When Gretchen Ulion began playing hockey as a youngster in the late 1970s in Marlborough, Connecticut, there were no women playing hockey for her to emulate.
But she was able to look toward the Hartford Civic Center, the Hartford Whalers and the legendary Hall of Famer Gordie Howe.
Later this month, Ulion will join Howe with a unique Connecticut honor. She will be one of five honorees to receive a Gold Key from the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance on Sunday, April 29, at the Aqua Turf in Southington.
Ulion, now known as Gretchen Ulion-Silverman, played on the first U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team to win a gold medal in 1998. She will be honored along with former Granby Memorial field hockey coach Dot Johnson, PGA professional Dennis Coscina, New Canaan High football coach Lou Marinelli and retired Connecticut women’s soccer coach Len Tsantiris.
Regarded as the highest sports award in the state, the Gold Key has been presented to more than 200 men and women including Hall of Fame baseball manager Connie Mack (1940), boxer Willie Pep (1961), Hall of Fame basketball coaches Geno Auriemma (2001) and Jim Calhoun (2003), Rebecca Lobo (2004) and U.S. women’s soccer star Kristine Lilly (2012). Howe won a Gold Key in 1992.
Howe had already had a Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL before coming out of retirement to play with his two sons, Mark and Marty in the World Hockey Association.
Gordie Howe played three years with the Whalers in Hartford with his sons. Two seasons were in the WHA. Nine years after retiring from Detroit and the NHL, Gordie played his final professional season in 1979-80 with the Whalers in the NHL. At the age of 52, Gordie scored 15 goals and had 26 assists in 80 games.
Ulion-Silverman capped off her hockey career with a gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics in Japan with a goal and an assist in the 3-1 gold medal victory over Canada. It was the first time that women’s hockey had been played at the Olympic Games.
“To receive this honor and see that Gordie Howe is on this list is really special,” Ulion-Silverman said. “Growing up I was a Hartford Whalers fan, of course and I would go to Hartford Whalers games and tell everyone I was going to be a Hartford Whaler not knowing that was a totally unrealistic goal.” She smiled.
“Gordie Howe used to come to our youth hockey practices and just show up because he loved hockey so much,” Ulion-Silverman said. “To see his name on that (Gold Key) list is especially exciting and meaningful for me. I really looked up to him my entire life.”
Ulion-Silverman played at Loomis Chaffee in Windsor and went onto skate at Dartmouth where she graduated with the school records for most goals (189) and points (312) in a career and the most goals in a single season (49) in 1991 and 1994. Those records still stand today. She also was a two-time Ivy League player of the year.
She made the national team in 1994 and won silver medals with the Americans at the 1994 and 1997 world championships. Ulion-Silverman earned a spot on the 1998 U.S. Olympic team. In Nagano, she scored three goals and had five assists in six games.
She was the first player to score a goal in a women’s hockey Olympic final. Her second period goal gave the Americans a 1-0 lead over Canada and she had a key assist on Sandra Whyte’s goal that gave the U.S. a two-goal advantage.
“It’s an incredible honor to (receive a Gold Key) 20 years after finishing the Olympics,” Ulion-Silverman said. Having the United States win their first Olympic gold medal since 1998 in February with a win over Canada was satisfying, too.
“It was very special to have those team members recognize us as being one that inspired them to dream for Olympic gold,” Ulion-Silverman said. “That is a rewarding end to a journey, having passed the torch to the next gold medal winning team.”
Like Howe before her, Ulion-Silverman and her teammates on the 1998 Olympic team have been inspirations to today’s generation of hockey players. Today, Ulion-Silverman is the women’s hockey head coach at the Taft School in Watertown.
She has been assisting USA Hockey in recent years helping the Under-15 team. When an official from USA Hockey heard Ulion-Silverman talk to the U-15 players, they asked her to talk to the current national team.
“They thought it would be a powerful message for the current players,” she said. “So two years ago (2016), I was invited to Lake Placid to give a motivational speech to the players (on the national team at that time). So, I feel I had just a little part of helping motivate them and give them an idea of what made our (1998) team special, what made our team successful.”
Ulion-Silverman was impressed with the 2018 gold medalists. “It was very clear to me that they played as a complete team – from top to bottom. They really pulled for each other. I think that is the difference when it comes down to winning a gold medal. It’s all about the team.”
Tickets to the Gold Key banquet are $75 each and may be reserved by contacting CSWA President Tim Jensen of Patch Media Corp. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-394-5091, or Vice President Rich Gregory of the Danbury News-Times at email@example.com or 203-705-8625.
Proceeds from the event benefit the Bo Kolinsky Journalism Scholarship, named after a longtime Hartford Courant sportswriter and past CSWA president who died unexpectedly in 2003.