This Week in D-I Women’s Hockey: Jan. 3, 2008

Hockey, perhaps more than any other sport, has always been a family affair.

For as long as dads have been constructing backyard rinks, and moms have been trudging through the frozen tundra to haul carloads of kids to 4 a.m. practices, hockey has been a centerpiece of the family experience.

Through the ages, sibling rivalries have been played out inside the boards — makeshift and otherwise — on sheets from Inuvik to Indiana, and from Novosibirsk to Nova Scotia.

Back in the day, those civil wars were almost exclusively fraternal ones, with the girls shunted off to the side.

But no longer.

Now the rally cry seems to be “the family that plays together, stays together”.

That means the whole family.

Even as the best of the girls have found their way into Division-I programs, while their brothers make it in the NHL.

Or so it’s been for the Stuart clan. And for the Moulsons, too.

Cristin Stuart is a senior defenseman for Boston College, while her brother Mark, the former Colorado College standout, patrols the blueline for the Boston Bruins.

Both learned the game alongside older brothers Mike and Colin (both of them forwards with NHL time under their belts), while growing up in Rochester, Minn.

Cristin said that growing up in such an athletic family, there hardly any chance that she wouldn’t pick up the game.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I started off as a figure skater, when I was really young, and right away switched to hockey skates. I don’t think I could have gotten out of it if I’d really wanted to.”

Not that her brothers would have let her. After all, they needed a target to shoot at.

And guess who got drafted.

Yep. “Little Cris”.

“My dad used to build a rink in the backyard when we were really young,” she said. “That helped us a lot. I originally used to be the goalie. The dummy. They would dress me up in all that equipment and shoot on me. Street hockey was kind of theirs and I was just a toy.”

But the game became hers, too, and while they happen to share the same city, they also share an immense sense of pride in each other.

“She’s done great,” said Mark. “She’s really improved. I haven’t had a chance to see her play yet this year, but I saw her a bunch last year, but she’s improved, and I’m really proud of her. Not only is she doing great in hockey, but she’s an excellent student as well. I’m proud of her in both of those.”

As younger sibs naturally emulate their older ones, Cristin said she found elements of Mark’s rugged play creeping into her own game.

“I have heard that I play like my brother,” she said. “Or that we skate the same. But he’s a great role model. I definitely model myself after him. I try to play my defensive game the same way he does. I don’t get to get away with as much as he does.”

Shannon Moulson is a senior rearguard for Niagara University, her talents no doubt honed by the one-on-ones she had with brother Matt, a winger who has split time between Los Angeles and Manchester.

Those standoffs enabled Matt, who played at Cornell before turning pro two year ago, to develop a “book” on his younger sister.

“She’s dirty,” he said, with a big laugh. “She’s a dirty player. Every time we’d do one on ones, she had this huge stick and always poke checked me. She’s a pretty smart player. She’s always had a phenomenal shot. My dad always used to say it was harder than my brother and I. But she’s always had a good shot, and a good head for the game. I don’t know how I’d play against her. I’d probably just skate around her.”

Maybe it was in trying to elude Shannon that Matt developed his superb quickness, a tool that has taken him from being unknown and undrafted to rising NHL prospect.

Or maybe it was his work ethic.

Either way, Shannon has been watching. And learning.

“I tell this to everyone,” she said. “My brother is one of my biggest inspirations in hockey. To watch him grow from someone that no one even knew to where is now, makes me want to be a better player. To work my butt off. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone work as hard as he has. I use that (as motivation) because I don’t want to let him down by not being who I can be on the ice. I think about that.”

The two, along with younger brother Chris, staged many royal battles while growing up outside Toronto. And not just on the ice.

“We have a little different family than normal,” said Matt. “We’re pretty close, but to the outsider, it probably seems like we fight a lot. I think that’s the intensity that we have. Even our euchre games get broken up. But we’re very close and supportive.”

That sense of support was never stronger than last Nov. 1. It was Matt’s 24th birthday, and, oh by the way, he was making his NHL debut with the L.A. Kings.

Matt capped the momentous day by scoring a goal, the first of what should be many.

“He did get called up on his birthday,” Shannon said. “We were playing phone tag. He finally got a hold of me and he said, ‘thanks for the ‘Happy Birthday and by the way, I’m playing in the NHL.’ We were all excited. That’s his dream. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to live up to that.”

Of course, hockey blood doesn’t just run from brother to sister. It also flows to daughter, as in the case of Clarkson center Jess Cloutier, whose dad is former NHL goalie Jacques Cloutier.

Jacques has served the Colorado Avalanche as assistant coach for the past 11 seasons, and it was only natural that Jess picked up the game from her father.

“My dad has helped me a lot,“ said Jess. “He’s really inspired me. He never pushed me or anything like that. But he always believed in me, which got me this far.”

What she didn’t pick up however, was dad’s old blocker and facemask. Her mother Lynn saw to that.

“Actually I was a goalie at first,” Jess said. “But my mom said it’s enough to have one goalie in the family.”

Ah, family. It’s a wonderful thing.