Josephine Pucci began her senior season on Jan. 2 of this year—1,036 days after her final game as a junior.
On the ice at Brown’s Meehan Auditorium, not much appeared to have changed for the veteran defender. She commanded the blue line with a flurry of energy. Her straight brown ponytail whirred around opponents as she drove breakouts with a sense of controlled recklessness.
“I remember just playing in that game and [thinking], ‘I love hockey. This is awesome,’” the Olympic silver medalist said. “It’s fun.”
The Harvard women’s ice hockey team left Providence, R.I., that evening with a 6-0 win. Plus-2 with two shots on goal, Pucci delivered the type of performance that college hockey fans had come to expect years earlier from her.
Over her final three months of competitive hockey, Pucci would help her school to a Beanpot title, a conference championship, and a Frozen Four berth. Yet her consistent play masked an epic journey—one that included a medical battle, an improbable comeback, and a new call to service.
Pucci’s story begins in August 2012.
Harvard assistant coach Laura Bellamy ’13 remembers walking around the Yard excited to start her senior season as Harvard’s top goaltender. But each time she returned to the Dunster suite she shared with Pucci, her excitement would quickly turn to concern.
“Every time I came back to the room, it was dark,” Bellamy said. “Every bit of light was blocked out from the room, and she was usually wearing sunglasses too.”
At the time, there was not much else Bellamy’s roommate could do but rest and wait. At least that’s what Pucci’s doctors had told her.
Weeks earlier, Pucci had impressed the U.S. national team’s coaching staff—including head coach Katey Stone, Pucci’s coach at Harvard—with a display of skill and grit in international play with the Under-22 national development team.
It would be then, however, that Pucci would receive the hit that would change her life. In the third game of a best-of-three series with Canada in Calgary, she was skating for a line change when she felt the cold blow of an elbow to the side of her head from Ontario forward Brianne Jenner.
Pucci knew immediately that she had another concussion—her second major one in eight months. She began to experience the familiar symptoms—nauseousness, fatigue, difficulty walking and reading—only this time more intensely than ever before.
Simple college activities became monumental struggles. Any sort of writing or drawing induced dizziness. A five-minute walk to Leverett dining hall became 25 minutes of stopping and starting.
By the end of September, Pucci decided to withdraw from school, unsure of what to do next. Every doctor she had seen had encouraged her to retire. But Olympic tryouts loomed just nine short months away.
She turned to past and present Harvard teammates for advice and support. Pucci was far from the only Crimson player who had experienced the debilitating effects of concussions. In fact, according to a study of collegiate athletes published in The New York Times, female hockey players experience concussions at a rate of 2.72 per 1,000 player hours—a higher rate than football players (2.34 per 1,000 hours) or any other athlete group in the NCAA.
Among Pucci’s advisors was Caitlin Cahow ’07-’08—a former Harvard defensive standout and two-time Olympic medalist for Team USA. Cahow was in the midst of her own battle with concussions, but she had seen dramatic improvement after two weeks of rehab with Dr. Ted Carrick at a clinic in Georgia. Carrick had captured the ice hockey world’s attention a year earlier for his work with NHL star Sidney Crosby, who credits Carrick’s clinic for his accelerated recovery from a severe head injury.
During the September 2011 press conference in which Crosby announced his return to the NHL, Carrick sat by Crosby’s side, answering questions about chiropractic neurology—a practice that Carrick has become the leading expert in over his 37-year career.
Pucci was intrigued by the possibility of seeing Carrick, but she had her reservations when Cahow first referred her to him in early September. Cahow’s claim that Carrick would have Pucci skating after just two days at the clinic seemed too good to be true when Pucci could barely walk.
“I was pretty skeptical,” Pucci said. “I thought, ‘What else can you do for a concussion other than rest?’ That’s basically what any doctor has ever said.”
Carrick remembers meeting Pucci in October 2012.
“Josephine was a typical example of most of the patients we’ve seen,” recalled Carrick, who spoke to The Crimson with Pucci’s consent. “They’re very scared, their lives have been changed, and treatments haven’t worked for them.”
In 1984, Carrick founded the Carrick Institute for Graduate Studies to train medical professionals in a unique approach to treating vestibular syndromes—disorders involving the processing of sensory information related to balance and movement.
Upon her arrival at the clinic with Cahow, Pucci went right to work.
"I was pretty skeptical. I thought, 'What else can you do for a concussion other than rest?' That's basically what any doctor has ever said."
Carrick and his associates ran her through a battery of tests and developed an individualized treatment plan for Pucci that involved three-to-four daily sessions of various exercises and forms of sensory stimulation.
The exercises ranged from the mundane, such as eye exercises in which Pucci focused on dots on a piece of paper, to the extraordinary, such as rides on the “GyroStim”—an amusement park-like device that turned Pucci upside-down and around in a particular series of spins designed to rebalance her vestibular system.
“I was fully committed to the program that they gave me,” Pucci said. “It was all day, every day pretty much…. It was like camp almost.”
Within 24 hours, Pucci began to feel incremental improvements. After two days at the clinic, she was, indeed, skating—performing a variety of light gliding exercises.
The new treatment protocol offered Pucci an alternative to lying in bed—a proactive way to treat her symptoms. The early improvements fed her sense of competitiveness.
“I was very religious with what he had given me,” Pucci said. “Everything I was doing was very repetitive.... But everything had a specific purpose.”
Her experience at the clinic also fed her interest in studying the brain. After moving to Boston in February 2013 to train for Olympic tryouts, she began volunteering in a lab at Massachusetts General Hospital under concussion specialist Mike Whalen.
With each month, Pucci gained strength as she trained at Edge Sports Center in Bedford, Mass., alongside now-senior Harvard teammate Marissa Gedman, who was rehabbing a lower body injury that had forced her to withdraw from school shortly before Pucci. Each time Pucci visited her former roommate, Bellamy could see signs of improvement.
“Every time she came back, she seemed a little more energized by the work [she] had done [with Carrick],” Bellamy said. “She believed in what he was doing.”
Pucci’s strict discipline during her comeback journey did not surprise her father Vic, a retired NYPD policeman from Brooklyn, N.Y., who learned to ice skate so that he could coach his three daughters through their first few years of hockey in Pearl River, N.Y.
“She always had a way of keeping the distractions out,” Vic said. “She has a good focus, a good discipline, and a good way of knowing what she needs to do to achieve success in whatever she takes on.”
When America’s best players convened in Lake Placid, N.Y., that June, Pucci was ready to impress Stone and her coaching staff again. After seven days of tryouts, Pucci made the first cut. Five months later, she punched her ticket to Sochi.
“Josephine is one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, but when you put her in an athletic setting, she becomes a competitive pitbull,” Stone said. “She’s so intense, she’s so concentrated, and she will figure out a way to win.”
“I think that one of the biggest questions that I’ve asked myself continuously throughout the whole concussion experience has been, ‘Is this a fight worth fighting, or do I need to be brave enough to move on and find new things?’” Pucci said.
After an emotional Olympic experience in which Canada completed a furious comeback to edge the United States in overtime of the gold medal game, Pucci confronted the big question again.
Having taken another year off from school to train and compete with the national team, Pucci was anxious to return to student life. After the months of darkness, she finally felt whole, but she knew that one bad hit could change everything. Carrick agreed that any competitive play would involve a calculated risk.
“After coming back from having an injury that sidelined her to the point that the probability of her coming back was null, she came back and achieved things that basically few people will ever achieve in their life,” said Carrick, who welcomed Pucci back to his clinic two months after the Olympics as an intern. “That’s sort of romantic…. [But] then she faced a question like, ‘What if it happened again?’”
With the expected return of Pucci, Stone, senior Lyndsey Fry, and junior Michelle Picard from the Olympic team, expectations ran high for the Harvard women’s ice hockey team in the early fall. When Pucci informed the team that she would not play her senior season, the decision caught Stone slightly off-guard.
“I was shocked initially by it, but I totally respected the decision,” Stone said. “And I was disappointed for her and for us…. The last thing that you want your players to go through is regret, and I didn’t want her to regret her decision.”
Stone made sure that Pucci knew that the team would welcome any change of mind. Meanwhile, Pucci felt comfortable with her decision.
“It’s just so hard to explain the amount of thought and the amount of wait that goes into a big decision like this.” Pucci said. “And I can’t…say this is why I made the decision and this is why it is. But at the end of the day, logically it felt like the right decision, and my gut was telling me to go that way too.”
Back at Harvard, Pucci embraced life as a full-time student, taking five classes during the fall term. She enrolled in pre-med courses and began to visit Boston-area primary and secondary schools through the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization co-founded by former Harvard football player Chris Nowinski ’00 to raise awareness of the prevention, treatment, and study of head trauma in sports.
At the end of the semester, Pucci reevaluated her plans. She enjoyed dedicating herself to something other than hockey, but her success in the classroom also made her more confident that she could contribute to the team without jeopardizing her ability to graduate. After a long thought process, Pucci told the team in late December that she was ready to play.
"I think that one of the biggest questions that I've asked myself continuously throughout the whole concussion experience has been, 'Is this a fight worth fighting, or do I need to be brave enough to move on and find new things?'"
In Pucci’s first practices back, junior forward Miye D’Oench could see the effects of the senior’s presence.
“You don’t look at somebody who wants to play so badly and not give it everything that you have in practices or in games,” D’Oench said. “She’s a fantastic player obviously, but there was kind of an intangible part of it where there was sort of an attitude shift.”
In the locker room, Pucci was a natural leader. She did not speak up often, but when she did, she always seemed to find the right thing to say.
On the ice, she exuded a veteran confidence while skating on a pair with Gedman. Pucci’s best performance came a month into her comeback, when she led the team with nine blocked shots to upset then-undefeated Boston College in the Beanpot championship.
“She just came up big in the big moments toward the end of the game and showed a lot of poise,” Bellamy said. “I think our team kind of rode that a little bit.”
In the ECAC tournament, Pucci scored the final goal of her career on a dazzling coast-to-coast strike that proved to be the dagger in the Crimson’s first-round series with Yale. Harvard would go on to win the conference tournament for the first time since 2008.
In the Frozen Four, Pucci felt the all-too-familiar sting of a runner-up finish. She had an on-rink view of each of Minnesota’s goals in the Golden Gophers’ 4-1 championship clincher in Minneapolis. Yet Pucci has walked away from competitive hockey the way her coach hoped she would—with no regrets.
“I’ll always feel like I should give more back to the program because it’s given me so much,” Pucci said. “And to be able to come back and play and still be able to walk away healthy—I can’t explain how thankful I am for that.”
Pucci is not finished with hockey completely—she plans to coach at the youth level—but she will celebrate a new stage of her life when she graduates.
Following Commencement, she will take organic chemistry at Harvard over the summer before starting a two-year job in the fall at a neurological lab at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
“I don’t know exactly which direction it’s going to take me,” Pucci said. “But I definitely love research, and I’m really passionate about the brain and neuroscience and concussion awareness.”
No matter what path the 24-year-old chooses, she is poised to serve others. She has already helped athletes like Harvard men’s ice hockey forward Colin Blackwell, who battled his own concussion-related symptoms this year and returned to the squad in time to contribute to his team’s postseason run.
“She was someone I could always talk to,” Blackwell said. “With [my injury] there’s not too many people that I felt like I could talk to…. She helped me so much—she’s like the nicest person of all time.”
During her internship with Carrick, she served as a source of inspiration and encouragement for patients. In Pucci, he sees a difference-maker.
“She certainly has everything that one could imagine, from compassion to knowledge,” Carrick said. “She’s on the fast track to marvelous things in the service of others.”
—Staff writer Michael D. Ledecky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mdledecky.