Life After Hockey

Dogged defense still key to Luongo’s job

Life After Hockey: Nicki Luongo
As a New Hampshire Wildcat, Nicki Luongo once rivaled Northeastern Huskies forward Hilary Witt. Today Witt coaches Luongo's alma mater while Luongo works down the street from Witt's, training a different breed of Huntington Hound. (Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The popular Old Western attitude toward scarce territory rarely applies around the Olde Towne of New England. Even when it does, it is not liable to spark much conflict.

Certainly not in any parts of Boston where you can find Nicki Luongo. As compact as the city is at 48.3 square miles, it is plenty big for sports and culture.

Luongo’s workplace is the Museum of Fine Arts, housed in a 109-year-old building on Huntington Avenue. Within a five-mile radius are the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Harvard Art Museum and Institute of Contemporary Art.

Together, those could field a broomball Beanpot of company teams, if enough employees were so inclined.

There was a time when, travel-wise, Luongo’s institute was more along the lines of the out-of-town Peabody Essex museum, some 25 miles away. She used to join her University of New Hampshire hockey team in visiting one of three Boston-area rinks in the ECAC women’s league.

It could have been Northeastern’s Matthews Arena, a 108-year-old barn on Huntington. Or it could have technically been outside city limits, but in the same 617 area code. That would have either been Boston College’s Conte Forum or Harvard’s Bright-Landry Hockey Center.

Matthews, home to NU’s Huskies and an easy Green Line E subway ride from the MFA, is affectionately dubbed the Dog House. That is not to be confused with the Dog Pound, home of Boston University’s Terriers on another Green Line branch.

Besides the Division I men and women, these venues host their share of lower-level college, high-school, junior and youth action. There is no shortage of opportunity for blast-from-the-past diversions.

The thing is, though, Luongo’s personal planner is as booked as the busiest rink’s.

“Sometimes,” she told Pucks and Recreation when asked if she frequents her old haunts and watches her intercollegiate descendants. “But right now, I’m coaching my son’s youth hockey team from Nashoba Valley (roughly an hour west). That takes up most of my free time.”

Nicki Luongo All-American

After bouncing back from injuries and academic snags, Luongo succeeded Brandy Fisher as UNH’s captain. (Photo courtesy of UNH Athletics)

Throughout this calendar year, Luongo has been coaching another family member at the MFA. In January, the museum unveiled what is believed to be a never-before-tried dog-sniffing campaign against pests that prey on paintings.

As director of protective services, Luongo has been tasked with training the new sleuth. It helps that she has prior experience fostering K-9 police servicemembers, and that she enlisted her own family’s year-old Weimaraner, Riley, for this innovative initiative.

At the program’s inception, MFA deputy director Katie Getchell told the New York Times, “It’s really a trial, pilot project. We don’t know if he’s going to be good at it. But it seems like a great idea to try.”

Given its stature within Boston’s bountiful arts scene, the MFA is an appropriate testing ground. Compared to neighboring equivalents, it boasts the most quantitative (more than half a million works and artifacts) and varied collection.

And if cumulative visitors are the measuring pole, then it is what the Terrier men were when their Beanpot was waggishly nicknamed the BU Invitational. Between 1986 and 2010, they would go no more than two consecutive years without taking the trophy. In all, BU has won 30 of the first 66 men’s Beanpots.

Art Newspaper reports that the MFA ranked No. 60 among the world’s most visited art museums in 2017. With 1,226,431 guests, it attracted more than all but eight other American institutes. Those that surpassed it were based in the larger cities of New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles.

Yet no internal employees are keeping score. To that point, Luongo does not declare her Gardner, Harvard, Contemporary Art or Peabody counterparts competitors, but “colleagues.”

“In our minds, more art is a good thing,” she said. “In the protective-services industry, we support one another and consult all the time. It takes a village.”

Life After Hockey: Nicki Luongo

Luongo is the first woman to hold her current position at the MFA. (Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

‘Night and day’ times
Luongo grew up 30 miles northwest of the Hub in Tyngsboro, brushing the New Hampshire border. Her rise as a person coincided with that of women’s hockey as a program at the pioneering universities on each side of the state line.

UNH had inaugurated its program in 1977, followed by Harvard a year later. Northeastern joined in 1980, when the Wildcats were defending their sport’s first conference tournament championship. New Hampshire would not lose a single game in its entire chronicle until Dec. 8, 1981.

By 1994, the Cats owned four titles from the ECAC playoffs plus another four from its precursor, the EAIAW. As the college and international game swam to the mainstream, Luongo was ready to contribute to the era’s definitive program.

She was primarily a defender, but also had decent, if not extravagant, point-producing prowess. Down the road, that was enough to make the newfangled Olympics more than a pipe dream. The Nagano Games would feature the first women’s tournament during Luongo’s senior year.

But a combination of health and academic setbacks tripped her up, for a time anyway.

“I was out for a semester and had some learning challenges and adjustments to make after tearing my ACL,” she said. “I can’t say enough about the support UNH provided during that time. They were great in helping me understand that my education was the priority and hockey was a privilege. They spent a lot of time helping me determine where I fit in, both academically and athletically.”

By the end, she fit into the record book at fifth among UNH’s leading career scorers from the blue line. With 84 points, she tied Shawna Davidson for that slot, and the two rank No. 10 today.

One of those above that mark was Heather Reinke, who graduated with 103 points in 1997. The timing of Luongo’s turnaround was most opportune, as she effectively filled Reinke’s skates as the team’s defensive anchor.

In 1998, Luongo’s belated junior year, the Wildcats won the first formal national championship in women’s college hockey, ousting Brown University at Boston’s FleetCenter. Meanwhile, senior teammate Brandy Fisher claimed the inaugural Patty Kazmaier Award, the long-time-coming women’s equivalent of the Hobey Baker.

“I’ve always said that you have to learn how to lose before you can learn to win,” Luongo said. “That championship season was a great example of that. After facing adversity, things sort of fell into place. We had a close team that stood together no matter what. Winning in the end was a brief moment in time when your childhood dreams really did come true.”

Nicki Luongo Kazmaier finalist

As a senior, Luongo was a finalist for the second Patty Kazmaier Award. (Photo courtesy of UNH Athletics)

As a senior, Luongo rose to UNH’s captaincy, and flexed an unprecedented two-way prowess. Amidst a 13-0 thrashing of border rival Maine in mid-November, she had a hand in seven of the scoring plays.

But then the short shelf life of the ultimate glory kicked in. After the Wildcats and their representatives spent that calendar year breaking championship ice and setting records, their Crimson colleagues from the Commonwealth south of the border took their turn.

UNH was one sudden-death strike away from a repeat national crown in 1999. But eight minutes into overtime, and spilling over into a ninth, a Harvard team coached by another one-time two-way UNH defensive standout in Katey Stone saw all of its stars align.

U.S. Olympic gold medalist A.J. Mlezcko and Canadian standout Jennifer Botterill were leading a swarm on Wildcat property. Blueliner Angela Ruggiero, another American Nagano veteran, was in the mix as well.

The Harvard Crimson newspaper went on to describe the game’s deciding sequence as follows: “At 8:01 of the extra period, co-captain A.J. Mleczko won the puck in the left corner and raced past UNH’s best defenseman, senior Nicki Luongo, along the goal line. Mleczko slid the puck under the diving glove of Wildcat junior goaltender Alicia Roberts, who set a school record with 48 saves. On the receiving end was freshman winger Jen Botterill, who slammed home the championship-winning goal.”

Two days later, Mlezcko was awarded the Kazmaier. Luongo, a repeat All-American, finished third in the final vote. Botterill would later win it in 2001 and 2003, to say nothing of four Olympic gold medals. Ruggiero earned it in 2004, a decade before enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

For Luongo, that would be the end of the extramural showdowns. Two decades later, she insists she does not “remember the play or much of the game at all.”

She does, however, treasure her later opportunity to skate with Mleczko and room with Northeastern standout Hilary Witt on the U.S. national team.

“Our experiences as rivals and teammates were positive,” Luongo said. “More importantly, back then, we had to support one another and stick by each other through good times and bad.”

While Mleczko went on to play one more Olympic tournament in 2002, Luongo was in the running for a roster spot until the preceding August. Injuries had caught up with her. In addition, the opportunity to sustain and sharpen her skills in the two years between graduation and the official tryout was scant.

Nicki Luongo UNH

(Photo courtesy of UNH Athletics)

Although she attained a degree in English teaching at UNH, Luongo offers a simple summation of today’s women’s hockey landscape versus the one she beheld through her window.

“Night and day,” she said. “Women in the game today are lucky to have so many options for college and to play professionally. The competition is much better than when I played the game, and I think they’ve earned a lot of respect, which is a great thing.

“I wish it was like that when I played. But I hope that my generation helped lay some of the groundwork for women in the sport today.”

Incidentally, the women were not the only Wildcat pucksters to lose a national championship in 1999. The UNH men dropped their own overtime decision to Maine that year. But of the 25 players on that season’s roster, 17 had a chance to play beyond school. Three of them made the NHL, and three were active as late as 2016.

If she had as many avenues as the men and more consistent health, Luongo might have been wrapping up her career in this decade. Or she might have taken her teaching talents behind a college bench. And she may not have had to go far from home to do it.

For three seasons this decade, with the CWHL’s Blades and NWHL’s Pride, two professional women’s teams used the Boston dateline. That only changed this year when the Blades moved west to Worcester. One alumna of both teams, three-time Olympian Kacey Bellamy, leap-frogged Luongo on the UNH defenders’ all-time scoring list in 2009.

The four Beanpot schools remain, jockeying for recruits year-round, PairWise positioning for five months and civic bragging rights on two Tuesdays every February. But in an age where #growthegame pervades Twitter in a women’s hockey (among other sports) context, kinship still transcends competition.

Imagine, then, what it was like in Luongo’s playing days. Two decades ago, her sport was still an Olympic neophyte. Bona fide professional leagues were an afterthought. The collegiate ranks ran not under an NCAA banner, but as the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance. The latter finally changed in the fall of 2000.

The familiar Hockey East conference would not get a women’s equivalent until UNH, NU and four others seceded from the ECAC in 2002, mimicking their male counterparts’ move from 18 years prior. Boston University would not start fielding its modern varsity program until 2005.

What-ifs might find some space in the back of Luongo’s mind. The thing is, they are not invited. It is nothing personal. She would just as soon accentuate the positive, keeping the memory bank pure.

“In the end,” she said, “the experience was amazing, and taught me a lot about myself and my ability to push myself harder in whatever direction the world sends me.”

Nicki Luongo Team USA

Luongo on her tryout for the 2002 U.S. Olympic team: “In the end, the experience was amazing and taught me a lot about myself and my ability to push myself harder in whatever direction the world sends me.” (Photo courtesy of UNH Athletics)

Switching places
Six years separated Luongo’s graduation from UNH and her first inside look at the MFA. Her 2005 arrival culminated the journeywoman phase in a career built around a lifelong affinity for non-profit institutions.

“My parents worked hard to instill values that focused on giving back to the community and others that needed help,” she said. “They taught us to be kind and caring of everyone. As I grew up and learned about the different types of businesses and organizations, I always felt that the non-profit world was where I belonged.”

For her last breath of high-level hockey, Luongo briefly joined old bench boss Karen Kay’s staff at UNH after being cut from the national team. Among her achievements there, per her LinkedIn profile, she “Created computer based evaluations, academic tracking, and recruiting systems with various software programs.” But Kay was relieved after the 2001-02 season, and the coaching crew dispersed.

As it happens, while Luongo now works in the neighborhood of Witt’s alma mater, Witt holds the Wildcat reins. A Northeastern Athletic and Massachusetts Hockey Hall of Famer, Witt also fell short of the 2002 Olympic team. She promptly joined the Yale coaching staff, then ascended to the head position a year later.

After briefly shifting to an assistant slot at NU, Witt filled UNH’s next vacancy in the spring of 2014. That move made it easier for her to attend Luongo and Stone’s UNH Athletics Hall of Fame induction that June.

“She has done great things for the game,” Luongo said, “and remains dedicated to continuing to improve the experiences and opportunities for young women playing hockey. I’m happy for her, and think she does a great job at UNH.”

When her own crack at college coaching ended, Luongo had three years of experience as a service technician in Chelmsford, Mass., bordering her native town. She stayed there through 2004. The next year witnessed three job switches, with a stint at Liberty Mutual Insurance as a security manager in between.

But by October 2005, the MFA had opened its door to her inner linguist, learner and leader.

“I feel like I use my teaching background consistently in my current career, and I’m grateful to have had the experience,” said Luongo. “The protective-services team is a large group, and these kinds of skills are important when I’m training them on everything from conflict resolution, medical response, managing high-stress situations and other everyday protection strategies to keep people and our collection safe.”

As the assistant director of security technology for seven years and one month, Luongo made the MFA eclipse her combined tenure at every preceding professional stop. Then she got a helping of the institute’s actively progressive principles.

Balancing work with caring for her young son, Luongo was also expecting triplets in 2012. That was when her dedication and familiarity yielded her elevation to director of protective services. Assuming office in November of that year, she became the first woman to hold the title.

“Without a doubt, my biggest accomplishment is my children,” she said. Professionally, though, her ascent up her division’s ladder “has certainly meant more than I can put into words.”

In the coming month, she will have rounded out six full years in her current post.

Life After Hockey: Nicki Luongo

Riley has been training through all of 2018 as part of a unique pest-sniffing program. Of her newest protective-services prodigy, Luongo says, “He’s well on his way!” (Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Treasurable talents and promising prodigies
Storm in the Mountains, an oil painting by the German-born, Massachusetts-raised 19th-century artist Albert Bierstadt, hangs in Luongo’s house. It is one of Bierstadt’s many realistic renderings of a given landscape, roughly 20 of which the MFA boasts.

With the color, Luongo’s favorite work captures the lavishness of a verdant setting, even as dark clouds creep in. But when Bierstadt opted for grey and grainy portraits, one could swear he was wielding a camera.

“I’ve taught myself how to draw, and I’m awestruck by the artwork on our walls,” Luongo said. “It’s one thing to have talent as an athlete, it’s completely another to be able to draw or paint. I’m fascinated by artistic genius, especially when you look at a painting and think it’s a photograph. To have that kind of talent is incredible.”

To justify Boston’s self-proclamation as the Hub of the Universe, the least the MFA can do is hold a comprehensive swath of that top-notch talent within the same set of walls. Indeed, examples of virtually every medium of visual art from each continent and era is represented there.

“What I love about the museum is that there’s really something for everyone,” Luongo said. “Ancient mummies, Impressionist paintings, Chinese scrolls and American silver are just a few examples.

“We never discuss the value of the collection. In a word, it is priceless.”

The behind-the-scenes exploits of Luongo’s division are equally sensitive. She did, however, allow that ever-evolving technology equals extra encouragement.

While pro hockey has “moneypuck,” emulating baseball’s sabermetrics revolution, analytics keep the MFA’s guards a step ahead in their task. The staff crunches patterns, Luongo said, “to predict human behavior and find new ways to display and protect the art.”

The main difference is all findings are fair game for other museums, regardless of area code or even zip code.

“It’s been great to be able to share our research and findings with colleagues from all over the world.”

Long before Luongo’s time in the field, the neighborhood had its most sobering example of the advancements’ importance. In 1990, 13 works were lifted from the Isabella Gardner, a seven-minute walk from the MFA.

A page on the victimized museum’s website reminds visitors that the case is still “active and ongoing.” It offers a $10 million reward for successful leads on the perpetrators and paintings.

Odds are that, if any memorabilia symbolizing UNH’s 1998 AWCHA championship went missing, the lengths for recovery would exist. But they would pale next to the Gardner’s drive to bring back its treasures.

“Playing a sport is one thing, but protecting people and artwork is on a completely different level. They are irreplaceable. The consequences are far more significant than losing a game.” – Nicki Luongo

The woman who could not outwit Mlezcko on her last intercollegiate shift understands the difference better than anyone. Any effort to relate the challenge or strategy or defending of a net or a title to that of safeguarding revered cultural remnants crumbles when you consider the disproportionate magnitude.

“There really is no comparison,” Luongo said. “Playing a sport is one thing, but protecting people and artwork is on a completely different level. They are irreplaceable. The consequences are far more significant than losing a game.”

If anything can be quantified here, it is the volume of artifacts needing attention. Per its annual report for 2017, the museum procured 5,399 new works, the most in any year since Luongo’s promotion.

But that unprecedented uptick coincides with the team’s new four-legged offensive defenseman. With Riley, Luongo has yet another apprentice eager to tap her teaching instincts.

In January, local and regional media of all forms descended on the MFA for a word on the acquisition. One message was palpable: Boston’s biggest art aggregator is too big for the smallest of visible organisms.

With Riley, the MFA is rephrashing that statement, one that anybody could freely Xerox for their own sake. Of course, the copycat rate will hinge on the hopeful revolutionary canine’s success.

On that note, how has this new breed of Huntington Hound come along since his draft day? How has the scouting report changed in the last 10 months?

“Riley has made incredible progress,” Luongo said, “and we’re really pleased with how he’s advanced through his training. He’s completed basic puppy training and is now in the midst of scent training.

“We’re using moth pheromones to help him track and identify these insects, which are particularly damaging to textiles. He’s well on his way!”

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Al Daniel

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