Imagine a hockey player. More likely than not you are thinking of a 6-foot behemoth whose overindulgent wit and curious dentistry would put Madonna to shame. It is a surprise, then, to meet the diminutive yet highly-skilled and gregarious women’s hockey forward Natalie Babony ’06 and talk about the challenges of playing varsity sports in college.
Babony may well epitomize the typical Yale athlete struggling to score good grades at the same rate at which she scores goals. Her average day begins with classes in the morning, followed by weightlifting in the afternoon and frequent practices at Ingalls Rink from 5:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. By the time she showers and comes home, it is usually past 9 p.m. One might question what other activities this schedule allows her to do.
“You know what?” Babony said. “Nothing. It’s studying and hockey.”
For many like Babony, representing Yale in intercollegiate competitions is, above all, a responsibility.
“You will not see people quit the team,” Babony said. “That’s really not an option anymore. It’s not like you use hockey to get an education and quit. You’re going to come, play hockey and get an education.”
In fact, participation in a sport is much more than just a choice for athletes like Babony — it is their life.
Babony, a native of Whitby, Ontario, learned to ice skate at age two-and-a-half — about the same age toddlers get let out of their strollers for good. Her brother and sister, both collegiate players themselves, taught her the fundamentals of hockey soon after on their backyard rink.
The fact that Babony became a hockey player is even less surprising considering her family’s extensive involvement in the sport. In addition to the collegiate careers of her older siblings, Babony’s father was a minor league player in Slovakia and her godfather played for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“My family’s bred in hockey,” Babony said.
By ninth grade, Babony herself was thoroughly indoctrinated. After moving to Toronto, she played in two regional leagues, as well as on her school’s men’s team. But to realize her dream of attending an Ivy League school, the young star had to make difficult sacrifices.
After her freshman year of high school, she left her three teams to go to a private high school in New Hampshire.
“The hockey was horrible,” Babony recalls. “I needed it because I wanted to go Ivy and I had to work on my study habits. As far as my skills, I definitely plateaued.”
To compensate for her high school’s weak hockey program, Babony accepted an invitation to play on the Slovakian women’s Olympic qualifying team in 2000. The trip grew sweeter when she found out that one of her biggest fans would be at the tournament. This time, though, Babony’s 22-year-old sister Andrea would not only be accompanying her as a supporter, but as a teammate.
In helping Slovakia clinch a spot in the pool B-division, the Babony sisters were often paired together on the center and right-wing.
“We work really well together,” Babony said. “Andrea has great speed and skill. It’s funny though, that just because she is my sister, I get mad at her all the time and yell at her.”
Apart from Babony, the Bulldogs have no other players with Olympic experience, though goalie Sarah Love ’06 has been offered a tryout spot with the Canadian women’s team.
After taking a year off after high school to hone her skills, Babony entered college. She soon learned that representing the Bulldogs on the ice limited some educational opportunities.
“I wanted to be a biologist and I can’t take all of those classes and play hockey,” Babony said. “I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘athletes should get more’ topic but we work really hard and it would be nice if we got some more support.”
Despite changing her major to history of science, history of medicine, Babony remains on the pre-med track with demanding courses like Organic Chemistry and its requisite lab.
As Yale’s leading scorer last year with 12 goals and 17 assists in 31 games, Babony is trying to overcome a self-described “slump” this season. She has one goal and two assists in seven games.
“I’m really not concerned, though,” Babony said. “I’m not going to think, ‘oh I’ll get four goals a game.’ I just try to get opportunities and make sure we’re not scored on when I’m on the ice.”
Listed at 5 feet 4 inches, Babony knows she does not have a natural size advantage over many of the other players. Instead, she compensates with speed and often punishes careless opposing forwards by stripping them of the puck for a quick breakaway.
And if the other teams in the Eastern College Athletic Conference are not careful, the Elis (2-2-2) just might break away in the standings this season.
“It’s so crazy to think this year we have the opportunity to go far,” Babony said. “We haven’t cancelled anything for spring break because we might be going far [in the ECAC playoffs]. We’re not going home soon and missing a lot of break. That’s a great feeling.”