Before she arrived at Northeastern, before she led the program to its first Frozen Four and before she won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top women’s player in the NCAA, Aerin Frankel was nearly a victim of her own success.
To understand, one must go back to Frankel’s days as Shattuck-St. Mary’s starting goaltender and recognize hockey’s version of the chicken-and-egg paradox. It’s question armchair philosophers and barroom debaters have considered for ages: is a player a product of the environment or the environment a product of the player?
Consider the arguments about the impact of the New Jersey Devils’ style of play on Martin Brodeur’s Hall of Fame career, whether Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante were truly integral to the Montreal Canadiens’ dynastic success, or if a Shooter Tutor could have backstopped Canada’s 2005 World Junior Championship team to gold. If you hadn’t noticed, this line of galaxy-brained thinking usually concerns netminders.
Which brings us to Frankel. Despite the three national championships, a 1.10 goals-against average, .945 save percentage and 39 shutouts on her prep-school resume, she was by no means a five-star recruit. “People saw me at Shattuck and were like, ‘Hey, she’s winning these championships, but she might not be seeing a ton of action,’" Frankel said. “‘She’s getting 15 shots a game and getting a shutout or getting 20 and giving up one goal, but she has a really strong team playing in front of her.’”
And that’s how a netminder now recognized as one of the best in the world found herself being courted by just three NCAA programs. It’s also how Northeastern coach Dave Flint, by offering true opportunity, was able to land the greatest goaltender in program history.
As Frankel recalls, what Flint’s pitch lacked in lash it made up for in honesty. She was told she wasn’t coming in as the No. 1 but would be expected to push then-starter Brittany Bugalski. Frankel was guaranteed she would get playing time.
But most importantly, she was assured her minutes would be merit-based – if Flint believed Frankel gave Northeastern its best chance to win, she’d get the crease. By season’s end, that’s exactly what happened. With Northeastern on the brink of transforming into a legitimate Hockey East contender, the Huskies turned to Frankel. All she did was deliver the program its first conference crown on the strength of a .951 save percentage across four tournament games and put to rest any questions about her ability translating to the next level.
What may best encapsulate Frankel, though, is not that she snatched the starting gig but that once she did so, she wasn’t satisfied to simply be the go-to goaltender for Northeastern. “I’m my toughest critic, and I’m pretty hard on myself, so that helps me to keep pushing forward and to reach that next step,” she said. “It’s important to never have a fixed mindset, always be growing, looking to get better. I’m always doing videos with (coach Flint) and learning from even the good games that I’m having. What can I be doing better? It’s that hungry mindset of mine that has allowed me to continue to get better.”
Get better she did, with that freshman campaign acting not so much as a breakout season as it did a statement of intent. In her sophomore, junior and senior seasons, she improved year-over-year with respective save percentages of .932, .958 and .965, GAAs of 1.81, 1.07 and 0.81 and a combined 25 shutouts. She backstopped the Huskies to three more Hockey East titles. She won consecutive conference tournament MVPs in 2018 and 2019. And her otherworldly performance saw Frankel win ‘Patty Kaz’ as the top collegiate player this season.
The 2020-21 campaign wasn’t all roses, though. After guiding the Huskies to their first Frozen Four and first national championship game, Frankel and Northeastern fell victim to a bad bounce in overtime of the tournament-deciding contest. There is, however, a sliver of a silver lining. The NCAA extend-ed eligibility as a result of the pandemic, which means Frankel’s senior season won’t necessarily be her last with the program. “I do think there’s unfinished business and I’d love to be part of that special group that is going to be back next year,” she said. “A lot of our seniors are returning.”
In the end, Frankel didn't make USA's Olympic centralization roster, but USA Hockey still feels great about what Frankel brings to the table.
“Aerin just has the drive,” said Katie Million, director of USA Hockey’s women’s national team. “You can see it, you can feel it, you can tell it. Some players have it and some just don’t. Aerin is definitely a player who we see who has the drive, has the will, wants to be part of that Olympic team, that women’s national team, and is open to developing and growing with us and our program.”