Hello all, and welcome back to Husky History, a column focusing on one accomplished UConn athlete per week. Each article details the athlete’s accolades at Connecticut, as well as their ability to take their games to the professional level. This week’s Husky History focuses on women’s hockey legend Annie Bélanger.
Bélanger grew up in the town of Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Her whole family, including brother David and parents Louis and Carmen, were fans of the Montreal Canadiens. After years of watching hockey on television, Bélanger’s mother suggested that she try playing it.
“I was super shy to actually start playing, like I was a ‘hide under the table’ type of kid… the day before the first practice I panicked and didn’t want to play anymore. I was nine at the time and my mom was like, ‘You’re not going to spend your teenage years watching hockey on TV.’ She forced me to try it out, and I loved it,” explained Bélanger.
Bélanger, a longtime goaltender, initially started out on defense. As attackers made their way down the ice, she had a tendency to drop to her knees and make saves with her gloves, so in her second year she made the switch to goalie.
While Bélanger said there were plenty of growing pains at the position, her development accelerated playing with an elite boys hockey program alongside her prep school team. During that stretch, Bélanger was a star, winning the team MVP award at Champlain College’s prep school twice, as well as a league MVP award in 2014. While a step forward to the college game was imminent, Bélanger’s path to Storrs wasn’t the usual route. She had been talking to a few schools in Canada, but one home game at Sherbrooke while playing ball hockey changed her life.
“One game, this girl came up to me after and was like, ‘Where are you going to college?’ I was like, ‘Well, I don’t really know, I’m talking to a couple of schools in Montreal and Ottawa.’ She said, ‘I just graduated from UConn, and I’m going to talk to the coach [on your behalf],” said Bélanger.
The UConn alum, Quebec native Maude Blain, put in a good word for Bélanger. Head Coach Chris MacKenzie and his staff paid a visit to the goalie during a big tournament at Stoney Creek. Bélanger had what she described as “the worst game of my life,” giving up six goals in 12 minutes. Already in her senior year of high school, she was determined to not let an opportunity slip away again. Later that winter, when UConn came back to watch, Bélanger put up a stellar performance, leading to an offer the following day.
When MacKenzie made the offer to Bélanger, her decision was immediate. She accepted the offer before she even left the meeting.
“He was like, ‘No, like talk to your mom and dad, make sure you think about this,’ Bélanger recalled. “I was like, ‘No, mark me down.’ I did not want it to slip away because sometimes in recruiting, coaches will tell you that and then [take it away].”
And so Bélanger traveled to Storrs. The program was recently taken over by Mackenzie and was in a rebuilding stage, with the team going 11-18-8 in her freshman campaign and 18-15-5 the following year. The goaltender backed up Elaine Chuli, a UConn legend in her own right. The heavy slate of games (and shots faced) was a challenging transition for Bélanger, but Chuli helped the young goalie adjust to the collegiate game.
“Anyone can get up and get ready if you know you’re going to have one big game every two weeks, it’s easy to get up for that,” explained Bélanger. “When it’s every few days, it’s really draining mentally. That was the major thing I learned. Elaine just has a really high compete level… we all had good days, bad days, but her compete level was really high.”
By her junior year, Bélanger was the starting goalie, leading the way in 30 games for the Huskies. The team finished 14-18-4, while the Canadian was second in Hockey East in save percentage. While she showed improvements from year to year, it was in her senior season that Bélanger erupted. She earned Hockey East Goaltender of the Year and Hockey East First Team All-Star thanks to a league-best .938 save percentage and 1.84 goals against average. After a rough start to conference play, the team started to turn things around.
“We had zero wins in Hockey East until like, January 17th,” Bélanger recalled. “At some point, you kind of let go and be like, ‘Whether we turn this around or not, this is it.’”
On senior night weekend, it was the Huskies versus Merrimack, the bottom two teams in Hockey East. Since seven of the top eight teams made the conference tournament, UConn had to win or tie the series to make the playoffs. Connecticut swept the Warriors and headed to Providence for a tough best-of-three slate with the Friars.
To say the first game didn’t go according to plan is an understatement, as the Huskies fell 4-0 in a blowout. Bélanger and the team didn’t concede however, defeating the Friars in back-to-back contests to become the first No. 7 seed in Hockey East to ever make a semifinal game. Connecticut doubled down in the next round, knocking off the top-seeded (and then-No. 3 in the nation) Boston College to advance to the program’s third-ever Hockey East final.
While the team fell short in the final, it was a historic run to remember, with Bélanger helping lead the way. In the postseason, the goalie posted better numbers than her league-leading regular season numbers.
“Going back to the Hockey East Tournament was really important to me, like I feel like the team deserved to go,” Bélanger said. “It felt like a big accomplishment because a few weeks earlier, you’re dead last… the group that we had was so special and I think everyone who was on that team will remember that month and a half of hockey for a long time.”
After graduating with a degree in finance, it was time for Bélanger to move to the professional ranks. She was drafted in the third round of the 2018 CWHL Draft, immediately contributing to the Clarkson Cup-winning Calgary Inferno. Weeks after winning the championship, the league disbanded, leaving several women looking for a new place to play. A player’s association was formed, but Bélanger decided to step away from playing further due to scheduling issues and distance from her family in Quebec. Her hockey career was over, but Bélanger’s next chapter had just begun.
“Maybe I’m disappointed by how my hockey career ended, but what came out of it? I’m really thrilled and excited about it,” said Bélanger.
Today, Bélanger lives in Toronto working for a private equity firm. Her UConn ties are still very strong, as she is vocally supportive of all things Connecticut through her Twitter account. She created her account during the pandemic as a way to reconnect with her family over the border, and has now reached a following of over 1260. Bélanger consistently interacts with UConn Nation through tweets and Twitter Spaces.
“You want to be involved, but if you live in Canada, you can’t really physically go to games and do these things,” said Bélanger. “I think that was the best way for me to feel like I was still kind of connected to the school because the school is really important to me.”
Recently, Bélanger came down to celebrate the inauguration of Toscano Family Ice Forum, meeting up with former teammates in celebration of a new chapter for the program. The team has consistently been in and out of the national rankings as of late, and players like Bélanger helped have that way for a new batch of student-athletes.
“I’m just really happy for them,” said Bélanger. “If I played a small part in that, then that’s great… We weren’t consistently good when I was at UConn but I think we did show some signs of [success]. Now they’re consistently good and we met the kids this weekend, you can see it’s the same type of kids, people that want to be there.”