Forged by fire
NEW CANAAN—Last spring, Rich Bulan found himself sitting on a bucket of balls at a New Canaan softball practice, sulking.
The storied girls hockey coach, who moonlights as an assistant softball coach, was just told by his goalie, Amanda Hill, that she would be leaving the program.
While he understood her decision, it meant that as of that moment, he was heading into the 2016-17 season with literally no option in net.
Enter Kara Fahey.
Fahey, a then freshman, had just made the jump from baseball to softball to play for the Rams, and looked to console a visibly upset Bulan.
“I said, ‘I have no goaltender, I don’t know what I’m going to do,’” Bulan said of his original conversation with Fahey. “And I used to bust her all the time about what a good athlete she was and she should try hockey, and she said, ‘so you need help in goal, huh?’ And I said, ‘yeah, do you know anybody?’ and she told me she’d try.”
Fahey’s goalie experience to that point had been—in a word—limited.
Growing up, she would don catcher’s equipment while her brother and her neighbor, All-State defenseman Jess Eccleston, fired shots at her.
Desperate, Bulan was willing to give her a shot. The coach arranged for her to come to the SoNo Ice House in Norwalk to put her through an initial observation.
That preliminary tryout got off to a rocky start.
“He told me to be there at 5:30, so I got there at 5:30 and they were already on the ice,” Fahey said. “They meant to be ready at 5:30; so, it took a while to get ready and I stepped on and wobbled a little because I hadn’t been on the ice in a long time. When I finally got to the net he was standing next to me supporting me, because it was scary.”
Her fright was justified.
“It was really scary because you have these great shooters shooting at you for the first time,” Fahey said. “It was scary, but it was fun. They were all telling me that I was doing great and I was doing well for the first time out. They were definitely supportive.”
Deane and Bruno started off taking fairly reserved shots at the undeveloped Fahey. But, as Bulan recalls, the pair started getting frustrated with Fahey’s ability to stop even their most powerful shots.
“We started shooting on her and it was just like, are you kidding me?” Bulan said. “She had third baseman reflexes, and you could see it right away. You couldn’t beat her on the glove side, just couldn’t.”
The next step was to develop her fundamentals. Because of her size and her already strong glove hand, Bulan wanted her to adapt a butterfly-style of goaltending—one in which the goalie drops low to protect the net and relies on their glove to make up for their limited mobility.
Fahey started taking weekly lessons at the SoNo Ice House, and by time the season arrived, Bulan had his starting goalie.
Fahey played every game in net for New Canaan, growing both physically and mentally as the year wore on.
As the season progressed Bulan advised her to take advantage of both YouTube and simply watching opponent goaltenders to advance her style and knowledge of the position.
She followed his orders to the letter.
“She really has become a student of the game,” Bulan said. “She went home and looked at videos of different goaltenders and she would come tell me she was looking at different butterfly goalies and she would pick up things from watching.”
As important as her studying, was her competitive nature. While her confidence in her ability bloomed, she felt an extra boost to prove herself to girls that had been playing their entire lives.
“By the end of the year, the difference was huge because I felt very comfortable on the ice and moving around,” Fahey said. “I felt my legs had adjusted and my mind had adjusted, and seeing all these girls that have played for a while was actually motivating to try to show them that just because I’m new, it doesn’t matter.”
As is the case with any athlete, especially one breaking ground in a new sport, Fahey’s support system was the foundation of her development. The sophomore credits both the team atmosphere, as well as Bulan’s coaching style, with fueling her new found passion for the game.
“That was huge for the success that we had,” Fahey said of Bulan’s leadership. “Knowing him beforehand was better because I knew his personality, and he’s an amazing coach and he would tell us what he needed to hear and was very motivating…he really supported me throughout the entire experience, and even if we had an awful game, like when we lost to Darien 6-0, he would say, ‘don’t worry, there’s still tomorrow, go get them next time.”
Bulan, whose attitude towards his girls is that of family, not just player, couldn’t be more proud. Not just because of her success on the ice—garnering second-team All-FCIAC honors—but because of her willingness to work hard off it.
“People don’t realize how hard it is to play goalie, and most of these kids have been doing it since they were seven, eight, nine years old,” Bulan said. “Here’s a sophomore in high school that’s just jumping into it, and to me, it was nothing short of amazing. On top of it, her [goals allowed average] was 1.87, she only gave up 37 goals in the 23 games she played, and her save percentage was over 93%. So, she made second team All-FCIAC, I’m very proud of her.”
And with two years remaining her high school career—and still plenty of untapped potential—don’t expect to see Bulan sulking on the bench anytime soon.