Taylor Cullen: Hockey player, role model
03/01/2016 01:51PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
In the third period of the Feb. 5 Inter County Scholastic Hockey League game between Kennett High and the Delaware Military Academy, Number 48 of the Kennett team was hovering near the opposing goal when burly Alex Maglio of the Academy rammed into the player’s back.
The only item on the player that seemed to resist the hit was a brown ponytail, that whipped up from underneath her helmet. The player, a 15-year-old sophomore on the Blue Demon squad, quickly got up from the ice and continued to play, and the back of her uniform was dusted with ice that partially obscured her last name: Cullen – as in Taylor Cullen, the team’s only girl.
Her immediate rise from the scrum near the goal was all in a day’s work for Cullen, because nearly from the time she was a second-grader learning to skate at the Chester County Skating Club at the Upland Day School rink, she has known that such physicality is all part of the game she loves.
“I kind of understand why the player did that, because I’m a girl who is playing with the boys, and if they want to hit me, they can, because it’s my choice to play with the boys,” Taylor said. “I shouldn’t be treated any differently just because I am a girl.”
“I keep telling her to be in the right place at the right time, so when they do shoot, she is there to bang home a rebound,” said her father Todd, a Kennett assistant coach. “Unfortunately, it often leaves her vulnerable at the front of the net.”
The hits and body checks notwithstanding, Taylor’s decision to play on the boys’ team became an opportunity to test her skills with players of superior ability to hers, she said.
“In the beginning of the season, I was so nervous and anxious to prove myself that I was afraid to mess up, afraid that my teammates would look at me as if to say, ‘Oh, well, she’s a girl,’” she said. “Now, I think they’ve come to accept that I’m actually pretty good.”
Although she’s scored six goals herself this season, Taylor’s role on Kennett is that of a playmaker – a set-up artist – on a team dominated by goal scorers like Ryan Johnson, Luke Borman and Jack Dreisbach.
“At first, I was hesitant to allow Taylor to play on the boy’s team,” said her mother, Sharon. “She’s also playing very competitively on a girls’ team, and I see how physical the girls are on the ice, so I was worried about her playing with boys.
“The first few games were rough, but I think the boys on the other teams take consideration of the fact the she’s a girl, and don’t want to go after her. The boys on her team stick up for her because when she does get decked, they approach the opponents who try to take advantage of her, as if to say, ‘You really don’t want to be doing that again.’”
Taylor’s first year on the Blue Demons squad has not only been a bold move individually, but a well-timed one. Kennett just put the finishing touches on an 11-4-0 regular season, which has qualified them for the Flyers Cup’s Division Cup A tournament for the first time in a decade, to decide eastern Pennsylvania’s top teams in a four-bracket tournament. The eventual winner of each individual bracket earns the right to play for the state title at Penn State in mid-March. Kennett is one of 14 teams to qualify for the Cup A tournament, joining Unionville and Avon Grove.
The journey that has led Taylor to the Kennett team has not been much different than most young hockey players. It began with early-morning rides to partially heated or outdoor rinks, when Todd and Sharon would transport Taylor – as well as her twin sister Morgan, who now plays goalie at Lawrenceville Prep in New Jersey – from practices and games. At first, the thought of hopping in a freezing car at 5 a.m. to be driven to a practice was not appealing to Taylor, but as her skills progressed, she began to love the game.
Ice hockey is one of the fastest-growing women's sports in the world, with the number of participants increasing 350 percent in the last ten years. In 2011, Canada had 85,827 women players, and the United States had 65,609.
In the Cullen home, hockey qualifies itself as a 12-month sport – from the grind of a three-month season to camps and training and traveling over the course of the remaining nine months. This summer, Taylor will be heading to a hockey showcase in Florida, where she will display her skills to college scouts, and will also be trying out in hopes of attending a national camp in Minnesota. She also plays on the Chester County Cougars Tier 1 squad, a 16-and-younger travel team, and has also begun to referee youth games at Upland and Ice Line.
If there has been a constant presence in Taylor’s hockey journey, it has been Todd, who taught Taylor and Megan how to skate, and has coached his daughters at every level of their progression in the sport.
“As a coach, I think not only do I need to maintain the interest in the players, but justify the cost of hockey for the parents,” he said. “Parents want to see progress every year, not only from being able to make a slap shot, but learning life lessons. Hockey is a game where you are trying to learn team skills, life lessons, and the ability to take responsibility for your actions, by learning from mistakes. Coaching is helping them develop skills that will not only help them on the ice, but in life itself.”
After she finishes her junior and senior years on the Kennett team, Taylor envisions herself playing at the collegiate level on a women's team, and ultimately, wearing the stars and stripes on the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team. For now, however, Number 48 is skating for the Blue Demons.
“I kind of feel like a role model for those girls who aspire to play hockey, just like me,” Taylor said.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.