For the Love of Hockey

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Photo courtesy of Shattuck-St. Mary's

Raleigh teenager has elevated her game to the international level


Mary Derrenbacher has sacrificed for the game of  hockey.

By the time the Raleigh teenager reached the eighth grade, she had logged years of playing exclusively against boys, spent summers in the Northeast seeking girls’ competition, then moved 1,000 miles away from her family.

Today, the outcome of those choices is clear: She is one of the top amateur hockey players in the world. Derrenbacher, who is 15 years old, made a splash on the world stage in January as the youngest member of the gold medal–winning U.S. team at the 2024 IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship in Switzerland. 

Derrenbacher didn’t just make the U.S. roster; she was one of the top scorers. She earned eight points in six games, including a goal against Finland in the semifinals.

“It was an unreal experience, just being in another country,” she says. “To really contribute and feel like I helped the team was unreal.”

At first glance, Derrenbacher’s success at the international level seems improbable. Not only were most of the players a year or two older, but at 5 feet 3 inches tall, she is on the small side. When you consider how her career was shaped, however, it’s hardly surprising she has pushed past any obstacles.

The roadblocks were present from the earliest days of her career. She fell in love with hockey at the age of 3, watching her older brother, Jack, play the game. After a year of figure skating at age 6 (“I didn’t like that,” Mary says emphatically), she began playing hockey—first in a junior program with the Carolina Eagles through age 8, then with the Carolina Junior Hurricanes from ages 9–13. 

Not only were they all-boys teams, but the skill level increased with each age group. “They were all very good—better than me, mostly,” she says. “Playing with them, I felt like I could keep up with them.”

Derrenbacher attends Shattuck-St. Mary's boarding school in Minnesota, known for its elite hockey program. Photo by Chris Derrenbacher.

Eventually her parents sought out competition for her in the ranks of girls hockey, but that meant playing tournaments with the Boston Lady Whalers from April to July. “When I switched to playing with girls, I really excelled,” Derrenbacher says.

But nothing compared to her decision to leave home before eighth grade. Derrenbacher, a freshman, attends Shattuck-St. Mary’s boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota, known for its elite hockey program. “I was nervous coming here. It was kind of last minute, about two months before I had to move in,” she says. “It changed my life so drastically. Once I came here, I realized that this is what I like and this is what I want to do.

“I always knew that playing with boys was going to end. So I was looking for where the best girls program was, and obviously that’s Shattuck. I really wanted to come here. I just had to make the jump to living away from home and handling hockey and school all by myself.”

The boarding school schedule is filled with routine. The day begins with morning workouts, followed by classes and a 90-minute practice—all before lunch. The afternoons bring more schoolwork and on-ice skill sessions. 

The fast-paced, hockey-focused life is everything Mary wants, but not surprisingly, it leaves her parents with mixed feelings. There is a fine line between giving children the opportunity to excel beyond expectations and holding on to the traditional roles of moms and dads. 

“As a parent, that’s a really hard decision to let your kid go at that age,” says her father, Chris Derrenbacher. “Christy, Mary’s mom, and I didn’t feel like we were done with Mary yet. We just knew that with her work ethic, her God-given talents and her love for the game, we felt like we would be holding her back if we kept her here.”

And with that decision, Mary was free to flourish. She plays for the school’s Girls U16 team, her weekends filled with tournament play against other prep schools and club teams. The high-level competition helps improve her game. 

“Being strong, so I don’t get pushed off pucks, is a big thing,” she says. “Also being quick, always moving, is a way to get around bigger people.”

Eventually, she will set her sights on playing for a prominent Division I school, but she will have two more opportunities to play in the Under-18 Women’s World Championship. She hopes to be a leader on those teams. “Obviously when you go up in age, the game just gets faster and smarter, and you make quicker decisions,” Derrenbacher says. “You use the older girls to look up to and see how they deal with pressure.”

Down the road, there will be additional opportunities. Shane Willis, who coached Derrenbacher during her Junior Canes years, expects she will be ready for the challenge, whether it’s the Olympics or the Professional Women’s Hockey League.

“She worked extremely hard, whether she was skating or working out with the boys, and her skill level continued to grow,” Willis says. “Now we kind of sit back and watch this go, because she is going to continue to work as hard as she can. When it’s her time, the sky’s the limit.” 

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