantic Hockey] Showcase on PEI allowed her to demonstrate her skills in front of private school scouts.
“Mallory went to Showcase then schools started contacting us,” Paula says. “So you think, ‘Okay, Mallory has something special here’, when you have private schools calling you on the phone and sending you emails.”
Even though she’d always wanted to go away, Mallory admits it was still a tough decision to make at 15 (talking about it still brings tears to her mother’s eyes) but it was worth it, not only for her hockey but for her academics.
“I learned a lot more than I would have learned at home,” she says. “I couldn’t ask my parents to do things for me so I had to do them on my own. You have to be able to take care of yourself in order to live there. And I got good experiences because I got to take different classes than I would have taken in Amherst and the class sizes were about 7 to 12 students,” says Mallory, adding that the New Hampton School puts academics ahead of sports.
“You have to do well and you have to like school because the teachers really focus on you. You have to meet a certain average in order to play and you can’t miss class in order to play. You first priority is school and your teachers and coaches know that.”
Mallory received a scholarship to offset the cost of full tuition but it was still a financial commitment for her parents. Mallory’s mother says sending her daughter away to school in the States was worth every penny.
“She’s grown by leaps and bounds. She’s well-educated and well-spoken,” Paula says. “What we’ve paid is a small amount compared to what Mallory got out of her experience.”
And now the hockey part of that experience is culminating in the biggest tournament of her young life.
At five feet, 120 pounds, Mallory is not a big player (which explains in part why she’s making plans to attend university instead of pursuing an Olympic dream) but opponents underestimate her at their peril.
“I hold my own because of my strength on my skates,” she says. “I’ve always been a good skater so people don’t push me off the puck easily because I have good balance.”
But she’s facing some pretty big competition.
“We’re a small province, playing against Ontario and Alberta and BC,” explains Mallory. “Those teams are always the best. They have the most people to choose from in their provinces so it will be interesting to see how we do against the bigger teams. I think we’ll do really well.”
Mallory’s confidence comes from knowing her team so well.
“We may not bring as much talent and skill as them but we work hard every shift and we bump and grind until we get it done,” she says of Team Nova Scotia. “We’ll do well if we consistently work hard.”
With Mallory in a leadership role now with the team, the other provinces will soon learn that a small province, and a small player, bring a really big heart to the ice.