Concord native Simpson takes hockey skills to global stage

  • Concord native Erica Simpson (left) competes for Team USA during the World Ball Hockey Championships last month in the Czech Republic. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Friday, July 07, 2017

Back in 2007, Erica Simpson scored the first goal in the history of Concord High girls’ varsity hockey. Last month, she scored the game-winning goal for Team USA in its opening game at the World Ball Hockey Championships in the Czech Republic.

“She’s got a nose for the net,” said Jason Kelly, the general manager for Team USA. “She’s a natural goal scorer.”

Simpson, a forward, and her American teammates made it out of the six-team round robin as the fourth seed at the World Championships. They beat Canada in the semifinals, 3-2, on a last-minute goal, and then lost to the Czech Republic in the title game, 4-3, in overtime. Still, it was the first time Team USA medalled at this event, and it was the experience of a lifetime for Simpson.

“It was hard watching another team celebrate, especially because we came so close,” Simpson said. “But it was definitely a great trip and a great team. We had no drama, no cliques.”

If you never knew there was a ball hockey world championship, or never even heard of the sport, you’re not alone. Kelly said that many of the women who play on Team USA might have been big-time college ice hockey players, but they had never heard of the ball hockey (also known as floor hockey) before joining the team.

Ice, puck and skates are replaced by synthetic flooring (slick plastic is preferred), ball and sneakers in ball hockey. Other than that, the rules are the same as ice hockey for both men and women (no checking for the women), with one exception – once the ball passes the blue line, the offensive zone extends back to the red line, giving teams more space to operate.

“They’re pretty much the same thing,” Simpson said. “Hockey is hockey.”

Simpson was a force for the Concord girls’ hockey team before graduating in 2008, but she didn’t play college ice hockey, like many of her national team teammates. She played pick-up ice and ball hockey at White Park, and eventually joined a local ball hockey summer league a few years ago, but she didn’t have any dreams of going further with the sport.

In 2015, however, she played in a ball hockey tournament in Merrimack, where she was noticed by another team that asked her to join them for a tournament in Philadelphia, one of the sport’s hotbeds. Simpson accepted the invitation and went to Philadelphia, which is where she first caught Kelly’s eye.

“We noticed her right off the bat, saw that natural goal scoring ability,” Kelly said. “She was on a brand new women’s team, so we were watching them to see if there were any girls we wanted to get, and there were two or three girls that kind of stood out, and then Erica rose to the top out of all of them.”

She was invited to tryout for Team USA in March of 2016 and, after surviving a couple rounds of cuts, she made it. Asked if she was surprised, Simpson said, “No, well, I don’t know, I am pretty good.”

She laughed after the comment, but she’s right. She is pretty good, and she’s only getting better.

“Her improvement has been phenomenal,” Kelly said. “When she stepped out on to the national stage with all these other girls who are full-scholarship D-I players, ex-Olympic level athletes, I think she was pretty nervous, and rightfully so. She was a big fish in a small pond before, but now she’s stepping on the floor with all these other phenomenal athletes that are just as good as her or better than her. But her skill level really showed up as she was moving forward in the process with the girls.

“As she stepped on with better players she played even better every time she was out there. And she was probably the one with the most growth out of everybody in the program.”

Some strong athletic genes helped Simpson make that leap. Her grandfather, Hap Simpson, set the boys’ basketball scoring record at Concord High in the 1940s. Her father, Champ, broke that record in the 70s and held the mark until Matt Bonner came along twenty years later.

Even though she fit in athletically, Simpson had never been tested on the big stage, but that quickly changed in the team’s first game at the Tipsport Arena in Pardubice, Czech Republic. Italy forced the Americans into a shootout, and the USA coaches chose Simpson to shoot third. With all eyes on her, the Concord native delivered when it mattered most.

“I think that broke any confidence issue she might have had in the beginning of the tournament and really showed her that she belonged there,” Kelly said. “And as we went through the tournament she got better and better and I think her potential to keep going is definitely there. She just has a great feel for the game. She’s absolutely a pure goal scorer.”

Simpson said that goal was her personal highlight, and beating Canada in the semifinals was the best moment for the team, but playing against the home team Czechs in the final was amazing in its own right.

“There were like 3,000 people in the crowd. It was unreal. They were like a soccer crowd with all the horns and chanting,” Simpson said. “Even though the crowd was against us, it was still cool. Definitely high emotions.”

She hopes to go to the 2019 World Championships, which will be held in Slovakia. Until then, Simpson will keep traveling to regional and national tournaments. And, when she has time, she’ll keep playing pick-up games at White Park, where so many Concord hockey dreams are born.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)