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O’Brien a leader by example for Niagara County girls varsity hockey

Every team needs a difference maker; a player who is not only skilled, but also carries themself with an air of confidence that gives everyone on the team a little swag

Natalie O’Brien is such a player.

O’Brien, a Starpoint High School sophomore, is part of the Niagara County squad that just wrapped up its first regular season in the WNY Girls Varsity Ice Hockey Federation. The team is currently a merged effort between Starpoint and Niagara Wheatfield. Lewiston-Porter is set to join them next season.

Though skating off the ice without a regular season win was not what O’Brien had in mind when the season began, she has the maturity to look at the big picture. She knows that every little step along the way, from better skating to better passing, has made a difference for this young squad.

“I knew that it was going to be a rough ride the whole time because we’re new. These are some good teams that have been together since the start,” O’Brien said after the final regular season game. “I would have expected to win a couple of games but it’s the first season. You learn from your mistakes and we have made a lot of progress this season.”

As “NiCo” navigates the choppy waters of competing in what many believe is the best girls league in the state, O’Brien said one of the key components of a successful team on the ice is building that friendship off the ice.

“We’ve bonded a lot as a team,” she said. “We were together three or four days a week. We got super close.”

O’Brien definitely made an impact on the scoresheet as her 15 points led NiCo this season. But there is so much more to Natalie O’Brien’s game than scoring.

“She’s been a good leader all year,” NiCo head coach Greg Grosskopf said. “She’s not the most vocal, but she works her butt off which is great. She’s a great role model for the younger girls. Being the leading scorer on the team helps a lot too. They always look for her on the ice.”

While O’Brien would gladly trade her points in a heartbeat for a couple of wins, she is hopeful that her offensive efforts can have a ripple effect that inspires her teammates to feel a sense of growth in their game. She feels that if she can do small things like battle for the puck in the corner to help set up a teammate for a goal then every ounce of the fight is worth it. “I never stop working,” O’Brien said. “I always want to do my best to help everyone else out.”

Grosskopf said that O’Brien is the kind of girl who makes things happen. Supremely confident, she always wants the puck because she believes that she can make a difference for her team.

“We talk about it every game. You gotta make a difference,” Grosskopf said. “We’re always looking for that one person to be a game changer. Natalie is a game changer. I can’t wait to see her grow throughout the next couple years.”

Mature beyond her years, O’Brien strikes that perfect balance where she knows how to assert herself as a leader without disrespecting or creating conflict with older teammates.

“Just her being a good teammate. Being a leader,” Grosskopf said. “She’s a role model to a lot of the younger girls. She’s  been great with them and great with our senior leaders.”

Wanting to do her part to create a healthy, team first atmosphere, O’Brien wants the younger girls to know its ok to demand the best from themselves and each other, but remember that it will take time and that they are all in it together.

“For the younger girls especially I try to tell them it’s the first season,” she said. “Most of the middle schoolers have four or five years left to go. So you have to stick together and be there for each other. Pick each other up, not put each other down.”

For O’Brien, who was among the grassroots campaign of girls and parents who helped bring a girls Fed team to Niagara County, every day they are on the ice is a victory because of how hard they worked just to have this opportunity.  Every Board Of Education meeting they went to, every sign she made, every penny raised came from the desire to want to represent her school on the ice, which is why Natalie O’Brien will never take a minute in this league for granted.

“It’s nice having the logo on your shoulders, just knowing that you fought for what you wanted and you got what you wanted,” O’Brien said. “That’s really cool and especially having people there who have the same dream as you and have the same ideas and same goals in mind to support each other. It’s really cool to be out there.”

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