Even in the anonymous world of women's college hockey you don't need a game program or a mug shot to identify Meaghan Sittler. Sit in the stands of Alfond Arena at Maine's Colby College long enough, and her presence simply reveals itself, as it did to the Colby student who walked in five minutes after the start of the White Mules' game against Northeastern on Feb. 18. "Which one is Sittler?" he said to no one in particular. As he spoke, he turned to see a Colby player extricate herself from a tangle at center ice, pick up a loose puck, deke two Northeastern defensemen and flip a backhander into the goal. "Never mind," said the student. "I found her."
At 20, Sittler, a sophomore center, may be the best women's college hockey player in the country. She is without question the most productive. This winter Sittler led the nation in regular-season scoring, with 41 goals and 40 assists in 21 games. In her final 13 games, including Colby's 7-2 loss to Brown in the first round of the NCAA tournament, she had eight hat tricks and either scored or assisted on 82 of 111 White Mules goals. Sittler is a strong candidate for the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team that will debut at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. "Meaghan's a franchise player," says Harvard coach Katey Stone. "She doesn't make many mistakes. She's always in the right position. Like I said, a franchise player."
Tales of Sittler's exploits have filtered up to the highest reaches of the sport. On Feb. 15, as he surveyed 40 top youngsters at an annual Canadian prospects' game in Toronto, Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher told his scouting staff to put away their clipboards. "Don't even bother, guys," Fletcher deadpanned. "We already have our first-round draft pick for next year: Meaghan Sittler."
Her gifts—the downy-soft hands, the vision on the ice that allows her to see two or three steps ahead of other players, the production so efficient and dependable that it suggests the assembly line of a German car plant—seem as easy to explain as her green eyes and her blonde drape of hair. Why should we be surprised that Sittler has been so blessed? She is, after all, the daughter of NHL Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler and the sister of Ryan Sittler, the seventh pick overall in the 1995 NHL entry draft. Hockey success, we assume, is her birthright.
Meaghan was born in Mississauga, Ont., on March 12, 1976. There's felicity in that: Darryl, then with the Maple Leafs, concluded that spring with 100 points, including an NHL-record 10 in a game against the Boston Bruins. It was his second-most-productive season in a 15-year career with Toronto, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings. But while bloodlines certainly played a role in drawing Meaghan to hockey, they did not preordain greatness. Rather, her success has been nourished by a rigorous year-round training regimen, an abiding love of the sport and a deep-seated fear of failure. "Her love of hockey is something that can't be taught," says Darryl, who is a special consultant for Toronto. "Wanting to improve and be an elite player is something Meaghan has always wanted for herself."
Darryl and his wife, Wendy, recall being awakened from their weekend slumber by the incessant thud of a rubber ball striking a wall in the 4,000-square-foot basement beneath their bedroom in East Amherst, N.Y., near Buffalo. Meaghan and Ryan and their friends would spend hours playing roller hockey. "We called it the BHL," says Ryan, who is two years older than his sister. "The Basement Hockey League." When they came up for air, they would sit in front of the TV and play Sega Genesis hockey. "Well, we watched movies, too," she says.
"For example?" she is asked.
"Youngblood was our favorite," she replies sheepishly, referring to the hockey gore-flick starring Rob Lowe.
Meaghan played in boys' leagues through the eighth grade. By all accounts she held her own, even as she suffered the taunts, high-sticks and cross-checks of her male peers. "The big problem a lot of the guys had with Meaghan wasn't so much that she was a girl," says Ryan, now a Flyers left wing. "It was that she was a girl who was better than a lot of them."
After her freshman year at the Nichols School in Buffalo, Sittler was invited to try out for the under-18 girls' U.S. national hockey team. By the time she entered Colby three years later she had been named one of the top five girls in the country. During that period she had an epiphany. "I had played hockey most of my life just because it was fun," she says. "But all of a sudden there were select teams to try out for, the Olympic team to shoot for. Hockey, I realized, had become my life."