At the Montville ice hockey team’s first meeting back in June, Meg Hishmeh heard a few whispers and saw some raised eyebrows. She’d anticipated them. The small crowd of parents at an impromptu practice a week later was a little less expected.
Hishmeh shrugged, and kept the Mustangs moving for a full hour out on the ice. The veteran coach and official was determined just to do her job, hoping any potential criticism would fade — along with the novelty of having a female coach for a varsity high school boys ice hockey team.
Hishmeh is the only one in New Jersey this winter. She is one of three female head coaches, along with Nicole Uliasz and Lorna Cook — who lead The Lawrenceville School and Princeton Day School girls teams.
“You know they were there because they’re doubting,” said Hishmeh, a Kinnelon resident who is also the head coach of her youngest son Hayden’s Skylands Kings peewee A team.
“It’s not nice to say that, but it’s reality. … If you get caught up in that, you’re going to lose a couple of steps. You’ve got to come in, and you’re the coach. It doesn’t matter that I’m a female coaching males, or a male coaching females. The only time it comes into play, and the only hurdle, is coming into the locker room. That’s truly the only obstacle.”
There’s also an easy solution. Montville assistant Chris Trzepinska precedes Hishmeh into the locker room. But both coaches will be there with the players, before and after games as well as between periods.
It’s Hishmeh’s voice you’ll hear.
“She likes to talk about what’s going wrong, what’s going right, what’s good, what’s bad,” Montville senior left wing Roy Darrah said. “I like that about her. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, either.”
Hishmeh demands accountability from her players, keeping them focused on their ultimate goals of winning the Haas Cup and earning a berth in the NJSIAA Tournament.
The Mustangs are undefeated (10-0-1) going into a game with Morris Hills at Mennen Arena tonight. Montville is tied with Madison — the lone draw, 2-2 on Dec. 23 — and Park Regional atop the Haas Division.
It’s a total turnaround for a team which finished 4-17-2 in the Halvorsen Division last winter. The Mustangs have not had a winning record since 2008-09.
Montville has three effective lines and six dependable defensemen — including freshman Claudia Trionfo — and second-year starting goaltender Josh Beron. The Mustangs are playing more disciplined hockey, cutting down on penalties, and being much less selfish. Fifteen different players have at least one point, led by Darrah and linemates Vinny Arlotta and Dan Trionfo.
“This girl coach comes in, takes a team with a terrible record, and turns it around,” said Beron, a junior who has a .976 goals-against average, with just seven goals allowed in 11 games.
“She’s the real deal. She knows what she’s doing, and there’s no arguing that. They can say, ‘But she’s a girl’ all they want, but we’re better with her on our team.”
Hishmeh started playing hockey at age 6 in Grosse Point, Mich., but wound up sidelined because girls were not allowed on boys travel teams. She was part of a startup high school girls team in sophomore year, then led the University of Vermont in both goals and penalty minutes as the center — an odd spot for a coach who now preaches the importance of staying out of the box.
Hishmeh started coaching in Lakewood, Colo., shortly after graduation, and estimates she’s been behind the bench for 20 years and has spent 17 as an official — including serving as a linesman at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. She still referees Big North games and in the Bridgewater-based Skyland Conference, but had too many conflicts in Morris County. The eldest of her three sons, 17-year-old Blake Hishmeh, is a junior forward for Kinnelon — a team Montville could face in NJSIAA Public B. Middle son Brady, 15, is a sophomore goaltender at Morris Catholic, which was scheduled to be the Mustangs’ first opponent before dropping its hockey team shortly before the season.
Hishmeh has coached all three of her sons, and also spent four years with the Princeton Day girls team in the early 2000s.
“The way I looked at it, there were 25 people applying for the job, and 24 of the 25 people were guys,” Beron said. “If this girl beat all the guys, why wouldn’t we give her a chance? She’s way overqualified. … On and off the ice, we’re a better team with her around. It’s a great feeling, and it goes beyond hockey.”