June 3, 2020

Producing Special Finale for PU Women’s Hockey, Goalie Neatby Now Heading to Swedish Pro League

STANDING TALL: Princeton University women’s hockey goalie Steph Neatby guards the crease this winter during her senior season with the Tigers. Senior Neatby came up big for Princeton in the ECAC Hockey title game at top-ranked Cornell, making 31 saves as Princeton rallied for a 3-2 overtime win in the March 8 contest. That turned out to be Neatby’s last appearance for the Tigers as the NCAA tournament was canceled days later due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Neatby will be continuing her hockey career, having signed a contract to play with Swedish professional club Linkoping HC. She will be joined on the squad by classmate and star forward Carly Bullock. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

It was a rough start for Steph Neatby as the Princeton University women’s hockey team played at top-ranked Cornell in the ECAC Hockey championship game in early March.

With senior goalie Neatby yielding two goals in the first 2:49 of the contest, the No. 6 Tigers fell behind 2-0 and appeared to be in for a long afternoon against a team that had already defeated them twice handily in regular season play.

“We had a TV timeout after the first five minutes; I went to the bench and I always talk to my goalie partners and Rachel [McQuigge] turns to me and I was like ‘oh God, what do I do,’ ” said Neatby, 6’0 native of Toronto, Ontario.

“She said it can’t get any worse and I was oh you are right. She calmed me down and I thought I might as well just go for it. Then I went back in the first period and they almost scored three more but I would make the save.”

Neatby kept on making saves, ending up with 31 as Princeton rallied for a 3-2 win in overtime, earning the program’s first-ever ECACH title.

“I keep talking about it, for us and the men’s team, luckily we were the teams that got to end on wins,” said Neatby, noting that the Tiger men’s team swept Dartmouth in the opening round of the ECACH playoffs that same weekend.

“It was so important. None of us have any regrets about that weekend. For me personally, it was probably the best weekend of hockey of my life.”

But that memorable weekend led into one of the toughest weeks for Neatby and her teammates as all college winter and spring sports were canceled on March 12 due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It was crazy, everyone found out over Twitter actually which was kind of horrible,” said Neatby.

“We were all in our dorm rooms and we saw the Twitter and texted our group chat which includes our coaches and said is this real?”

The cancellation was all too real, leaving the Tigers to rue what might have been as they brought a 26-6-1 record into the NCAA tournament.

“It was really hard, we were the first Princeton women’s team to win the ECACH so we saw ourselves going further than just that weekend,” said Neatby, noting that the squad was getting ready to play at Northeastern in an NCAA quarterfinal contest slated for March 14.

“We really felt we could go the whole way; our team was disappointed. It is always good to be the team that is winning going into the last part of the season.”

Neatby, though, will be able to keep going in the game, having signed a contract to play with Swedish professional club Linkoping HC where she will be joined by classmate and star forward Carly Bullock.

“Halfway through the season, Carly and I were talking about how we both wanted to play in Europe after school,” said Neatby.

“I was set on this Swedish League and Carly was iffy and didn’t really know yet. As we neared the end, we both wanted to play in the most competitive league. Our team was doing so well and it is really fun when you win. I think we both want to win again and play in a competitive league.”

The players received a vital assist from Princeton assistant coach Courtney Kessel in sealing the deal with Linkoping.

“We thought Courtney might be able to help, she played a playoff season with Linkoping so I asked her if she would be able to get in touch with the coach,” said Neatby.

“She was actually able to talk to them and find out that their goalie was leaving so there was a wide open spot for me which was ideal. The hardest part for a goalie is to be able to find a place where you will be able to make an impact. Their chairman sent me an e-mail and a text and asked if we could chat. He had been looking at Carly and I told him you should definitely talk to Carly and we would love to play together.”

Getting the chance to continue playing with the prolific Bullock, who tallied 30 goals this winter and 95 in her Tiger career, is a big plus for Neatby.

“I am so happy, she is one of my best friends, if not my best friend, that I have made at Princeton,” said Neatby.

“She is also really good at scoring, she astonished me this winter. It is hard to have a breakout season when you have already had three before.”

In Neatby’s view, the good chemistry across the board with her teammates helped Princeton produce its historic campaign this winter which saw the Tigers set a program record for most wins in a season in addition to earning their first ECACH crown. 

“We were all just really good friends,” said Neatby, adding that the players have stayed in contact since March through Zoom meetings and FaceTime chats.

“Obviously we have extreme talent, goal scoring ability, and incredible defense but I think it is so important for teams to just like each other.”

It did take a while for Neatby to start liking her role of playing in a goalie rotation with junior McQuigge.

“It was a really tough transition to share the net, it was challenging but it definitely got easier as the year went on as Quigs and I became more a team rather than competing,” said Neatby, who ended up making 20 appearances this winter, posting a 1.92 goals against average (GAA) and a .924 save percentage with two shutouts while McQuigge played in 12 games and had a 1.51 GAA and a .933 save percentage.

“Both of us struggled with that in the beginning because usually a team has one goalie and then you just keep going. It was a little difficult to find a rhythm. Quigs and I had a turning point about halfway through the season where we both realized you know what, this is what is going to happen and we can’t change it.”

As she prepares to compete in Sweden, Neatby has been forced to be creative, returning to an essentially empty home in Toronto with her family getting ready to move to Madagascar.

“All of our stuff is packed except for furniture and we sold all of our gym equipment,” said Neatby.

“When my mom and I realized that we were going to be here for a lot longer than we expected, we actually rented a spin bike from someone who ran their own classes. I borrowed a medicine ball from a trainer who lives down the street and I borrowed a set of dumbbells.”

Neatby is hoping to move to Sweden in late July. “They have a goalie camp on July 27 that is conjoined with the men’s team so that is really awesome,” said Neatby, who ended her Princeton career with a 1.82 GAA, a 933 save percentage, and 12 shutouts in 76 games, getting named as ECACH Goalie of the Year in her freshman campaign and earning All-ECACH and All-Ivy League honors along the way.

“There are high level goalies from all over Sweden, professional men goalies and my goalie partner from this team, so I will be heading over there hopefully for that. I will see if Carly wants to come and be a shooter at the camp.”

Looking ahead, Neatby is expecting some high-level competition at the pro level.

“I have seen some games and highlights and the players look very skilled,” said Neatby.

“I think it is a common theme with European players to be very, very skilled and tricky. It is hard to tell on video. The best thing is to get into a practice situation and see how fast the shots are.”

Not having any firm idea on how long she will stay in Europe, Neatby is planning to take things years by year.

“Carly and I both signed a two-year contract but I think we are allowed to leave if we want,” said Neatby, an ecology and evolutionary biology major who is also
looking to do some grad work at Linkoping University.

“I don’t think either of us have any assumptions yet about how long we will be there. We want to go and test it out. If we love it, then great, we are set.”

In any event, Neatby is ready to get back to the game she loves. “Oh my gosh, absolutely, I can’t wait,” said Neatby. “I see my gear in our living room and I just want to be on the ice.”