The Distance to Here

August 19, 2020

The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.

Italo Calvino

I never met Jayelle. I didn’t even know what she looked like. Yet when she suddenly died of a heart attack last month, it hit. Hard. Way harder than I expected from a Twitter follower that I didn’t know in any other capacity.

A few days later, I attempted to find an obituary, something that would give me a more complete picture of the person behind the avatar, but without knowing her last name, it was a fool’s errand. Absent that, I started to piece together what I knew.

We connected through hockey, she was a Penguins fan. I think she was from Pittsburgh originally, although her bio said “Penguins fan in Flyers country,” which probably meant Philadelphia, or at least one of the famous but smaller cities in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or Delaware. Allentown? Lancaster? Wilmington? Maybe one of those, maybe none of them. Her wife Katya, who jumped on the account with the tragic news, was Russian and a Red Wings fan, possibly because of her homeland’s well-documented influence on the franchise dating to the 1990s.

She was a huge NASCAR fan as well, and very liberal politically, often changing her Twitter display name to highlight a Trumpian gaffe or the week’s hot issue. Her final change neatly merged the two interests, and to her followers, she’ll always be “Jayelle #IStandWithBubba,” referring to Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace and the noose-that-wasn’t found in his garage back in June. She was certainly thrilled with the surprising and progressive moves the sport made in her final weeks, most notably including a ban on Confederate flags at tracks.

Jayelle loved pandas (her profile picture was a drawing of a panda waving a checkered flag), The Simpsons,and The No-Longer-Dixie Chicks, the latter two details filled in after the fact by Katya. I randomly remembered a few days later that she tweeted a ton about The Last Man on Earth when it was on the air. For a moment, I thought about her handle, @GreenEyedLilo, and tried to squeeze something else out of it. Was she Hawaiian? Did she see herself in the character in some other way? Or did she just really like the movie? Ultimately, I had no choice but to let the hopeless ambiguity go.

There was another woman, from my early days on the app. She followed me because of a shared Wings fandom, and we tweeted to each other occasionally. I didn’t know as many of her personal details – she lived somewhere in Macomb County, Michigan and had a special needs son who played goalie. A couple years after our virtual meeting, she mentioned that she had cancer. Some time and a series of Bible verse tweets after that, her account went silent. I suppose there’s enough gray area in the situation to hold out hope for the best absent any confirmation one way or another, but Occam’s Razor would argue otherwise.

Last summer a younger girl, maybe a teenager, passed away. I knew even less about her than I did about @GoalieMom31, but from what I could piece together, she (somewhat obviously) had a lot of health problems and lengthy hospital stays. She had unfulfilled dreams of being able to see the Carolina Hurricanes and Metropolitan Riveters play in person and would sometimes be upset online in the middle of the night, at about the same time as I was whining about some much less significant problem.  I did my best to come up with some encouragement when called on to do so, even though I was fully aware that I was throwing a frisbee into, well, her favorite NHL team’s mascot. Then one day, her mother let a bunch of complete strangers know that she was gone.

Really, those situations are the good and bad of this entire digital world rolled up into one place, and laid bare through the most extreme circumstance possible.

The death of a close friend or a family member is a tragedy, while the death of a stranger is a statistic. And for most of human history, those points and the spectrum in between where celebrities, friends of friends, and second grade teachers reside were easy to parse. But how do you process the death of a Twitter follower – someone you can’t say you know know with any degree of intellectual honesty, but who knows things your own parents don’t? Someone whose life, and death, never would’ve entered your orbit in a different generation but represents an algorithm-perfect friend in this one?

I deleted a Twitter account last week. It was both a difficult decision and an easy one.

The difficult part largely had to do with the people that account brought into my life over the last six years. Some have become real-life friends, while plenty of others have entered Jayelle’s sphere. It’s not lost on me that more than one person who will eventually read these words is an “acquaintance,” but only in a sense of the word that didn’t exist 40 years ago. 

Still, most or all of those people are safely tucked away in one or more of my other social accounts, so the regret isn’t as much about the past as it is about the future. If I’m not Club Hockey Sandwich, I’m just Kyle. The people who already know Kyle seem okay with him, but there’s not a ton of reason for new people to gravitate his way, beyond some blog posts that nobody outside of his existing circle is likely to know exist.

The easy part? Well, that’s where death re-enters the conversation, although largely in a more metaphorical sense.

Comedic theory is at least as old as Thomas Hobbes, who wrote in Leviathan that people laugh at the misfortune of others due to feeling a “sudden glory,” a relative elevation of their own status. Modern philosophers and psychologists have sewn their own threads into the fabric of our knowledge as well. The University of Colorado’s Peter McGraw found that others getting hurt is funny, provided that no empathy is felt for the victim. At Stanford, William F. Fry forwarded the idea of “play frames,” which largely deal with context – someone tripping and falling on a sidewalk can be funny, but someone falling out of a high rise to their death is not. He also studied the idea of incongruity, the idea that humor is found in breaking expectations.

Those analyses explain a lot about Twitter, which has evolved from its early days of insipid lunch updates to a sort of dystopian open mic free-for-all where people stretch for clout through that one magic joke or dog video that will pull six-figure likes. Too-smart-for-the-room snark is the universal language of the app (and really, pretty much any online territory), and takedowns of anyone who mildly annoys you – celebrities, politicians, brands, random people with a Bad Opinion – preferably in the form of whichever SpongeBob screengrab is circulating at the moment are accepted and even encouraged.

Guns don’t kill people, and neither does Twitter, but they sure make it a lot easier, even if the killing in question is merely a verbal bodybagging.

Wielding the 280-character sickle (well, 140 at the time) was originally the domain of trolls, but soon, the counterattacks came and earned sort of a folk hero status for their purveyors. The Los Angeles Kings were first in the hockey world with their burns of Vancouver and Canada during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs (the initial reaction to the Kings, hilarious in hindsight, was an assumption that someone was having a work-related breakdown and billion variations of “oooh someone’s getting fired”).

But in 2020, a team or league account that doesn’t act that way, at least some of the time, is considered stuffy, and of course, many people and brands in and out of sports have made their reputation through the most blunt form of honesty with a human personality. Wendy’s even flirted with self-parody (and possibly jumping the shark) by using one of those dubious social media-driven “holidays,” National Roast Day, to encourage followers to tweet at them and eat a fresh never frozen clapback.

I suppose that’s where I entered the fray. I was never trying to be anything, I made no efforts to expand my personal brand, I just treated my second account as an extension of myself, only with exclusively ACHA women’s hockey content. Sometimes that meant sarcasm and chirps that were never meant to be mean-spirited, 95 percent of the time it didn’t. Nevertheless, I earned a reputation as something of a Twitter hero, a keyboard warrior, a basement dweller, pick your favorite online person pejorative.

The backlash began, just a couple schools at first, followed by a steady trickle. A dad from Delaware yelled at me because I joked about a town named “New City, New York.” Grand Canyon’s team account blocked me because, after noting that they had buildings on campus identified with numbers, I offered to flip them $20 to get my name on one. IUP had half of their roster screaming at me one time because they were using their team account to sling t-shirts for a different club one of their members was in, and I disapproved of it. Central Michigan got annoyed with me asking to go to their recruit skate for some reason, and I still don’t know why Miami stopping liking me after about 2017.

For a long time, I assumed everyone else was the problem. The social trends are clear, I’m not doing anything that hundreds of high-profile accounts aren’t – in fact, I’m pretty tame by some comparisons – my audience is just soft.

That might be partly true; women’s hockey’s audience is much different than what’s typical in the NHL. At the college level, nearly every fan is a parent, a sibling, or a significant other, and those aren’t crowds where negativity has much of a foothold. The outside interest that does pop up, both in and out of the ACHA, largely involves pedestal construction: look at these role models and the legions of young girls they’re inspiring.

Really, it took Jayelle’s death for me to figure it out.

Since the advent of the digital age, we’ve been inclined to separate our acquaintances into groups like “real-life friends” and “internet people,” the unstated part always being that the second group is an off-brand version of the first, a team wearing Athletic Knit playing against Bauer or CCM. But that’s not at all how it works.

The thing is, even though my inventory of Jayelle’s life stopped short of some unknown ideal, it turned out that I actually knew a healthy amount of information. Certainly more than I have on a lot of the people who exist on my real-life periphery, a stock group that always ends up in the same building as me for Easter, Christmas, weddings, and funerals. “Hi, how are you doing, how’s the grind, how about this weather we’re having, see you at the next one.” Jayelle was a step or three beyond that point, despite the fact that I very well could have walked right past her on one of my trips to Philly (if that’s even where she lived) and never realized it.

Human relationships aren’t a dichotomy, they’re a spectrum where locus is merely one consideration, not a rigid category. As unfathomable as the concept might be to anyone before 1990, a certain number of deep conversations and shared interests can outweigh physical proximity and a last name. And in the small world of women’s hockey, almost everyone – even those who have never met in person – is far closer to everyone else than the typical Reply Guy is to a Sara Civian or a Jillian Fisher.

There’s no moral ambiguity to what they’re doing, some rando in Oakleys or represented by a Punisher skull says something mean, and the wisdom of crowds generally gets it right as the media figures and plenty of others pile on.

Meanwhile, everyone in my circle is someone’s teammate, someone’s friend, someone’s daughter. Yet while they may be closer to me than most of Civian’s followers are to her, they’re not close enough to take every comment as intended, to understand my personality and my motives as a friend would. And, oh yeah, they’re still not as close to me on the spectrum as they are to several other segments of my audience. No matter how righteous I may be as an academic exercise, there are consequences to jumping into conflicts, even the most superficial ones about t-shirts.

So began the slow demise of a Twitter account, probably imperceptibly slow to most. Engagement declined, the follower count stagnated, and every other month a new team would have some sort of issue with me. At some point a collision course with a reckoning and a lesson was set, and the death of a friend provided an opportunity for reflection.

If all you’re bringing to life is death, you should probably question your value to the universe. Death is inevitable whether someone brings it or not.

I’m choosing to go home and bring something else for a change.

Missed Messages

June 14, 2020

As she skated to the blue line at The Ohio State University Ice Rink for the pregame ceremonials prior to the Buckeyes’ 2017-18 opener against Michigan, Nora Anderson was a bit nervous.

It’s natural, of course, for anyone in Anderson’s skates to feel some anxiety. She was about to do something she had done on numerous occasions previously, however this time was different. Not only was it the season-launching contest against the hated team up north, it was her debut in scarlet and grey. And while nobody will confuse a typical ACHA women’s game atmosphere for Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, Anderson was nevertheless the center of attention on a bigger stage than she had known to that point.

But, when things came down to it, her best instincts kicked in. The familiar opening bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Anderson dropped to one knee, and she was joined by teammates Kaitlin Berigan, Julia Phillips, and Mikayla Richter.

You undoubtedly know Colin Kaepernick. While the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback didn’t invent the concept of national anthem protests, he became the modern face of them in 2016 when he began taking a knee to draw attention to police brutality and other issues facing people of color. Kaepernick was eventually joined by roughly 200 other NFL players at one point, before the league effected a policy against the practice prior to the 2018 season (and probably blackballed Kaepernick as well).

It’s likely that you also know Megan Rapinoe. The U.S. national soccer team star backed Kaepernick’s efforts by kneeling prior to a match against Thailand in 2016 (and once before that with the Seattle Reign, her professional team), but was similarly cut off from future protests by a hastily-enacted U.S. Soccer Federation rule.

If you’re a hockey person, you’re probably familiar with John Tortorella and J.T. Brown as well. The fiery Tortorella, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ head coach, was asked about the Kaepernick protests in 2016 while coaching Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey and infamously said “If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game.” The hockey community, noted for its – let’s just come out and say it – whiteness, conservatism, and commitments to authority and the group ahead of any spirit of individualism, overwhelmingly supported Tortorella.

Brown, then playing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, was an exception, quickly tweeting “Wouldn’t benching a black man for taking a stance only further prove Kap’s point of oppression?” in response. He later backed up his words with action by raising his fist during the anthem on October 7, 2017 in support of Kaepernick and his cause.

“I remember that, and Seth Jones said he found kneeling disrespectful too,” Berigan said. “I thought it was a peaceful way to protest, and mostly I just saw how negatively it was taken. I was an intern with the Blue Jackets at the time, and one of my main jobs was to send out Leo [Welsh, the Jackets’ anthem singer] and the military honor guard every game. So I really felt like that wasn’t a safe place for me to voice my opinion.”

“It just always felt, especially in hockey, that kind of stuff just doesn’t fly.”

Nevertheless, just four miles north of Tortorella’s home ice in Nationwide Arena, seven days prior to Brown’s protest, and with much more anonymity than either man ever receives, Berigan, Anderson, and a couple of their teammates first made their own stand, by refusing to do so.

There are a few things you should understand about Anderson. She’s outspoken and passionate, that much may already be obvious, but her opinions are educated – she played hockey as a law student and is now an immigration attorney in Cincinnati – carefully considered, and deeply researched in a way that flies against the “outspoken and passionate” stereotype. And kneeling for the national anthem wasn’t something that came to her on a whim or because Kaepernick made it trendy.

“I haven’t stood for the national anthem in years,” she said. “I didn’t decide to do it in 2017 just out of the blue, it came to me slowly.”

Anderson (left) and Berigan (front)

Her upbringing was typically American in that she was raised in a culture of national reverence, enhanced by a dozen years in the Girl Scouts and its quasi-militaristic program of flag ceremonies and patriotic songs.

“I think that’s good actually, that you as a young person should learn the traditions of your country,” Anderson said. “But one of the things that really was an issue for me in the back of my mind was that growing up in Columbus, Columbus police are one of the most violent police forces in the country, and I think that’s very much still true to this day.”

A transformative experience came from a church-sponsored year of service she completed between her undergraduate degree and law school. Anderson lived as an economically disadvantaged person during that time, an attempt to truly understand the less fortunate.

“Experiencing the other end of life in Columbus, living in a low-income neighborhood, was really eye opening,” she said. “It was also at that point in time that the Ferguson protests were taking place. The combination of those two things were…what is it about this country that makes it worth respecting, that makes it worth standing for the national anthem? At that point, if I went to a major sporting event like an Ohio State football game, I would just sit down, I just wouldn’t do anything.”

“I still don’t stand for the national anthem, because people are still being murdered by the state.”

Anderson has a highly unconventional hockey background. She didn’t learn to skate until she was 22, and mostly learned the game playing roller hockey at Tuttle Park, as she put it, “just getting absolutely hustled, getting my ass kicked by all the roller hockey guys there.” Through that experience and sessions through the Chiller rinks, she eventually got to the point where she felt she could hang with the club team at Ohio State, fulfilling a dream of competing for the Buckeyes.

There was just one issue: her refusal to stand for the national anthem. Figuring she had nothing to lose, Anderson approached head coach Derrick Henderson, then the whole team, and found a receptive audience.

“My reaction was just shock,” Henderson said. “I didn’t think it was going to be a thing. Inevitably, you always think about what you’d do in that situation. I know what I would have done, or I’d like to think I know what I would have done, but as a coach, I can’t really do anything.”

“So when Nora comes up and she says she wants to do this, she says ‘I heard we play the anthem before games…yeah, I’m not doing that.’ And I was like wait, what? We’re all a team, I’ve got your back, that’s not a problem, but make sure it’s cool with your team. You guys have to have this discussion, because I don’t want to just drop things on them. Because if they don’t support it, then I can’t really support it, but we’ll figure out something to make it work for you.”

Henderson probably didn’t need to be worried. Ten minutes later, Richter and Phillips came up from OSU’s infamous basement locker rooms and said that they were in as well. Berigan missed that initial meeting due to her internship but caught wind of the idea later, and surprised Henderson by spontaneously joining the protest. While participation never exceeded four (of 14 players on the Buckeyes’ roster), nobody expressed any objections.

“The anthem didn’t really represent anything I believed either, so I thought it was really cool to have other girls on the team who had a similar way of thinking as I did,” Berigan said. “I had friends growing up that were Black, that played on my team, so I’d been discussing things with people since then. It seemed like the right thing to do, it didn’t really feel like a decision.”

The fact that her coach, Henderson, was Black wasn’t lost on her either.

“I think he really was kind of touched by that,” she said. “I don’t want to come across with the white savior mentality, but I didn’t realize how much until he started tweeting about it again recently. He still thinks about that, so I guess that made it worth it.”

Henderson acted as a point man and helped keep tensions to a minimum

From those initial steps, Henderson developed a plan to make sure everyone was protected and to reduce any possible friction. He cleared the idea with the university and its rec sports department, the CCWHA, and the ACHA, and those organizations were supportive. Home games, he reasoned, were in their house, so their wishes would apply. But for road games, he checked ahead with the hosts to make sure kneeling would be okay. Two teams, Mercyhurst and Miami, took issue, so Anderson and the others remained in the locker room during the anthem before those contests.

All in all, there were very few hiccups. Sure, there was plenty of awkwardness, a few people sharing photos with non-committal “I’m not taking sides here, just reporting the facts” comments, but many were also supportive. Michigan’s Caroline Hurd even joined in the kneeling during the season’s opening weekend.

“I honestly have so much respect for her, because I don’t know if I would’ve done it if it was just me,” Berigan said.

“After hearing all of the hype with Kaepernick and the NFL, and all of the backlash he got, it was a really interesting moment for me to experience it firsthand right before playing a hockey game,” Rachel Arias, who skated against the Buckeyes with Robert Morris, said. “It was definitely a moment where I felt like the girls were doing it out of respect for what they believe in.”

Then there was Adrian.

“Adrian was hysterical to me,” Henderson said. “At first when it happened, it was kind of like shock, people were like ‘oh my gosh.’ But we got through day one.”

“Day two we did it, and some girls in the crowd decided that they were going to quote-unquote taunt us by singing the national anthem, because they just used the canned music you get from YouTube.”

“And you know what happens when you’re singing a song and you get to a part and you realize you don’t know the words to this part, you just kind of mumble your way through it, power through to the part that you do know? You could kind of see that they got to a part where they didn’t really know the words. So it starts with them just belting out the national anthem, and then dying out and stopping because they forgot the words. That is priceless to me.”

By the time OSU traveled to take on the Bulldogs, the counter-narrative of “kneeling is disrespectful to the military” had fully taken hold. And Adrian might have been the most military-friendly team in the ACHA, outside of the service academies, thanks largely to a fundraiser that involved the team donating to Wounded Warrior Project for each goal scored.

There were a few taunts from fans following the anthem, then things spilled over to Twitter after the game. The Bulldogs’ Sam Fortune, who spearheaded the WWP fundraiser, was respectful and simply restated her beliefs: “I love my country. I respect our troops. And I will always stand for the national anthem! #FreedomAintFree,” followed by “Meanwhile we’re raising money for our veterans with our annual ‘goal-a-thon’ if you’d like to pledge plz visit our website! #WachaStands.” Others got a bit nastier.

“They were the only school, the only series of games, where somebody made a stink about it,” Henderson said. “We knew it wasn’t anything to do with the flag and the military because we’re smart people and can understand nuance.”

“People would come up to me and say ‘oh I have grandparents and family who served in the military, and that’s what the flag means to me.’ And I’d have to sit there and say, I’m Black. My grandfathers fought in the war. And you know what? When they came home from serving their country with honor and distinction, they had to come home to that same country not giving them personal freedoms. Not giving them the G.I. Bill loan with money they were promised they could get. Segregated housing, because the guy who created the town I was born in and lived in didn’t want Black people living in his town, despite the fact that it was supposed to be for military housing.”

“One of the things that really bothered me is that people would say ‘you’re disrespecting the flag, you’re disrespecting America,’” Anderson added. “In no way am I doing that. I think America was founded on the promise – the partial promise, I should say – that each person has the right to choose their own destiny and their own freedom.”

“If we had an America that lived up to that promise, one in which our Black citizens could literally have life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own happiness, I think we would be in a much better place. Why can’t we live up to that promise? It’s a false narrative that it’s somehow disrespecting the troops. That’s not the case at all.”

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Whatever your beliefs, there’s something a bit jarring about an anthem protest. Something that violates comfort zones, following a lifetime of culturally-conditioned obedience to the phrase “ladies and gentlemen, please rise and remove your hats.” Even after seeing clips of various athletes kneeling hundreds of times over the previous year, witnessing the Buckeyes do it in person still made me say “whoa, this is big.” And that’s precisely the point.

“It’s intended to be a conversation starter, but not a conversation finisher,” Anderson explained. “Not standing for the national anthem is not the end-all be-all. If that’s the only thing you’re doing, then I don’t know why you’re here. If that is the end-all be-all of your activism, then you’re a weak activist.”

Really though, the activists were never the flaw.

Kaepernick tried to tell us, with his protests coming largely in reaction to the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner (the latter two coming at the hands of the police, and among many others) in 2013 and 2014. So did Rapinoe, Brown, and the quartet of Buckeyes in following Kaepernick’s lead. Former NHL player Akim Aliu detailed his experiences with racism through a heart-rending piece in The Players’ Tribune just last month.

For his part, Henderson tried to open the lines of communication several times during OSU’s version of the protests, but nobody took him up on the offer: “Nobody had the curiosity, they wanted their opinion, and then they left it at that.”

So we failed to receive each message, and the issue festered until a new round of police murders – most famously including George Floyd – lit up major cities across the world in protest, beginning in late May.

The recent events, necessarily more widespread, forceful, and jarring than ever before, have cast the kneelers in a new light and have forced a reckoning across the sports world as well. Kaepernick has largely been vindicated, a grassroots push to get him back in the NFL is underway, and it’s expected that numerous other players will begin kneeling when the season gets started. The U.S. Soccer Federation reversed their rule. Even Tortorella has come around a bit, recently telling The Athletic that he has “learned over the years, listening and watching, that men and women who choose to kneel during this time mean no disrespect toward the flag.”

“It’s not like there’s a hipster culture of ‘oh I was protesting before it was cool,’ that’s not at all how I feel,” Anderson said. If you come to the realization that something needs to change in this nation, I don’t care when you come to that conclusion, I just care that you’ve come there.”

“From the history of protests over Black people or other people of color being murdered by police, it’s been a very one-sided discussion. And I say that in a way that, one of the things that was very present in the Ferguson era, and that was only five, six years ago, was that it was primarily a series of Black protestors. And I think what a lot of white Americans have come to realize since then is that, again, if one person is not free, then I myself am not free. If the police can kill a Black person without any consequences, then what is to stop them from killing you without any consequences?”

At one point, I asked Henderson about his personal experiences with racism, and he wanted to know whether I meant the “Kaepernick stuff” or in hockey. I wasn’t even sure which one I meant, but maybe it doesn’t matter. The more one thinks about it, the more they seem connected. In a sense, they’re branches of the same tree – is it really that far of a leap from the guy who threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds on the ice to Derek Chauvin?

“It’s good that you have all of these NHLers coming out and saying ‘oh I listened and learned,’ and ‘oh I didn’t realize because I was just blind to it,’ and ‘oh I didn’t really understand,’ and it’s like dude. The Akim Aliu story was a huge story eight, nine years ago when it first happened and the kid was 16, and nobody said anything about it,” Henderson said. “He came out and told you when it happened again, like two years ago, and nobody said anything about it. But now, because of the riots and the protests, and now it’s in your face, now all of a sudden its time for you to perk your ears up and pay attention.”

“This is why this is still a problem. Nobody wanted to say anything until the world started burning.”

So now that everyone is paying attention, where do things go from here? Everyone seems to agree that this time at least has a chance of being different, of being something that creates lasting change. Ending racism might be a pipe dream in the short term, but maybe we can at least start down the road in the right direction.

“It’s sad that we’re still talking about it, but it’s also encouraging to see that there are so many people who, it seems, have changed their stance on it,” Berigan said. “They’re joining Black Lives Matter, going out to those protests, and actually listening to what the Black people in their lives have been through.”

“The message is getting out, people are starting to realize that there needs to be change, and then actually doing something about it. It’s more than just a conversation.”

Anderson, as might be expected from a lawyer, has policy ideas. Some of them center around stronger regulation of the police, fueled by bewilderment that an officer can have 71 use of force complaints and keep his job, as is the case with a Fort Lauderdale, FL cop who made headlines by shoving a protestor. She would like to see a free market approach to policing, with an elimination of qualified immunity and cops forced to carry malpractice insurance, much like a lawyer or a doctor. She also sees an issue with the level of training police have, compared with what she needed to practice law.

Other suggestions are more fundamental.

“What I would like to see, personally, is moving towards a society in which we do not need police,” she said. “Whenever you listen to true crime podcasts, about the worst of society, the dregs of society, serial killers, rapists, murderers, stuff like that. Each one of these people grew up in abject, disgusting conditions. So if you de-invest from the police, and you re-invest in the basic social safety of the United States…it’s not a big discussion because it costs quite a lot of money. But what if we took some of the money we spend on police and put it into that?”

“It really gets me that we’re putting police in situations they shouldn’t be in to begin with. Mental health checks? The cops are not the solution to that, at all. They’re not trained to deal with it. You can’t place all of the city’s problems on the back of one department, it’s literally unsustainable. Take some money that we don’t need to be spending on this, and spend it on programs that will reduce poverty, that will raise the standard of living in society.”

“There are some things you can legislate, but legislating and actually being the culture change, there’s a difference,” Henderson said, while citing examples as varied as shallow NHL team statements and former Rowan County, KY clerk Kim Davis. “The hope is that when you get some of the older generation to move on, the guys taking over can then institute the changes that need to be made. That’s not necessarily throwing the older generations under the bus, but in order for a culture change to take place, one of two things has to happen. One, the previous generation moves aside and the new group takes over and puts their stamp on it. Or two, you burn everything to the ground and rebuild and start over.”

“Like anything else, it’s just going to be time and a change in the culture, and that’s the hardest part.”

The Old Normal

June 4, 2020

Roosevelt’s Carla Pentimone leads Roosevelt’s star-studded Zoom workouts

In late February and early March, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in North America and brought society to a standstill. Businesses were shut down. Stay-at-home orders were issued. A lot of people died, and even more people lost their jobs as the economy crashed. Joe Exotic (and his arch-nemesis, fish oil connoisseur Carole Baskin) somehow became a phenomenon.

Sports, along with every concert, trade show, and family reunion, were canceled – obviously, including the ACHA National Tournaments and the golf-a-thon disguised as an annual meeting.

While people focused on the teams qualifying for nationals and their ambiguous endings and lost chances in the early days of the situation (guilty), the fact is, even those who had finished their scheduled games sacrificed plenty as well. Team banquets, a cherished opportunity to celebrate the season, are a staple for most.

There is also the chance to skate and work out as a group without the pressures and physical toll of having games a couple days beforehand and a couple days afterwards. Those are helpful in a hockey sense, but even more so in terms of team building and simply having some fun. Players who are over 21, or can at least convince a bouncer they are, often hit the bars together. Beer league is another option, of course.

All of that was wiped out as restaurants, bars, rinks, and gyms went dark.

And not only was the end of 2019-20 canceled, as things have ground on, the timeline has inched further backwards to the point where the 2020-21 season isn’t entirely safe either. For now, we’re left with total nothingness, as we sit around, obsess over social media, and hope for the best.

Well, that’s not entirely true. As it turned out life, and the ACHA, found a way. That way largely involved Zoom, a previously-anonymous video conferencing app that lapped competitors from Apple, Google, and Microsoft to become the Starbucks of the virtual world this year: ubiquitous and universally-known, great for meeting up with people, but you need to buy something if you stay longer than 40 minutes.

So when talented Roosevelt defender Ali Sinnett joined her teammates, coaches, and a steady flow of visitors every Friday through the spring for a Zoom workout before starting her shift at Whole Foods, it felt less like a desperate grab for normalcy and more like an innovative way to keep otherwise-isolated players plugged in during the offseason while also growing the program. The Lakers’ sessions, organized by coaches Carla Pentimone and Mason Strom, were a multi-faceted success.

The Lakers’ Ali Sinnett has had an unconventional, but productive, junior-to-senior offseason

While Pentimone was there every week, she also featured a healthy roster of guest stars. Former Wisconsin teammate Carolyne Prevost, who went on to play pro hockey and become one of the top-ranked CrossFit athletes in the world, led one session. So did Saige Pacholok, another former Badger, and stuntwoman April Sutton, who has worked on Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med.

“[Carla] had different people every week, usually she knows these people, but they’re from like different walks of the exercise life,” Sinnett said. “She had [Sutton] come out, she’s had coaches come out, different former players, she had a mental health practitioner come out and talk about how serious the whole mental health thing is.”

Fellow Lakers blueliner Cora Weibye enjoyed later sessions that had a bit less celebrity, but a bit more familiarity and comfort.

“My favorites have really been when we’ve had our seniors lead them the last couple weeks, I definitely think that’s been fun,” she said. “It’s been more team-based in that sense, less like you’re watching a workout video. It’s more personal, and it’s fun because you can make fun of each other, and you don’t feel like you need to behave for your guest. Ali ran a great one, Val Whalen ran a great one, Emily Urban ran a great one. So those have definitely been my favorites for sure.”

Not only have the workouts provided RU an opportunity to assemble remotely, joining the Chicagoans with their teammates from Texas and Minnesota, it’s also proved a fertile outlet for recruiting and marketing. Those vital opportunities are not lost on Sinnett, as the program formerly known as Robert Morris looks for a successful launch into its new era.

“Even though we would’ve had weekly team workouts, and we probably would’ve seen most of each other at least once a week, I think this is even better in that we can have recruits come on,” she said. “Carla usually opens it up to different hockey players in Chicago and across the world. I think at one point we had people from eight or 12 different countries on at once.”

“I think having that aspect to it as well is beneficial, not only to our team, but getting our team out there since we are a new team this year, I feel like that’s a hidden silver lining that I really appreciate,” Sinnett added. “Asking the current players to come out and bring a workout for the girls is also a great opportunity for the new recruits to see the current players in action and interact with them.”

“There’s this one girl, and I think she’s like from Indonesia, some foreign country, I don’t know where, and she keeps her mic on and just yells things at us the entire time,” Weibye said. “She tries to show us her hockey sticks, and her hockey jerseys, and it’s very entertaining, but it’s also your prime ‘what is going on right now?’”

Beyond the overexcited prospects, the standard boring technical issues of mics and cameras cutting out, and the runaway dogs – as happened to forward Xochi Ryskamp during one session – things have been pretty seamless.

“It’s cool because it adds to the team dynamic,” Weibye said. “You’re forced to interact with each other, everyone’s looking at each other, you’re holding each other accountable, which is huge too. It’s nice because we have a decent amount of girls who live out of state, and our quarter would’ve ended at the beginning of May, so I imagine we wouldn’t have been interacting as much at this point with most of them going home.”

Of course, technology unfathomable to Hap Holmes, Odie Cleghorn, Joe Malone, or anyone who participated in the influenza-doomed 1919 Stanley Cup Finals helps players and coaches stay in touch on a more casual level as well.

“As a team we’ve stayed in touch in our group chat almost every day, players and coaches during quarantine, checking in making sure we all know we are together on this,” Khloe Yunker, who helped launch Bowling Green’s team last season, said. “Coaches are also making sure that we are staying productive with weekly workout schedules and making sure we still have the commitment to hockey, even if we are not playing. I think the most important thing out of it is that even though we are not seeing each other or practicing, we are still working as a team and as a family.”

Just a bit north of Yunker and her gang, Concordia Ann Arbor coach Maria Barlow has proceeded with her recruiting on a close-to-normal level.

“[The pandemic] wasn’t a huge hit, because states and stuff in Michigan were already over,” she said “You missed out on [USA Hockey] nationals, which is a good chance to see people from further away. But I mean with our technology these days, honestly, it hasn’t been that different. Online recruiting and videos and stuff is just almost overwhelming how much you can use, so that’s been our focus lately.”

In some ways, ACHA teams are custom built for these types of events. The lack of a 500-page rules manual (along with plenty of supplemental documentation), or the multi-tiered bureaucracy behind it can sometimes be a detriment when it comes to compliance enforcement or preventing poor legislation like well-intentioned but asinine age limits, but in pandemicland, it’s been a boon. The suffocatingly-regulated NCAA recently extended its COVID-related recruiting dead period in Division I through July 31st, while voluntary on-campus workouts were only once again allowed on June 1st (and furthermore, strength and conditioning coaches aren’t able to conduct those workouts).

The ACHA offers no guidance whatsoever pertaining to any of that, and teams are only limited by physical closures and technology, allowing Pentimone and Barlow to do things they wouldn’t be permitted to do elsewhere. Even beyond that, there are cultural differences, usually born out of an environment where, compared to the white-glove treatment afforded NCAA student-athletes, no quarter is given. Quite literally in the cases of teams without a dedicated locker room.

“I think we do know how to make the best of a bad thing,” Sinnett said. “I’m not necessarily saying anything poor about us, but I feel like we can see the good and the bad, and we can make the best of it. And we know how to still be happy about what we can do.”

“A lot of these NCAA teams are on campus, they don’t necessarily have the rink on campus, but they for sure will probably have like a gym on campus that they would be able to use,” she continued. “Or they have like all of these different tools available to them that we don’t necessarily have. We don’t have the amount of funding that they do at all, so we wouldn’t have had any of the stuff they would have either.”

Workouts and recruiting are pillars for any team during the ghostly postseason-but-still-in-school period and into the summer, but most have gone beyond the bare essentials to also preserve elements of what makes them unique.

Concordia Ann Arbor managed to virtually attend chapel as a team through the end of the year

Barlow’s CUAA, for example, typically has in-person chapel sessions available each weekday, with her squad in attendance once a week. The course schedule and cafeteria are blacked out, and the campus pastor (with occasional guest pastors) leads 30 minutes of a message, a couple songs, and a couple prayers before sending the Cardinals on their way with a bite-sized bit of inspiration. The school has been able to continue conducting chapel thanks to Zoom.

“I think I see negatives and positives on each side,” Barlow admitted. “I’ve seen it both ways, you lose out on that personal touch, we’d chat a little before and a little after in person, so you kind of miss out on that. I would try to open it up a bit in our team group chat to talk a little bit before and after, but you just kind of lose out on that personal conversation.”

“But I do think a lot of people, especially this younger generation, they almost thrive on figuring out the easiest way to do things. Now you don’t have to get out of bed and walk across campus to go to chapel, you can log in on your phone and you’re still in bed laying there, listening to chapel. I guess some people could see that as a negative, but I personally see it as a positive that they’re still finding ways to get it done, that sort of thing. I know I appreciate not getting up and getting dressed to go there.”

Others have managed to keep the beat going through social media. The old days where teams would drop all semblance of a digital presence between March and October (then were often forced to start new accounts if the password holder graduated) have largely passed naturally, but things seem to have kicked to a new level during the pandemic.

Roosevelt and Concordia have both been publishing “meet the team” graphics, while Minot State took things a step further with players recording short videos introducing themselves. McKendree even participated in the viral toilet paper challenge, which involves the entire team taking turns virtually passing a roll of toilet paper across state and national borders with some creative flair and crafty editing.

“We just make sure we are connected to each other, and a few of us enjoy connecting to fans and supporters, keeping them updated and hoping to inspire them to join in and do the same with their friends and family,” said Yunker, who helms BG’s active account.

As everything tentatively opens back up, hopefully for good, it seems as though most have taken things in stride. After all, COVID and its attending issues, as widespread as they may be, are simply another set of challenges to overcome in a sport full of them, and carrying a unique set of lessons to learn along the journey.

“The big thing has really been making sure we hold each other accountable, which is important because we definitely have had some accountability issues last season, with participation and all that jazz,” Weibye said. “So I think that’s been a big thing, I hope that it’s teaching us the importance of staying together, especially during things like this, the hard times and challenges.”

“I think just kind of going with the flow of things, and kind of not worrying about the things you can’t control has been huge throughout all of this,” Barlow added.

Into the Fire

May 3, 2020


Just before lunch, I interviewed graduating McKendree defender Delayne Ivanowski.

Then I took a walk.

Walks, I’ve found, are one of the creative’s best weapons. Whether I’m stuck or just want to get off to a good start, there’s just something about being outside and getting some light exercise (music optional) that helps unclutter the brain. Most of my best work owes its existence to a well-timed walk and the moments of clarity and inspiration it produced.

Of course, walks are kind of complicated these days. I saw two girls approaching on bicycle and crossed the street. Then a man turned a corner and headed towards me, so I crossed back. Reflexively, I held my breath while passing a lady sitting on her porch enjoying a gorgeous early May Sunday. I decided to brave the increased population density of the town square instead of making my turnaround a couple blocks short, but I was more preoccupied with processing a million vector calculations – and trying to avoid looking too obvious in my evasion tactics – than taking in the 19th century architecture.

And that’s one of the easier tasks of living in a COVID-19 world. Something like the grocery store is even more stressful, a previously-mindless errand that has now become a rigorous two-hour sequence of face masks, handwashing, Lysol wipes and, for a brief moment, wondering if someone coughed into the machine at the food processing plant and rendered my best efforts moot.

On the other hand, there’s Ivanowski, who is beginning a one-year accelerated nursing program through the Goldfarb School of Nursing at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis this week, with the idea of getting out there as quickly as possible. She’s running towards the danger, not away from it.

I had one very obvious question circled at the top of a notebook page for her: Are you scared?

I didn’t think it really needed much context. Who isn’t scared right now, at least a little bit? While the situation will hopefully be less chaotic by the time Ivanowski receives her second bachelor’s degree, a vaccine is still unlikely at that point. And even before she’s on her own, the medical field is necessarily reliant on practical learning. You can’t figure out how to be a nurse by reading a book and making two discussion board posts each week.

“I’m kind of scared,” she admitted. “I just want to do good, you know? My mom’s friends who have daughters who have gone through the program say how hard it is. I hope it’s not that hard on me, I’m expecting it to be tough, and obviously I have to commit a lot of time to it, studying.”

Uh, no, Delayne…I meant the whole thing with the deadly pandemic and the personal protective equipment shortages for healthcare workers, not to mention the horror stories of overcrowded hospitals and caregivers stretched beyond their breaking points.

I suppose she had already given me her answer in a sense, but I clarified anyway.

“I wish I was working right now, as a nurse,” she said. “I wish I already had my degree, I was in a hospital or a clinic or something, and working right now.”

“Obviously it would be extremely dangerous, you’re literally putting your life on the line potentially. But to be able to look back when I’m 50 or whatever and tell my kid that I worked through a pandemic, and have that history. I’m living through it, but I think it would be so different to actually be like hands-on treating people. I think that would be pretty great, to have a firsthand experience like that would be pretty interesting.”

It probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Ivanowski was among the toughest hockey players anywhere, with the skill to match.

She also has an innate ability to make the best of awful circumstances and carry an upbeat personality, on and off the ice, going back to the beginning of her career – Ivanowski began playing to honor the memory of her younger brother Dawson, who passed away at the age of eight from neuroblastoma in 2007.

Thirteen years on from that tragedy, after stops with the St. Louis Lady Blues AAA organization and Kirkwood High School, she wrapped up her senior season with the Bearcats on the best offensive streak of her career.

The run began on February 15th against Miami, when she crept into the middle of the left circle at the beginning of a McK power play late in the first period. With the entire RedHawks penalty kill faded to the strong side, Kayla Waldbillig found her fellow blueliner with half of the ice to herself, and Ivanowski pumped home a one-timer. The goal would stand up as the game and series-winner (following a scoreless tie the day before), a result that unofficially locked down an ACHA National Tournament bid for the Bearcats and shut three-time national champ Miami out of the event for the first time since 2013.


After a four-point weekend in a sweep of Robert Morris and a goal against Lindenwood-Belleville, Ivanowski opened the Women’s Midwest College Hockey playoffs with a bang. Just 27 seconds into McKendree’s first-round matchup with Minnesota, she rifled a puck from left point off of, then over, Gophers goalie Alex Morris, marking her fifth straight game with a goal. She also assisted on a Camryn Scully tally later on in the Bearcats’ 4-3 win.

“Delayne sees and attacks open ice when she has the puck,” McKendree head coach Derek Pallardy said. “It puts teams on the defensive because she is both a threat to attack with speed, or draw coverage and make a pass.”

“Most of all though, her presence on the power play was huge. Our PP really had success down the stretch, and Delayne was a big part of it. If teams left her open, she could one-time the puck really well, and if they tried to take her away as an option, then that opened up a couple of our other scoring threats.”

“She’s a really good, solid defenseman who was key for us on the power play this season,” Chase Hallemann, Ivanowski’s teammate both with the Lady Blues and the Bearcats, agreed.

All of that led to spots on the WMCH’s first-ever all-conference and all-tournament teams, well-earned honors for the player who had anchored McK’s outstanding group of defenders over 28 games – but also frustrating, what-if ones for the player who had logged just 38 games total prior to her senior year.

The elbow came first, after someone fell on it during practice, an injury that was presumed to be a break initially. But when the pain didn’t subside, it was revealed as a bit more complicated than that.

“If I was just standing there having a conversation with somebody, my elbow would lock up and I’d pop it out,” Ivanowski explained. “My fingers were getting kind of tingly and weird, and [my doctor] was like ‘alright come in, we’ll see.’”

“They did another x-ray, and they found that I had chipped some cartilage off in my elbow, and it was floating around, locking it up, and my ulnar nerve was pretty fired up from it. So they moved my nerve, and they took some cartilage out.”

Then her chronic hip issues flared up during her sophomore year.

“My labrum was torn, and I had impingements on my femur heads. They had to repair my labrum, and shave the heads of my femur off basically, to make sure my bones weren’t hitting each other.”

Don’t forget the other one.

“Almost on the tail end of my right hip rehab, the one I had surgery on, I was like ‘man, my left hip feels exactly like the other one does,’” Ivanowski said. “It’s starting to feel the same pain, like… it’s identical, I can’t make this up.”

“So I went in again, and yep, it’s the same thing as the right one, it’s just slightly worse with hip dysplasia, we’re not going to touch that. They repaired the labrum, shaved my femur again on my left side. I finally started playing again in the spring semester of my junior year.”

“Delayne did have a lot of injuries during her four years but she never gave up on the game and that’s the kind of drive the program needs,” Hallemann said. “She even helped out by taking pictures for us at home games when she wasn’t able to play.”

Whatever damage the injuries did to her hockey career, they inadvertently helped Ivanowski out with the rest of her life, specifically her decision to get into nursing.

She always knew she wanted to do something in the healthcare industry, so she majored in biopsychology, with the idea of going into physical therapy. However, the opportunity to observe that career up close gave Ivanowski’s plans a pivot that was certainly the envy of most of her joints at that point.

The Goldfarb School of Nursing in St. Louis

“After my appointments and stuff, I’d stay and shadow, just hang out with the physical therapists to get hours,” she said. “But after doing that so much, I was just like…not that physical therapy is slow, it just wasn’t for me I guess.”

Another complication was biopsychology’s insistence that she take chemistry and physics, classes that produced an uncharacteristic level of struggle for the Academic All-American.

Or, as she succinctly put it, “I hated chemistry.”

“I took College Chem 1, and I got my first C in my life – college, high school, middle school, in my life, she continued. “I was so bummed, but I was also so happy to get that C, because that class was so hard. It’s just not my brain, it’s not for me. I had always been interested in nursing and decided I’d rather go down that path, and I looked up all of the [prerequisites] for that, to see what I could get into there.”

So, following her junior year, Ivanowski applied to Goldfarb. And, as Natasha Bedingfield once said, the rest is still unwritten.

Hockey is an inherently unpredictable sport that has no real equivalent to something like former major league shortstop Omar Vizquel’s .985 career fielding rate. Nothing is 98.5 percent reliable in hockey. The best players in the world turn the puck over multiple times per game. A defenseman can play a situation perfectly and give up a goal two seconds later thanks to a freak bounce or a breakdown elsewhere. Players can land on teammates’ elbows in practice and derail an entire season.


Coaches and players, then, need to trust patterns and systems. If, after the post-mortem video evaluation, you determine that you did everything right and the worst-case scenario still occurred, well, you just keep doing the right things and trust that the outcomes will fall in your favor over time. Almost every hockey cliché has its origins somewhere in that thought process, from “we gotta take it once shift at a time” to “guys (or girls) have to get to the net.” As overused as they are in interviews, they’re still good advice towards the idea that good procedural building blocks lead to good results.

That’s the part that’s so reassuring about having someone like Ivanowski responsible for people at their most vulnerable as a nurse, or even as a coach with her old Lady Blues program, something she’ll pursue as schedules allow. We’ve seen her process and we know her patterns, to an extent extremely rare with a 22-year-old.

We also have a pretty good idea how she’ll handle a job that, unfortunately, needed a globe-altering virus to be seen for its true importance: with optimism layered on top of cool determination and focus.

“I skated through so much pain, my hips…I could hardly take a stride,” Ivanowski admitted of her injuries. “My shifts were getting so short, I could hardly push off when my right leg was hurting, it was getting bad.”

“But I was at McKendree for hockey, so I might as well stick with it while I can, and I did pretty well.”

“Delayne will be a good coach, especially for younger girls, because of her patience and positivity,” Pallardy said. “She’s a cheerful person, and will be someone that younger players look forward to working with when they come to the rink.”

“Once I was at the rink, I was at the rink to play hockey, or practice, or work out, nothing else really mattered,” Ivanowski added. “It was kind of my escape, and I guess having that, obviously since I don’t have hockey anymore, I’ll have nursing as my hockey. Hockey was my job, and now I’ll have a big girl job.”

“I’m going to see so much. I’m probably going to be super overwhelmed, but I think I’m going to learn so many life lessons from it, not just the book stuff.”

Perfectly Imperfect

Ohio State at California (PA)
Rostraver Ice Garden
Belle Vernon, PA

February 1, 2020


It’s hard to explain Rostraver Ice Garden to someone who’s never been there, other than by pointing out that she was born in 1965 and just kind of stuck around. She’s dated, but comfortable, like your grandparents’ house.

Other structures of a certain age make allowances for vanity at some point. Botox, a hair transplant, a tummy tuck. Most of those things aren’t essential procedures (does anyone actually need the standard “enhanced seating and concessions” included in a typical rink renovation?) but most buildings are trying to be seen as younger than they actually are by any of several groups, including fans, tournament committees, and recruits.

Not Rostraver. Inside her hangar-chic exterior, you’ll find plenty of wood paneling, a bathroom declaring that it’s for “gents” without a trace of irony, and seating that consists of loose wooden benches perched on shallow-angle concrete. There are also hand-painted signs everywhere, from the “ICE GARDEN ARENA” above the main entrance to the “DO NOT SHOOT or THROW ANY THING AGAINST THIS WALL” all the way on the other end by the locker rooms.

None of that is retro, a word that implies deliberate activity and new procedures to undo previous ones. She has spent more than half a century being her authentic self. Sometimes that authenticity includes things like a devoted audience of snowmen and other random Christmas decorations that intently watch every game played from the stage just off the lobby end of the ice. It also includes a banquet room that sees far more drylands than receptions.

At most places, those would be called “oddities.” At Rostraver, they’re just kind of normal.

The ACHA counts several venues old and famous enough to be identifiable by a single name among its home rinks – Yost, Matthews, Munn, Wally B – but those places exist primarily for the varsity teams at their respective schools and give in to the pressures of modernization every few years.

There’s another constantly growing category of course, the relatively new palaces that grab headlines because newness and eight-figure price tags are inherently headline-worthy.

Liberty’s LaHaye Ice Center might be the standard bearer, thanks to a colossal top-to-bottom renovation in 2015 that produced 4,000 seats, a four-sided LED scoreboard, a full video production room, luxury suites, and improved locker and concession options – all for lead tenants that are ACHA teams. The McKendree Metro Rec Plex is another jewel, as is Minot State’s Maysa Arena, which was renovated and expanded in 2016. The mostly-for-NCAA set on this side of the ledger includes several arenas recognized as among the finest in college hockey: Miami’s Goggin Ice Arena, Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena, and Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena.

Fundamentally though, there’s a problem with them. Their differentiation isn’t any unique architectural trait, earned character, or history witnessed, it’s simply the fact that they’re newer and shinier and contain better technology than those built earlier. At least until another one goes up and the sports-industrial complex demands it have a bigger scoreboard, more space in the locker rooms, and stronger wifi while the incumbents have only added a couple layers of grunge and maybe a crack or two. That elite status only sticks if the construction docket remains relatively empty.

People don’t listen to signs, even hand-painted ones

Rostraver, though, is undeniably ours, in a way the others aren’t. In a landscape filled with NCAA arenas and faceless, nearly-identical community rinks she’s an outlier, a legitimate entry in that ever-shrinking list of historic hockey destinations, and one whose credibility comes largely without the help of more mainstream sports leagues and their media machine. Others can take The Gut, I’ll wager that Rostraver has done more living in roughly the same amount of time and feels like home to more people.

That last part isn’t really a coincidence, it’s an atmosphere cultivated over the decades by long-time owner Jim Murphy.

“The owner ‘Murph’ – myself and my fiancé literally don’t know his real name, but everyone knows Murph,” Vulcans all-time goal scoring leader Kelsey DeNardo said. “Anyone that grew up playing at Rostraver has their own Murph story. He has been the owner there since anyone can remember and has had an incredible impact on hockey at Rostraver and in the area. He is a unique guy. He keeps the history in the rink throughout, pictures of youth hockey through the years and trophies dating back to the late 70s.”

“Honestly, everyone that works there is very unique, the workers make you feel like part of a community bigger than just your team, they make Rostraver feel like home.”

In 1975, with the hometown Pittsburgh Penguins foundering in red ink, she was a vital local practice option. While Rostraver lives a healthy jaunt down the Monongahela River from the former site of Civic Arena, she was certainly a much more cost-effective option than Canada, where the team had been holding training camp.

A Cal U media guide claims that the quintessential barn hosted a Muhammad Ali amateur fight but, given that the man then known as Cassius Clay began his professional career five years before she was around, it’s a dubious story at best. A more verifiable one involves an eventual winner of the Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophies, Ron Hextall, who started in net for the first time at Rostraver at the age of eight in 1972. A handful of other NHLers have also braved her infamously spartan locker rooms and frigid temperatures as youth players.

Her wheelhouse, though, is the blue-collar hustle and staying in business by working the edges as a place that’s far more Amanda Slezak than Amanda Kessel. There are the three Vulcans women’s and men’s teams of course, but Rostraver is also home ice for numerous youth and high school teams, and a couple of short-lived low-level pro teams. She’s also welcomed arena football, comedy shows, pro wrestling, and concerts – including several notable artists on the left or right tails of the fame curve like Modest Mouse, Slayer, My Chemical Romance, and Machine Gun Kelly.

She’s even seen at least one on-ice engagement, between DeNardo and former men’s player Steve Oberly prior to Cal’s alumni game in 2018.

“My fiancé picked Rostraver and the Cal hockey alumni game because we both played ice hockey at Cal U and it is actually how we met,” DeNardo said. “We met my freshmen year but did not officially start dating until my junior or senior year. About two years later he popped the question at the annual alumni game hosted at Rostraver, it kind of brought the whole thing full circle.”

“We also plan to get some actual engagement pictures done there, because my fiancé grew up playing there for [the Mon Valley Thunder] and I finished my career there.”

Rostraver has met with triumph, and also disaster, never the latter more than on February 14, 2010 when a rink-sized chunk of her wooden barrel-vaulted roof came crashing down under the weight of a couple feet of snow.

Mercyhurst defender Sara Ochterski, then ten years old, was there that day, watching her brother win a tournament championship with the Erie Lions mite team.

“They had gotten off the ice after winning and were celebrating in the locker room, and people heard a slow on and off cracking,” she recalled. “When that continued, everyone started to run out of the building. I remember my dad tossing my brother over his shoulder and carrying him out fully dressed, skates and all. Everyone was outside maybe ten minutes after getting off the ice when the roof collapsed. You can never forget the cracking and popping sounds it made.”

“Everyone made it out, but it was a game that could have easily gone to overtime, and that would have been an entirely different outcome than what thankfully occurred with no injuries. Walking back into that rink to play [today] is just surreal after being there when it collapsed, it’s a chills running down your spine kind of deal.”

Many predicted a permanent demise as the cratered edifice spread news of the misfortune from a hilltop home; Murph managed to have Rostraver back on her feet and re-opened in October.

The roof replacement segment certainly took away some of her celebrated old-time hockey aesthetic, a loss frequently lamented by locals. But, in a bizarre way, the incident crystallized her bona fides as the Hobey Baker of ACHA venues, as she now consists of a modern steel structure spanning most of the length of the ice, awkwardly sandwiched between the original ends of the building, with a bunch of support stumps outside leading to nothing and serving no purpose other than reminding people of what once was.

Reminders of both good times and bad seamlessly exist side by side at Rostraver

A lot of times, even in better days, her victories are something less than absolute.

She’s appeared in a major film, as the home to Seth Rogen’s beloved beer league team in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. But it was a role that amounted to one fairly inconsequential (though funny, if you enjoy goalies sucker punching players on breakaways, and honestly, who doesn’t?) 45-second scene with most of the Rostraver iconography barely visible. In fact, she wasn’t playing herself, but rather an imaginary rink roughly 40 minutes away where the Monroeville Zombies did their best to keep the western Pennsylvania tradition of Slap Shot alive.

Nearly a decade later, Rostraver enjoyed a much less anonymous turn in the spotlight as the winner of the 2017 Kraft Hockeyville USA contest, beating out 1300 other arenas (after initially being nominated by Cal’s equipment manager) to win rink upgrades through three rounds of online voting.

“Winning money from Hockeyville was a pretty huge event for the rink, because it needed serious remodeling,” Vulcans forward Mira Rolin said.

To be specific, the successful grassroots effort pulled in $150,000 to complete some piping and lighting fixes, and the NHL chipped in some protective netting and work on the boards. Nevertheless, the league deemed her unfit for Hockeyville’s centerpiece, a preseason game between the Penguins and St. Louis Blues.

Everyone did their honest best to compensate, including using Rostraver for the Pens’ morning skate on gameday and other fan events throughout the week, but the sparkling UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on the other side of Pittsburgh got the NBCSN cameras and the associated eyeballs.

She’s venerated locally, but largely unknown a couple hours from the Monongahela Valley. Her victories are often qualified and her losses can be catastrophic and nearly tragic. She will never be the subject of a commemorative coffee table book like many sports facilities that survive through the decades, even though she retains more of her age than most of them. She’s welcoming and genuine, despite the structure that covers most of her ice surface only having a decade under its belt. She’s seen an immeasurable amount of history under her roofs from future NHL stars to championships, and even to film and music A-listers, but relatively few are aware of any of it.

Rostraver is imperfect, but she’s also perfect in her imperfection.

If Rostraver is the perfect ACHA building, Cal U might be the perfect tenant for Rostraver. Sure, the 2008-09 vintage Vulcans women’s program might be neophytes in Ice Garden terms, but they’ve driven plenty of hard miles as well. There was early success, a couple DVCHC titles, then a couple more after moving over to the CHE, roughly coinciding with five straight nationals appearances between 2012 and 2016.

“We had a great group of girls who just knew how to play hockey,” DeNardo said. We wanted to win and we all just pushed each other. We made efforts for dryland together and did a lot of team bonding and dinners. Many of us were absolute best friends and still are today.”

“I think the fact a lot of us grew up playing together or against each other was a big deal too. Maria Sciacca and I were giant rivals our whole lives and it continued in a positive way when we were on the same team, along with many of the other girls I was rivals with. Megan Cooper and I constantly pushed each other to be our best and play our best on the team. I’m thankful for leaders like Melissa Gleason and Michelle Daley who brought a little bit of an older perspective and really made everyone focus.”

Then their own roof caved in, as a disproportionate amount of the roster responsible for the success moved on and there was nobody to replace them. The Vulcans were forced to take a hiatus during 2016-17, a stunning move given the team’s success. Hiatuses are for irrelevant teams on the brink of oblivion that have been creeping towards the abyss for years, not for one of Division 2’s dominant programs.

“That had been brewing for some time,” DeNardo added. “We did so well for so many years and picked up some recruits along the way, but because we had a great core, recruiting was not a strong suit. Many players actually continued on and went for master’s degrees so we could all keep playing and have a team.”

“Unfortunately, during my senior year recruiting efforts fell extremely short, and our coach quit at season’s end, and that obviously made recruiting that much harder for the following year. Many players that did not graduate also had a bad taste in their mouths and refused to play that following year as well even though they were healthy. That hiatus year was sad. I was going to continue my career with Cal U while I received my master’s that year, but there was not a team.”


Like Murph before it though, the school in one of the most unflinching sections of a famously-unflinching metropolitan area got back on its feet quickly.

The Vulcans managed to put a team on the ice for 2017-18, but were plagued by low player counts and lopsided scores until things started to click into place this year. A bevy of players from the successful Steel City Selects program – Rolin, Jayda Mears, Katie Hill, and Morgan Gloeckl among them – converged on Rostraver, as did a renewed spirit.

“There has been a big improvement since 2017 when we only had eight players and most didn’t know how to play hockey,” Mears said.

“Now we have people transferring here who know how to play hockey. We started from trying to keep up with the other team to actually becoming more serious. Everyone is starting to work harder to win games and practices are taken more seriously.”

The results followed, starting with a stunning season-opening upset of Delaware, a team had hung a 12-3 result on Cal at the 2019 CHE playoffs. Then came the East Coast Showdown, where the Vulcans blitzed DVCHC teams Towson, Montclair State, and Penn to take the showcase title. Then came an important sweep of Pitt, a team threatening to fill the vacuum left by Cal’s absence (both physical and metaphorical) and become the Pittsburgh area’s hegemon.

Then came Ohio State.

In terms of seismic activity, Delaware was bigger. The Blue Hens are a strong program, while OSU has had their own struggles over the last few seasons. But taking down the Buckeyes might prove even more important to the team’s development, simply for the way the Vulcans were pressed and persevered. Iron sharpens iron, and the hottest fires produce the strongest steel, if you enjoy regionally-appropriate platitudes.

Mears, who has spent most of her career among D2’s scoring leaders, and linemate Rolin got to work late in the first period, when Rolin chased down a loose puck, pivoted in the slot, then found Mears collapsing down the back side for a pretty goal. Less than five minutes of game time later, with the second period just beginning, Gloeckl nicely broke up a Buckeye rush, allowing Mears to take it the other way and bury. 2-0 Cal.

While that pair of digits looked good on Rostraver’s shamrock-accented scoreboard, which somehow outlasted the ceiling that once held it up, they belied a game flow that was often carried by Ohio State.

The Buckeyes, like Cal, were short on depth but possessed good talent at the top end (though perhaps not quite as good as the person who printed OSU’s NCAA team roster in the program thought), and were able to erase the Vulcans’ lead just as quickly as it was drawn. First, St. Louis Lady Blues product Mikayla Richter took it coast to coast herself, then Clancy Chichetti converted Emma Brown’s setup to pull things level though to the end of the second period – and the third.

Photo: David Hague (

Meanwhile, despite allowing the two goals, Hill was stellar in keeping the game within reach. She closed with 45 saves on 47 OSU shots.

“It was a back and forth game, and we worked well as a team,” Rolin said. “We knew that was an important game, because they badly outshot us [during a 2-2 tie between the teams in December].”

“But we had timely scoring, and Katie really stood on her head and kept us in the game, like she always does.”

In the last minute of overtime, Brown tried to carry the puck out of the Buckeye zone. Mears cut her off just inside the line on the right side, then navigated to the slot and took on both Ohio State defenders at once. With Cal’s men and Penn State Altoona looking on in full uniform while waiting to take the ice, Mears twisted her scarlet-clad opponents even tighter than the rods of the black metal partition that guards the skate rental counter out in the lobby, somehow emerged with the puck on the other side of the traffic jam, and slammed it home.

As a goal horn punctuated the Vulcans’ latest big win, Rostraver echoed it off of a steel roof, a monument to her near-death experience, and back towards the ice. The old lady has seen a lot and certainly couldn’t be blamed for some indifference towards the latest of thousands of early February games, but that goal and Cal U’s own ongoing resurrection had earned her approval.

The Scoreboard

March 25, 2020

Captain Sami Jo Henry and Minot State finished No. 2, again. Photo: Minot State Women’s Hockey

Coaches have a lot of tough conversations with their teams, in fact, it’s a significant part of the job. From the extremely minor positioning corrections to the more serious matters like off-ice discipline issues, there’s a well-creased (if entirely internal) handbook for dealing with various degrees of unpleasantness. The coach generally starts his or her career with a foundation built on a mélange of personal values and ideas taken from past mentors during a playing career. Then, as time moves forward, they can fine tune things based on experiences, seminars and other peer conversations, and the input of a staff.

All in all, it’s an effective system that finds an intersection between best practices and individual styles, and has benefited millions of coaches and athletes throughout the history of organized sports.

However, there’s just no chapter in that handbook for the unprecedented meeting Minot State head coach Ryan Miner had with his Beavers on the morning of March 12th. So he had to write his own for one of the toughest of the tough conversations any coach has had with any team, even if they already sensed what was coming: thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, second-ranked MSU won’t be able to take their earned shot at a national championship. The ACHA, following the lead of public health experts and other sports organizations, had canceled its national tournament festival, originally slated to begin today just outside of Dallas for women’s teams.

“[The morning of March 12th] Ryan texted me saying we needed to gather everyone in between our classes, and I kind of said to him like well we have class so it will have to be quick,” Beavers captain Sami Jo Henry said. “And he responded to me with ‘everyone must be there.’ When he said that I knew it was going to be canceled, because he usually tells me beforehand what a meeting is going to be about, so as soon as I felt that distance, I knew it was bad. It was pretty tough to sit through my morning class knowing that was probably going to be the outcome.”

“When [other sports leagues] started canceling, our national tournament was kind of up in the air, and we knew in the back of our heads that it was gonna happen,” Miner said. “Right away, we wanted to sit the girls down and tell them before it got released on social media, and going into that meeting, we knew there was going to be a lot of emotion.”

“It was probably one of the toughest meetings that my coaching staff and I have had to go through in terms of just telling them that their season’s done.”

Careers abruptly ended. An entire year rendered moot. A legitimate shot at an all-too-elusive championship gone.

“I think the hardest part about it is that we had such a successful season, and having that opportunity taken away from us especially, since we had the opportunity to win a national championship,” Miner added. “It’s a big ‘what if’ and it’s kind of devastating.”

“There was a lot of emotion and anger,” Henry, who was recently named first-team All-American, said. “I know I was very angry and mad because it is something you have no control over. Losing out is something [where] you have control, but having it taken away like this is not. Lots of hugs and love spread around our team because we are so close, and we do care a lot about this team.”

For Minot State, this year was both a redemption tour and a booming debut.

For the last two seasons, as a Division 2 team, the Beavers steamrolled just about everyone on the way to 21-4-1 and 24-1-0 regular season records, including a combined 10-2-0 mark against Division 1 opponents. But both years ended in national championship game defeats, with Lakehead winning their second straight title in 2018. Last year’s result was the real stunner though, as MSU was upset by Assiniboine by a 1-0 score, a result that flew in the face of the Beavers’ 6-0-0 mark against ACC through the regular season, including 7-1 and 9-2 wins during its final weekend.

Minot then moved up to Division 1, continued some of the ACHA’s best recruiting efforts, and were nearly as dominant at the higher level, going 18-4-1 in ACHA games (including 7-4-0 against fellow national tournament invitees) and winding up second in the rankings, while also coming agonizingly close to a conference championship in the brutally-tough Women’s Midwest College Hockey. Heading to Texas as one of the favorites, the Beavers were certainly driven to complete the job on an even bigger stage.

“We thought we had a pretty good chance this year,” Henry said. “We were ready to start prepping game film on our first and potential second round matchups, and had big plans leading up to the national tournament. [It was a] huge disappointment for us losing that conference final, but we wanted to take it and prepare for them at nationals.”

Now…we’ll never know how it would have turned out. MSU is a program on the rise and will certainly have other days. But those days might come without a senior class of Mackenzie Balogh – one of the ACHA’s best players ever – Shelby Tornato, and Brooke Mead that had seen the program forward from its early days and now probably won’t make it to the finish line. While each could theoretically use a fifth year of eligibility on one more shot, doing so can often be complicated by academics and finances.

“I really just feel for our seniors especially Mack, she is one of my best friends and my roommate in Minot,” Henry lamented. “It’s just sad it had to end like that for her because she is one of the best, if not the best, players Minot will ever have. I enjoyed playing with her every year I did, including high school together, so it is a very sad time knowing we will never get that chance again.”

“She deserved a ring and I really wanted to win one for her.”

The 2019-20 Beavers will forever remain an unfinished story, but just one of many truncated by the pandemic.

Liberty’s Division 2 team is also compelling for what it lost in the cancellation. The formerly-downtrodden program abruptly rose to prominence in 2017-18 and made an appearance at the ACHA National Tournament that season. But the Flames were even better last year, steamrolling to a College Hockey East title over Delaware – yet not qualifying for nationals thanks to an extremely odd and poorly-communicated awarding of the CHE autobid to Mercyhurst (which hadn’t even won its division during the regular season, let alone the playoff title). So, the champs had to sit next to their trophy on the couch and fire up YouTube to watch the Lakers and Buffalo represent the league in Dallas.

Delaney Adams and Liberty will also miss an overdue shot at nationals. Photo: Danielle Bergen

This was the season meant to correct that wrong, as Brittany Hegele, Paige Arnosti, Holly Turner, and company left no doubt as to their nationals chops, and were ready to take a run at a manageable pool round schedule.

“Obviously this season meant a lot, when we started the season, we didn’t really know what to expect,” Flames defenseman Delaney Adams said. “We lost people and gained a few new ones, but we just kinda focused on having fun and kept nationals as our goal.”

Now…the goal will remain unfulfilled. The Flames still have a young roster and presumably will make a credible run at the 2021 tournament and CHE championship, but that’s hardly a guarantee. Motivations change, players change, and the competition changes. There will never be another moment identical to the one that just passed.

“When I got the news, I was at lunch with one of the other captains, we were both kinda shocked and extremely upset,” Adams continued. “We were so lost on why this happened because we got cheated out of nationals for two years. We just went to the gym and skipped classes to try to get our brains to slow down a bit.”

Perhaps nobody’s reality is quite as tragic as Lindenwood-Belleville, a team fighting against the ending of all endings, well beyond the expiration of any one player’s or class’ eligibility: that of the school and team itself, a bombshell that dropped shortly after a loss in the 2019 national championship game.

All year long, LUB used the rallying cry “last Lynx” in an attempt to will themselves to a title that was just as much about demonstrating their worthiness to those who killed their school as it was about finishing on top of the ACHA. The determination of whether a doomed team could manage to end on a title – literally, the plot of hockey’s most famous movie – was maybe the single most anticipated question of the tournament.

Now…it will remain forever unanswered and LUB’s existence will always be saddled with a maddeningly-ambiguous conclusion, right alongside The Sopranos’ infamous Don’t Stop Believin’-backed cut to black. At least with a TV show, the use of imagination and interpretation is permitted and even encouraged. Hockey is supposed to have a scoreboard for that, and you can be damn sure that the Lynx would pay anything to roll the dice just one more time.

It’s Minot State, Liberty, and Lindenwood-Belleville. It’s also Colorado, trying to avenge a 2018 defeat to Liberty’s Division 1 team with key players like Maura Kieft and Lexi Hartmann about to move on. It’s Boston College, New England’s best D2 squad for the last few years, and their underrated seniors like Peyton King and Jess Olivieri. It’s Michigan State trying to get a bit of a tournament albatross off their backs while taking one last shot with two-time Zoe Harris Award winner and former World University Games captain Maddie Wolsmann.

Everyone has a story. But like Miner, nobody has the chapter they need right now.

In absolute terms, the situation actually hasn’t cost that much. Seventeen of the 25 Division 1 teams and 39 of the 51 Division 2 teams managed to successfully complete their 2019-20 seasons. For the other eight and 12 who qualified for nationals, there were a maximum of five additional games on the table. Hockey’s sacrifice, in a strict numbers sense, wasn’t anywhere near that of the spring sports, which were cut off early in their seasons, prompting both the NCAA and NAIA to quickly grant those student-athletes an extra year of eligibility that may or may not be coming for the hockey players and other winter competitors.

And the hard reality is that only one team in each ACHA division gets to win the national championship – most participants would’ve seen their seasons end in a loss, regardless of the pandemic. Minot State and Lindenwood-Belleville are both in Division 1, so it would have been impossible for both of those stories to have a happy ending. In any realistic sense, there was at least as much chance that the three teams I’ve discussed would have been shut out of the titles as there was of any of them bringing one home.

One could even take it a step further and argue that, in some rational sense, the Lynx’s WMCH third-place game victory over rival McKendree on a lightly-attended Sunday morning on home ice is a better outcome as a season’s final game than most of the available possibilities at nationals. Others, like Rowan, Mercyhurst, and Northern Michigan did even better than LUB, ending their seasons with on-ice league tournament celebrations.

But that’s not really the point, is it?

As part of my pandemic-mandated social distancing efforts, I decided to binge The Office. The show had, for most of its run, been appointment viewing, but I (along with at least a couple others, I suppose) fell off the wagon when Steve Carell left late in the seventh of its nine seasons. In fact, other than the series finale, I had never seen any of the post-Carell episodes. So, okay, the last two seasons might not be quite on the same level as the rest of the show, but it would still be new-to-me television, an only slightly-watered-down version of something I’ve enjoyed watching, right?

Wrong. Despite my best intentions, it didn’t hold my interest. I knew the ending, so the road there became significantly diminished. I just couldn’t generate the same investment in the characters or the story when I already knew where everything was headed – if you know that Dwight and Angela get married and that Jim and Pam end up okay, you suddenly don’t worry quite as much about those couples’ respective hiccups.

It’s not that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Aerosmith were entirely wrong when they came up with that stuff about journeys and destinations, it’s just that they underestimated the extent to which each depends on the other. The journey feels unimportant with a pre-determined destination, and few destinations are worth an unfulfilling journey without challenge and conflict.

That’s why cold calculations of games played and games remaining in a hockey season, the percentage of a journey experienced, break down at a certain level. The unclear destination of a game, a season, or a career is a vital part of what we accept as people with an interest in sports, in any capacity. Even if that destination is heartbreak.

The scoreboard at Frisco, TX’s Comerica Center will remain off for the foreseeable future

The scoreboard, either literal or metaphorical, is the fundamental contract of sports. You might not make the team, you might not be where you want in the lineup, or you might lose the game. But if you pay the price along the way, you get to take your best shot at the scoreboard, whether it hangs above the ice or only exists on a coach’s clipboard.

It’s the single inalienable truth about all of this, the single core value we all share. Whether it’s some LED-illuminated monstrosity in an NHL facility or an old-fashioned lightbulb matrix in a community rink, we live by the scoreboard and the idea that performance trumps all. We trust that, whatever the scoreboard shows at the end of a playoff game or a tryout or anything in between, it’s an accurate accounting of not only that day’s events, but also a cumulative judgment of every practice, every trip to the weight room, every film study, and every shot against a basement wall up until that point taken by everyone who participated. It’s years and decades of sweat equity, boiled down to simple data that gloriously illuminates where things stand at a moment in time.

That’s what feels so incongruous here, so unquestionably wrong. While seasons and careers end in defeat for most, not having the opportunity to take a shot at the scoreboard – after paying the required price to do so – is much, much worse than any game result. When the pact of the scoreboard is broken, when coaches must tell teams that the final scoreboard they’ve been dangling as motivation since the season’s first dryland no longer exists, it irreparably damages the entire concept of sports as a competitive pursuit.

This would normally be the point where I shift tone while attempting to find some silver lining, in order to at least close on an optimistic note. But I’m not sure that one exists here. Opportunities were lost, careers and even programs wrapped up prematurely on open-ended terms, and both journeys and destinations disappeared while forever arrived and the scoreboards remained off.

Outside of hockey and sports, of course, the world is dealing with a terrifying virus of a scale not witnessed in modern times. Some people are dying, others have lost their sources of income while most businesses are closed to contain things as much as possible, causing the economy to tank. Even the presently-unaffected are living in perpetual fear, washing their hands and buying toilet paper at feverish rates while wondering if and when the tsunami will crash down on themselves or loved ones, while most political leaders seem more concerned with spin and blame assignment than solutions.

Worst of all, nobody can say with much certainty when the crisis will pass, whether it’s a timeframe best counted in weeks or months, or what the sum of the devastation may be at that point. Reliable information is scarce, and positive reliable information is nearly impossible. And, of course, most of the things we ordinarily rely on to help us through the hard times have been taken away.

However, just when I was ready to write things off, I noticed something in Miner’s season-closing press conference. He started by answering the obligatory questions about the cancelation and his senior class of course, but about halfway through, he seamlessly pivoted into talking about recruiting and the construction of the Beavers’ 2020-21 schedule. The scoreboard may have failed him once, but he still believes in it. He’s still pushing towards that next time it’s ready to tell him whether he’s filled the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run.

Michigan-Dearborn does too. The Wolverines offered one of the first forward-looking statements I saw in the hockey world after the pandemic shut down most of society, retweeting a graphic from the Michigan High School Athletic Association defiantly insisting that “we will play again.” Adams’ Liberty team, newcomer Maryville and Midland have recently announced commitments, and all three will certainly also stand and be counted when the time comes and have a renewed appreciation for the opportunity.

In the rear-view mirror, of course, are the miles driven in 2019-20. They were too few to reach the end of the journey, but they are still worth some degree of celebration and reflection. The ACHA announced its individual award winners last week, and Henry, who narrowly lost out to Michigan State’s Wolsmann for the Zoe Harris Award, was still able to draw some good from the campaign.

“Positives are hard to come about in a situation like this, [but] we had a very good inaugural season in Division 1, ending in the second ranked spot,” she said. “I think we learned a lot about ourselves as a team and created an identity, which is something you can always build on.”

Adams also found a positive nugget in the chaos.

“We had a lot of injuries so I think it’s potentially positive now we can heal and have a lot of time to train,” she said.

“But right now, it feels like an L.”

The Overnight

WMCH Playoffs
FSI Shark Tank
St. Louis, MO

March 6-8, 2020


Sometime around midnight, at a Love’s Travel Stop in Mooresville, Indiana, I decided to take stock of my life. There’s something about sleeping in your car that pushes you to do that I suppose, since it’s not a thing one generally does at the end of their best days. Working out some of the primary logistics (which parking spot attracts the least attention, how you’re going to lay in the car, where and how you’re going to clean up in the morning, your plan B if some try-hard manager knocks on your window at 3 a.m.) can keep your mind busy for a little bit, but once that’s done, the options are somewhat limited.

Sure, in this modern age, I have a pocket-sized computer with me at all times. I could’ve easily fired up Hulu and found limitless entertainment that way, although given a nearly-broken charger and car battery paranoia, I decided to ensure that my alarm goes off in the morning and that I don’t end up stranded at an out-of-state truck stop.

Instead, I chose to open a well-worn copy of a book, Hard Promises, a self-published compilation of essays about mid-major college basketball written by Kyle Whelliston. Whelliston was my spiritual forebear and an inspiration, spending nearly a decade fighting sanity and expense while traveling around the country and writing about teams that dwell on a different plane than the North Carolinas and Kentuckys of the world.

For a time, he had a job with ESPN, but mostly he wrote on his own website, Mid-Majority, and was underwritten by his readers. He managed to find the romanticism in the struggle of lightly-followed and lightly-funded teams that will never win a national championship, while telling the stories of those who occupy that world in a way that set him apart from standard-fare sports features.

I instinctively found one of my favorite passages:

It doesn’t get much lonelier than sitting alone in an enclosed, locked, metal container in the middle of American Nowhere. It’s a feeling that encourages a perspective of the universe as viewed from the spectral prism of one’s navel. It helps reinforce the ridiculous illusion of the Self as a singular, special, unique entity on a planet of billions, a “me” adrift amongst an invisible them.

None of the colleges I visited offered classes in Loneliness Studies, and none ever advertised a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in that or any related discipline. But there’s no understanding the power of loneliness as an unstoppable primal force. Our efforts to escape it explain just about everything we do. To stop running from loneliness is to face skull-crushing existential self-absorption, to confront the little-g god inside.

Why else would someone go on the internet and write 1800 posts and 1.5 million words about mid-major college basketball?

Nine paragraphs later, Whelliston finished that post, hit “publish,” then strapped a time bomb to his entire website, the thing that had been the center of his universe for a significant chunk of his existence. After eight years, he had been lonely enough.

In some ways, my eighth year of existence in the ACHA women’s divisions has been even more isolated than Whelliston’s was in his world. Miami RedHawks men’s basketball may not be the most popular sports team on the planet, but it’s certainly more followed than Miami RedHawks women’s hockey.

Although the travel crushed his spirit and his personal life, Whelliston did cultivate a healthy community around his work. Many of his disciples continue to use his unique lexicon and maxims across the internet, and some even participate in an annual game he invented, where players attempt to avoid learning who won the Super Bowl for as long as possible (several this year have yet to learn what’s called “The Knowledge,” and yes, it’s about as hard as it sounds, I tried one time and made it until precisely three seconds following the end of the game, when Fanatics sent me an email hawking Baltimore Ravens championship merchandise).

Me, I have players, coaches, and parents, and that’s about it. Some don’t care for me, a few say horrible things about me well out of proportion to anything I’ve ever said about them, a couple have even tried to get me in real-world trouble, and it seems like the threshold for retribution gets lower and lower all the time. Others…well, do they actually like me, or do they merely tolerate me because I occasionally tweet something nice about them or their team?

Generally, the parents are there as enforcers, the coaches either don’t take me seriously or are mad at me over some opinion I had at one time or another, and the players stay the same age while I keep getting older – I could’ve passed for a peer when I started, but now I get the full-on adult treatment of “friendly, but fundamentally separated.” A few years after anyone from those groups leaves the ACHA, they’re unlikely to even remember I exist.

If you’re looking for validation or community from anyone on any kind of broad scale, no matter how many words you put on the internet, you’re going to spiral into a self-loathing mess. Just trust me on that. You’re never going to get as many retweets or pageviews or donations as you think you deserve. Just as painfully, you’re going to have to watch others who aren’t willing to sleep in their cars en route to a game eight hours away get more attention for doing less, essentially only because they’re engaged with the “right” kinds of hockey, the men’s game or the women’s national teamers, pros, and NCAA players. By the end of the weekend, my radar will be jammed full of the NWHL and WCHA playoffs, with nothing at all about what I’m doing, besides the stuff I said myself.

Others in my life are aware of my activities, but don’t understand them, and certainly don’t consume any of my content. Every so often, someone outside of the ACHA world will ask where I’m going on a given weekend. Sometimes it’s Michigan, sometimes it’s Chicago, one time it was Colorado. This time, it’s St. Louis. “Oh, are you going to see the arch?” they might say. Somehow, when teams visit Lindenwood-Belleville or McKendree, there’s always time for the arch, or that stupid bean in Chicago, or any of about 800 things in Boston, followed by the obligatory Instagram posts from most of the roster.


But no, I’m not going to see the arch, at least not beyond the view from I-55 or the photo on the cover of the WMCH tournament program, which is probably more than I experience most of the places I visit.

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to finish my drive to a flooring warehouse that happens to have an ice rink in it, then I’m going to watch three hockey games, then I’m going to find another truck stop far enough away from the city to feel safe and sleep again. Then I’m going to watch a couple more hockey games and drive home in time for work on Monday. I’ll eat, sure, but not at any of the places on a list of things you have to do in St. Louis. Most of it will be gas station food, some of it will be whatever is offered at the rink, maybe I’ll find time to make a run to Crazy Bowls and Wraps if I feel like living it up.

This is a club hockey trip, and I am a person of club hockey means. And right now, I’m alone with my worst thoughts at the Chrysler Inn, looking at the universe through the spectral prism of my navel.

The 500 ASMR videos that are uploaded to YouTube every day aren’t nearly enough for the situation at hand, which includes firing up the car every so often to fight temperatures dipping below 30 degrees, but things still look a little better in daylight, on the other side of a groggy half-sleep.

Almost immediately, a pull I’ve felt a thousand times but still can’t quite explain takes over. It’s 7:00 in Indiana, there’s a hockey game at 12:15 in St. Louis, and I need to get there. To be clear, I’m not entirely sure why I need to get there. It’s a consolation match where I have no role whatsoever, other than as a spectator – I haven’t even promised anyone that I was going to be there or write about it. But I need to get there, that much isn’t negotiable.

I suppose when you really dive into it, that’s the part that makes me unusual, since I don’t occupy a world that has fans. Everyone at a women’s ACHA game is a family member or a significant other or a close friend, and I’m the socially-awkward loner guy who shows up, watches the game, tweets about it, maybe does a couple interviews or casually chats with a couple people, then heads home.

If I had decided to pour my entire capability into attending every home, away, and bowl game played by a college football team instead while obsessing over the latest top ten given by some high school kid, I’d be celebrated as a hardcore fan. But here, I’m weird. As far as I’m aware, I’ve never actually given anyone legitimate cause to think I’m weird, save for the fact that my existence is inherently so, and people can often extrapolate. But the burden to prove a negative is on me.

Or I could just disappear. But at the same time, I’m honestly not sure what I’m supposed to be doing. Cranking out a daughter, with a mother to be named later, and waiting a few years to become a hockey dad seems like a pretty steep admission price just to go to an amateur girls or women’s game without putting anyone off.

I could find a less unusual hobby to chew up my disposable time and income, I guess. Would it somehow be more acceptable to play golf all the time? What about going to bars and finding the meaning of our collective existence at the bottom of a Jack and Coke? Crossword puzzles? Mountain climbing? Antiquing? I could probably stay home on the weekends and watch NHL games on TV, and maybe even write about them. Or, as mentioned, there are always the 18-22 year olds in a more popular college sport with more socially-accepted fandoms.

But, for whatever reason, women’s ACHA hockey – and, perhaps just as importantly, going to see it in person – is what sets my soul on fire. Through some impossible-to-articulate confluence of my past, my present, and my psychology, it feels like what I was meant to do at this moment in time. It doesn’t make a ton of sense in any objective way (and sorting through the different ways people tell me as much does get tiring) but if I possessed a complete understanding of the human brain, I’d probably be able to afford a hotel room.

I see a sign for some nothing town in a southern Illinois corridor full of them named St. Elmo, and get the itch to listen to St. Elmo’s Fire, the song from the classic Brat Pack film of the same name.

I can see a new horizon underneath the blazing sky
I’ll be where the eagle’s flying higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion
All I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where the future’s lying St. Elmo’s fire

That enclosed, locked, metal container in the middle of American Nowhere can be a prison. Or you can roll down the windows, belt out some cheesy synth pop at the top of your lungs, remember that you’re on your own schedule, doing what you love, and traveling to watch the greatest activity our species has invented to this point, and I promise that you’ll never feel freer or more alive.

Ultimately, someday, I’m going to lose all of those battles, because each of us does, whether upon death or through a gradual chipping of the veneer of first-world liberty. Maybe I’ll get laid off and run out of money. Maybe my next girlfriend will, in fact, force to me to go antiquing on weekends (the early Bumble conversations with 30-somethings that start with big travel plans and quickly move on to jobs and excruciating adult minutiae aren’t promising on that front), or maybe we’ll pop out that hockey kid. Maybe I’ll be blindsided by something else.

But on this day, at this moment, in St. Elmo, Illinois, the choice is completely and undeniably mine. I choose life. I choose to chase that little spark of madness from the Robin Williams meme everyone shared on his passing, only to sneer at those who actually heed the advice.


After the self-doubt, regret, and St. Elmo moments of clarity, someone will always make you glad you showed up. The redemption is not always some grand gesture, it usually isn’t in fact, but any reminder that some people see and appreciate the effort, time, and expense it takes to follow a brand of hockey that often can’t be followed without actually attending the games tends to be enough in most cases.

This time, McKendree assistant coach Nina Elia, star Midland defenseman Ally Conybear, and Minot State captain Sami Jo Henry gave me what I needed to see the value in the overnight. On other occasions, it’s been things like Michigan-Dearborn announcing my presence over the public address, several Robert Morris players wanting to pose for a photo at the end of a particularly tough week, or Lindenwood-Belleville’s Kate Tihema giving me a crumpled Australian national team hat that was undoubtedly stuffed in the bottom of her hockey bag for a while.

At the rink – any rink, really – the bad stuff almost always washes off, which is good, because shower wipes have limits. And despite what some may say, including myself at times, I have made friends simply from attempting to run my best race until the wheels come off. It’s certainly not everyone, but it is someone.

Oh yeah, and there’s the hockey too.

Many times, you know exactly what you’re going to get on the other end of a drive. But the thing is, a certain number of 9-1 quackers can be tolerable, because sometimes hockey can defy every one of your expectations and deliver something magical. A winless Concordia squad can play the best game in program history. Davenport goalie Julia Gaynor can score twice. Underdog Mercyhurst can win a conference title in triple overtime, two overtimes after the ten-player roster looked barely able to stand on their skates.

Then there are the ones where every shift matters, and just watching it can wear you out because of the intense focus needed to ensure that you absorb as much of it as possible and don’t miss That Moment. Every WMCH playoff game was solid as a baseline, appropriately enough as the league’s membership is six very good teams, but two contests stood out: Minot State’s 1-0 semifinal win over host Lindenwood-Belleville, and Liberty’s 2-1 defeat of the Beavers in the next day’s championship match.

Each of those, between two of the top three teams in the rankings, displayed the best hockey the ACHA has to offer, and were quite possibly the first two games I’d offer up if trying to sell someone on the product. They were absolutely riveting if you appreciate this sport even a little, from Minot freshman Jordan Ivanco shutting out a powerful Lynx team, to Beavers linemates Henry and Mackenzie Balogh combining on a pair of sublime goals, to Liberty’s Alex Smibert breaking loose down left wing off of an offsides draw and firing home a title winner with 17 seconds remaining.

And sure, the Flames won the inaugural WMCH trophy, but there’s no reason to expect anything less than another round when all three of those teams head to Dallas in a couple weeks as leading national championship contenders.

It may be a mostly-solitary life, but there’s plenty of living to do.

Senior Day

Midland at Lindenwood-Belleville
FSI Shark Tank
St. Louis, MO

January 25, 2020

Photo: David W. Preston

“We do not record flowers,” said the geographer.

“Why is that? The flower is the most beautiful thing on my planet!”

“We do not record them,” said the geographer, “because they are ephemeral.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Le Petit Prince

Abby Flaherty stood in a doorway at one end of the ice surface waiting for her name to be called, for Lindenwood-Belleville’s senior ceremony to begin, and reflected on her career and the classmates in line to follow her.

“Honestly, it has been an honor,” she said. We came in as a class of 12, and we ended up with five, and for me, it’s the best four girls I could’ve ended with. That’s something that I will always greatly appreciate.”

While LUB assistant sports information director Johnny Lange read Flaherty’s essentials over the public address – number five; Orland Park, Illinois; BS in athletic training – she skated over to the Lynx bench to meet her parents and a bouquet, posed for a picture, headed over near the penalty boxes and head coach Andrew Miller, posed for another picture, accepted a three-ring binder filled with photos and memories offered by her teammates, then finally moved on to the blue line.

Jamie Riselay, an Ontario native and half of one of the ACHA’s best defense pairings, went next, tracing Flaherty’s path and ending up next to her. Then came a couple of IIHF veterans in speedy Alicia Williams, a member of the 2019 US National University Team, and Kate Tihema, who competes for the national team of her native Australia.

And that’s Senior Day. Every year, before one of their final home events of the season, thousands of college sports teams present their outgoing classes, which stand on the precipice of the real world, ready to go pro in something other than sports, as that old NCAA commercial said (save for Flaherty and her fellow athletic training majors, along with the budding coaches, I suppose). The specifics can vary a little from school to school and from sport to sport, but the broad strokes are pretty much universal: families, flowers, the celebration of a race well run, and a look ahead to the future. And, universe willing, a win.

As Winnipeg-native creative writing student Nikki Lillies and a bunch of group photos wrapped up the parade, I couldn’t help thinking that there were 34 players missing from the tribute, the number who wore the Lynx jersey prior to the 28 on the current roster.

Or, more to the point, the only others who ever will get to wear that particular breed of maroon and black wildcat, once Lindenwood completes a restructuring of its system that will end undergraduate degree programs and athletics at its Belleville, Illinois location after the 2019-20 academic year. In some sense, it’s their Senior Day too.

To fully understand the dynamics in play at Lindenwood, it’s important to understand a few things about the Belleville campus. The first, I suppose, is that it actually is a campus, despite its 2003 beginnings in the former location of Belleville West High School. The 1920s vintage – and gorgeous – high school building is its centerpiece, sure, but over the past couple decades it has grown into something greater. There are new-ish dorm buildings and a student center, there’s a complement of athletic facilities including a football field with maroon-and-gray-striped turf that’s either fun or tacky depending on taste, and there are attractive outdoor spaces that include several art installations. It’s a small campus, but a very nice one, and part of the agony of the situation is that it probably won’t be fully utilized after this year. Or seen in daylight for that matter, should the place be limited to night classes.


LUB isn’t what many would consider a typical satellite, in that it stands apart from the better-known location in St. Charles, Missouri both physically (it is, technically, in a different state after all) and culturally. A student-athlete at, say, Michigan-Dearborn might be able to play a hockey game against the flagship campus in Ann Arbor, then show up at the Big House the next day to root for its football team, but it doesn’t really work like that at Lindenwood. Belleville is its own ecosystem; it has its own logo, colors, and nickname, and even gained its own accreditation in 2011. On the best days, Belleville looked across the Mississippi River with a grudging tolerance of its sister. On other days, particularly the more recent ones, the blood has run a little hotter.

“At least in my experience, St. Charles and I were irrelevant to each other,” former Lynx forward Maddy Millar, a 2018 graduate, said. “Belleville was very much its own community and offered very different experiences in student life and athletics from St. Charles. However, big picture, Belleville and St. Charles were more connected than people could see from the outside, if that makes sense. As a student, the only way Belleville was connected to St. Charles was on paper.”

Nevertheless, despite the points of separation and as Millar observed, most administrative decisions continued to be made in St. Charles, and when Belleville’s fate was announced last May, strategically timed at the end of the year to minimize backlash, it was a metaphorical neutron bomb for its 2,000 students. The immediate fallout included the men’s hockey team, which had a mostly-successful five-season run but was seen as redundant with the ACHA offerings in St. Charles, as the Lions have men’s teams in Divisions 1 and 2. Most Lynx squads, including women’s hockey, were given a stay through 2019-20, leaving one last season to play against the future, against endings and those who declare them, and maybe even against time itself.

It’s hard to read a Senior Day game sometimes. Sure, there’s plenty of emotion since teams want to send their soon-to-be-graduates out on a high note, particularly in this case. But there’s also a lot of standing around in full uniform, and it can often be hard to recapture the tempo of pulsating dryland music with that much downtime, resulting in an intensity level approximating that of the NHL’s All-Star Game happening simultaneously in downtown St. Louis. So when Midland came out and earned the better of the play for most of the first period, helped by a couple power plays, it was a little concerning, but not entirely shocking.

That all ended when the Lynx got their own shot on the advantage late in the frame, and Jess Walker made a nice play to keep the puck in at the right point. Two cross-ice passes later, Mackenzie Drost converted to give the hosts the lead and lift the burden of expectation. Early in the second period, immediately following LUB’s successful kill of a Rayel Strayer cross checking call, Michaela Read astutely heaved the puck up ice for Kennedy Frank. Frank, who had just stepped on in place of Strayer, was nevertheless well behind the Warriors’ defense and calmly deposited the resulting breakaway.

If you’re keeping track for some reason, the Lynx were 3-for-3 on the penalty kill at that point (while scoring directly because of the most recent effort) and had hit on their only power play – a quintessential instance of a contest pivoting on special teams.

“I think the energy picked up as the game went on and they started pressing,” Williams said. “We kind of got our stuff together and collectively came together as a group to push on for the seniors, and everyone just kind of came together as a family.”

Things seemed kind of academic from there. Second-ranked LUB was unharmed by Midland’s best punch, then had done damage in retaliation, a formula that almost never ends well for the underdog. While a robust crowd dominated by the school’s rugby and softball teams mercilessly heckled the Warriors (particularly defender Ally Conybear), their friends on the ice piled on in their own way. Later in the second period, Read walked Sydney Spicer’s offensive faceoff win to the slot off of the right wall and fired through. Megan Norris and Dakota McAlpine added goals in the third period to round out a 5-0 victory that might look a little better on a gamesheet than it did as it played out.

The idea that a 5-0 win over a top-ten opponent could be considered kind of rough around the edges might owe its existence to the pressures of the situation. But mostly, it’s is a testament to the type of program Lindenwood-Belleville has built in a very short time.

LUB began play in 2014-15, clocking a decent-enough first season, one punctuated by a stunning 2-1 upset of eventual national champion Liberty on January 30, 2015. New Zealand national team netminder Firth Bidois denied all 53 Flames shots she saw over the final two periods, while the Lynx literally only managed one attempt on the opposite goal during those 40 minutes: Jaylene Anderson’s winning goal with 5:44 remaining. Things really began to fall into place the following year though, when a ridiculously good bit of timing and sheer luck resulted in legendary ACHA player Kat Hannah – who has her number six retired by the now-NCAA team over in St. Charles – returning to her alma mater’s system as head coach.

“My really good friend CJ randomly sent me the link like ‘oh, your old job is hiring,’” Hannah explained. “[At that point], I owned a house, and I was raising a kid in a relationship for a really long time, and it wasn’t going well. And I applied for the job, took charge of my life I guess, I was shocked that they called me back, and they wanted me to come, like, right away. So I packed up my 4Runner, and out to Belleville, Illinois I went.”

“I was living on the east coast, I literally drove into Belleville, Illinois, pulled into a Kentucky Fried Chicken and started to cry because I wasn’t sure that I made the right decision. But it was absolutely the right decision, and I will not regret anything that I did, it was one of the best things that I’ve ever done in my entire life.”


Hannah, who didn’t have any coaching experience prior to the LUB job, largely had to feel her way through the early stages of the very large task at hand. She inherited a good talent base including Bidois, perpetual linemates Millar and Blake Fuller, sniper Ashley Dietmeier, NCAA Division III transfer Hayley Winker, and six-foot Alaskan Alahna Stivers, but needed to quickly add to it while also establishing the team’s identity and culture. Part of the latter goal was accomplished by setting up a permanent home base in the FSI Shark Tank (after splitting time between rinks early on), a quirky facility 30 miles from campus, one quite literally plopped in some extra warehouse space not needed by the neighboring flooring company.

“I am absolutely frigging nuts when it comes to recruiting and competitiveness and culture and travel and experience and all of those things, and I believe that we all have all of those things. When I first took the job, I didn’t have a damn idea of what I was doing,” Hannah said. “I reached out to every resource I know. I followed up on everything. There wasn’t a single email where a kid reached out to me that I did not respond to.”

That zest for finding players from any corner of the globe led to the early Lynx teams uniquely featuring not only Americans and Canadians, but also three southern hemisphere national teamers in New Zealand’s Bidois, along with Australia’s Tihema and Michelle Coonan. But that United Nations approach was only part of the program’s identity.

“We get what we tolerate,” Hannah added. “Hockey is a place that’s supposed to be safe and fun and supportive and challenging and sometimes hard and sometimes beautiful and all of these things, and I talk to the girls about that. And we challenge each other, we hold each other accountable, and I let them be a part of designing what they want to see in a team.”

“I want the type of girl where, if you throw your garbage in the can and you miss it, that you’re not the type of person to say ‘ah, screw it’ and just leave it there. You’re the type of person where it’s going to bother you if you don’t go back and pick it up. Culture really just is about holding each other accountable, knowing what your direction is, then fighting for that direction and doing it together, that’s the bottom line, and that’s what we did.”

Almost immediately, that process started to produce rewards. Those included a series at perennial contender Miami during Hannah’s first season – a blowout loss followed by some overnight coaching and a one-goal loss – that she cited as a moment of clarity for seeing the program’s potential, along with the types of athletes and families who started to become interested in what LUB had to offer. More tangibly, 2015-16 represented a breakthrough season for the Lynx, ending with a WWCHL title game victory over Colorado and a first-ever trip to the ACHA National Tournament, the latter championship run including narrow defeats to Liberty and eventual runner-up Grand Valley State.

“I’ll speak for myself on this but I’m pretty confident I can speak for the whole team when I say Kat Hannah was the reason [for the team’s steady improvement],” Millar said. “I remember the very first practice she came to everyone, without hesitation or question, just responded to her and she brought out this fire in us that none of us knew we had. She made us fall more in love with the game and gave us a real reason to compete and prove ourselves and our little school that wasn’t on the map.”

“Hockey has always been my passion but she found a way to make it everyone’s favorite thing to do and made us crave it when we had a few days off. From then on, our culture became extremely strong, unique and tight knit. We all played for each other. That year is when we all truly became family, and since then we all kept growing stronger, with the odd bump in the road.”

As the squad’s ranking continued to increase over the next couple seasons, from 16 to 6, then to 5, then to 4, so did its expectations. However, the next two trips to nationals both resulted in quarterfinal exits – the first, against UMass, coming in spite of starting with a 1-0 best-of three series lead after the Minutemen missed the opening contest due to a snowstorm, although 2018’s defeat to Miami was arguably a more bitter pill to swallow for a senior-heavy team that saw itself as championship-ready.

A refreshed roster, by then featuring Williams and Marissa Delry down the middle, Lindsay Gillis on defense, and Hannah Stone in net, along with an upgraded schedule, finally crashed through the first-round barrier after a 19-4-3 regular season in 2018-19, holding off GVSU’s upset bid on Dietmeier’s game three overtime goal, then taking down a strong Adrian team in the semifinals. While things wound up one win short after a defeat to Liberty in the final, there was no reason to think that the Lynx weren’t on the cusp of cashing in a title within the next few seasons. Or titles.

Then…disaster, playing out over a hectic 48-hour period eight months ago and producing the sort of jolting breaking news not often seen in the ACHA, at least not in real time. The team in its current form: gone. The school itself: gone. Hannah: also gone, after making a principled stand trying to protect the program and its student-athletes, a decision she describes as “forever leaving a hole in [her] heart.”

Six years. It’s about half of the time it takes to become a doctor. A few types of insects have longer lifespans. In relevant terms, Dietmeier played out her full eligibility in Belleville and was a part of the roster for every Lynx season until this one.

Six years is not much time.


To be sure, LUB isn’t the first ACHA program with a mere blip of an existence, nor will it be the last. Plenty of teams start up with the best of intentions, then fizzle out after a couple seasons when they can’t drum up enough interest to keep going, to cite one common scenario. But the Lynx may be the most tragic of the group, thanks to their success level with a consistent, upward trajectory, only to be abruptly cut off by outside forces – they didn’t fail, they were failed – just as they approached the pinnacle. That, of course, leaves only this season to win the biggest trophy before the transition to St. Charles throws everything into a pool of uncertainty.

“We gotta leave it all out on the ice,” Flaherty said. “It’s our last year, and you know, we have the saying ‘#lastlynx,’ I think that’s something that we really need to live by, and just keep it going, make our impact.”

It also creates a little bit of a special feeling in those lucky few who were able to wear the Lynx colors while helping to build what they represent, along with that urgency to leave things on the proper terms, to get that metaphorical Senior Day win for all who have been a part of the program before everyone, and everything, moves on to somewhere else.

“It’s honestly one of those feelings you can’t describe, because part of it is so special and part of it is so disappointing,” Millar said. “It’s really cool to be able to say that I played for a college hockey team for pretty much its entire existence, that’s for sure.”

“On the other end, I wish it would have continued and given more girls the amazing opportunity I got by going there and being a Lynx. It was remarkable, challenging and life changing. It’s too bad that legacy couldn’t live on and I won’t be able to watch the program grow even more than it already has in such a short time.”

“It’s really awesome, and really special,” Hannah said. “I hold the Lynx gear very close to my heart because of that, because it’s like special stuff. There are only certain people that it will have ever really existed to. I tell the girls that. It’s [also] nice to continue and watch the girls grow into adults and take on the world and be successful. And you want to visit and talk, and follow up, and travel, and be curious and share things. That’s what it’s all about man, I’ve been humbled in that.”

“It’s great to have been a part of a group where we’ve shaped our own culture,” Williams added. “We’ve made what we have here with our past coach, and now the older girls have taken the initiative, and we’ve kind of taken the reins, and guided our freshmen, and helped everybody.”

“This is the first year we’ve collectively come together as a group without having Kat here, without having [former assistant coach Kaitlyn Johnson] here, we’re kind of like ‘this is our ship, and we’re in control of where we’re going with it.’”

While the Lynx have occasionally seemed a bit off center this season, understandably so given the upheaval, most of the time they’ve had the look of a team that is fully capable of realizing their very-openly-stated goal at the end of the year, including winning two of three meetings with Liberty, along with an early sweep of the ACHA’s other 2019-20 top-three regular, Minot State.

As Jake Taylor told his teammates in Major League after finding out that his fictional version of the Cleveland Indians was doomed, there’s only one thing left to do.

And if they pull that thing off?

“That would be amazing,” Williams admitted. “Obviously that is the end goal, and that is something that I know is in everybody’s heads, not just mine, not just in the seniors, not just in the juniors, it’s in the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, like… we want to show up next year at Lindenwood St. Charles with a ring on our new ice, being honored at the Centene [Community Ice Center] in front of the NCAA program. We want to show them why we deserve to have a program.”

“I think it would kind of be like a good ‘hey, take us seriously,’” Flaherty said. “Because it’s like, you know, we have St. Charles, and it feels like they kind of look down on us. And we have these teams that are like ‘oh your school’s closing.’”

“And yeah, our school’s closing, but we still got a ring.”


Lindenwood-Belleville at Robert Morris
Edge Ice Arena
Bensenville, IL

November 9, 2019


The starting lineup introduction in hockey is largely a pointless exercise, and the pomp surrounding it has always struck me as wildly disproportionate to its actual importance. Just before the game starts, of course, everyone lines up on their respective goal line, and a booming voice reads off 12 names. Those identified players will skate to their blue line as they’re called out and remain there for the national anthem, presented to attendees for the duration of the song as The Most Important People Here.

If a team offers five game update tweets, two will be the starters from each team. There may be a graphic, or a video presentation if the rink has that capability. The house lights may even be dimmed. All for a collection of people who – goalies excepted, of course – will spend less than a minute on the ice once the puck is dropped.

But, if nothing else, sometimes they can give offer a decent, although extremely obvious, metaphor. So when the bulk of Robert Morris’ roster watched from the bench as Eagles starters Ali Sinnett, Micki Crawford, Morgan Donchez, Emily Urban, Abby Cardew, and Annette Scislowicz faced the entire Lindenwood-Belleville squad both participating in the lineup ceremony and loudly singing the Star-Spangled Banner (despite being roughly 60 percent Canadian), the expertise of Tolkien or Melville was not required. That’s pretty much how the game went.

Scislowicz has quietly become one of the ACHA’s best goalies and played like it for most of the afternoon as the Eagles looked outnumbered, even if they actually weren’t. Callie Philippe’s rebound tally and Lindsay Gillis’ power play bomb had the Lynx up 2-0 before the home team could even manage a shot on goal. Alicia Williams made it 3-0 on another greasy effort late in the first period to, realistically, crystallize the outcome. It could have been six or seven without Scislowicz, who kept more than her share of pucks out by channeling hall of famers and their favored techniques, like Johnny Bower’s pad stack and Dominik Hasek’s barrel roll.

“We come out strong sometimes, and then one goal gets in against us and we kind of drop down the momentum as opposed to just stepping up to the challenge,” RMU senior forward Rachel Arias said. “Inconsistency in our work ethic is our biggest issue.”

The roof officially caved in on the Eags early in the third period with LUB goals on consecutive shifts, followed by Williams’ second a few minutes later. After 40 saves and 51:01 of crease time, Scislowicz was mercifully lifted, and it seemed like more of a reward than a punishment. Her outing was a heroic effort that simply ran out of gas.

“We tend to fall apart as a team and we can’t play 60 full minutes of hockey,” a frustrated Urban, one of the team’s co-captains, offered.

Wisconsin-native sniper Cardew did manage to break a potential Maia Busi shutout on a nice shorthanded goal with 14 seconds left, but all in all, it was a largely forgettable contest – the sooner, the better from the Eagles’ point of view.

Forgettable to most, but not to me. Because nothing felt right about any of it.

Roughly 11 years and eight months earlier, in that same building and on a typically-chilly Chicago March afternoon, Ashley Boye set up shop during a late-game power play. Boye was intimately familiar with Edge Ice Arena as a former Eagles player, including a starring role on RMU’s first national title team – but she transferred out after a pair of seasons and was now returning as the enemy, an All-American forward from Lindenwood’s St. Charles, Missouri campus.

“Ashley played for Robert Morris, then she transferred to St. Lawrence University, then we ended up at Lindenwood together and played on a line,” former LU star Kat Hannah said. “That was awesome, and we had a great girl from the Sweden national team on our line [Natalie Larsen], and that was probably the best line I played with in college.”

For Boye, this wasn’t a social visit. At that moment, she was looking for somewhere to stick a dagger in her old team.

From the right point, she found the Lions’ Shannon Murphy lower in the zone; Murphy, in turn, fired through the middle for defenseman Gillian Couture on the weak side, and Couture one-timed the puck past goaltender Ashley Miller. After that tally and 3:34 of clock suffocation, a butt-puckering 2:00 of it spent on the penalty kill, Lindenwood had won the game and the 2008 national championship by a 2-1 count over their biggest rival, on their home ice. It was the second title in three years for LU and would kick off a run of three in a row, four in five seasons all told, with players like 2008 ACHA National Tournament MVP Boye, Hannah, goaltender Becca Bernet, Amy Dlugos, and later, Mandy Dion leading the way.

“It really started in 2006, the year we won our first national championship, we played Robert Morris in Colorado, and we lost 8-0. It was one of the only games where I didn’t have a point that year,” said Hannah, a two-time Zoë Harris Award winner.

“And then we played them in March, at the national championship in 2006, and that was the very first time we won, and we were down 2-0 with five minutes left in the game. I looked at the bench and told them we were going to win, then [on the tying goal] they got a penalty with two minutes left in the game, and we scored on a power play to put it into overtime, and then we eventually won. So that’s where that rivalry really does get its start.”

Robert Morris wasn’t exactly the Washington Generals though. The Eagles won that 2005 championship with Boye on the team, defeating Michigan State for the crown, then began co-authorship of a four-year run of ACHA finals exclusively featuring RMU and Lindenwood the following year. The Lions won three of those trophy games, including the 2006 and 2008 contests, while Robert Morris managed to take the 2007 title with a team led by Savannah Varner, the winner of both the Zoë Harris Award and the ACHA tournament MVP that season. Varner was just one of a parade of five Eagles to win the ACHA’s signature individual honor (Krista Sleen, Danielle McCutcheon, Ramey Weaver, and Hayley Williams are the others), a number that remains the national best.


“I loved to play those guys,” Hannah admitted. “One of the things that people don’t know about RMU and Lindenwood and the rivalry is that it’s rich in blood, a lot of deep history with relationships and all sorts of things like that. But we were friends. We were literally on countless nights in hotel rooms, just hanging out with each other, and shooting that sort of stuff, and then play each other the next day.”

“But I [still] feel a very certain way when I walk into Robert Morris’ arena,” Hannah added. “That place used to light my blood on fire.”

It was a run of iron-fisted dominance by two teams unmatched in history, not even by the more recent Liberty-Miami run. And just over a decade after it ended, barely a trace of it will remain in the ACHA.

Lindenwood’s final ACHA season was 2010-11, but the Lions received the happiest possible ending through the transition of their program to the NCAA Division I level. So far, their eight-plus NCAA seasons haven’t been quite as successful as their eight in the ACHA, to put it extremely diplomatically. But thanks to the opening of the gorgeous Centene Community Ice Center and the hiring of 1998 Olympic gold-medal-winning goal scorer Shelley Looney as the team’s third head coach over this past offseason, there’s at least a spark of positivity around the program.

A very select group – Penn State, Boston University and Ohio State are a few of the other DI notables – enjoy that sort of graduation day. Much more frequently, ACHA programs, even dominant ones, disappear in less glamorous fashion.

The team at Lindenwood’s Belleville, Illinois campus fired up for the 2014-15 season and, at least in spirit, picked up where its sister team left off. The Lynx started an active run of four straight nationals appearances in year two, including a trip to the 2019 championship game, and have a very-openly-stated goal of a national title this season. However, don’t file LUB as a budding dynasty just yet: Lindenwood announced in May that it is ending undergraduate programs and athletics at its Belleville location in 2020. While things will purportedly carry on after the newer team relocates down the hall from its NCAA sisters at the Centene Center, the dynamics in play will be as different as its new uniforms.

The fates of the two Lindenwood teams aren’t entirely unique. Regardless of how good a program is or how it is structured, drastic change is never far away. Those following a traditional club model tend to lean disproportionately on student officers and (largely) part-time volunteer coaches, and can often be a couple graduations and a touch of life reality away from an apathy-riddled disaster. The fully-funded teams, while more stable in some ways, are generally found at smaller, NAIA-type schools and still subject to their own set of perils often affecting the entire institution, as Lindenwood-Belleville can attest. NCAA Division I teams have money and a robust athletic department to control against ebbs and flows. ACHA teams live on a tightrope.

Everything in life may be temporary, but everything in the ACHA is even more temporary.

“Temporary” isn’t always a terminal disease, in fact it usually isn’t, but symptoms often include transformation into a ghost chained down by weak participation and losing records, desperately waiting for heavily-invested individuals to show up and breathe life into them once again. And just like Haley Joel Osment once told Bruce Willis, they’re everywhere. A lot of times, they don’t even know they’re ghosts.

Wisconsin is one of them. After winning two of the first four ACHA women’s championships, the Badgers fell from relevance about ten years ago, but delicately straddle the line between Division 1 and Division 2 without really mattering to anyone beyond the players on the team, while skating under a pair of banners that are much further away than the arched roof of the Camp Randall Shell. Northeastern was the Division 2 national champion in 2010, then the Division 1 national champion in 2012, but program architect Nick Carpenito’s coaching career took off (he’s now the associate head coach with NU’s NCAA team) and the Huskies disintegrated without him.

Teams like Buffalo and Northern Michigan had become ghosts, but each experienced a resurgence after dropping to Division 2, where both have been title contenders in recent years. Rainy River was an early powerhouse in the lower division after it was established in 2006-07, winning three of the first five national championships (still a D2 record), but had to go on hiatus a couple years ago due to declining interest and has been a non-competitive shell since returning.

It’s often said that people tend to attach themselves to the music, clothing, and trends that date to their prime well after they’re fashionable, and Edge Ice Arena proves that buildings are sometimes no different. There are banners, of course, one of which is the Eagles’ 2007 championship banner, displayed prominently in the lobby as if the accomplishment was freshly earned. There’s also a trophy case with a specific fixation on the 2004 through 2006 period, when RMU’s program was new and success was a novelty.


The USHL’s Chicago Steel was a long-time tenant, but departed in 2015 and left behind suites with internet connections that don’t work and menus for food service that no longer exists, a giant spotlight for those over-produced player introductions that’s been dark for half a decade, and an abandoned concession stand near the Eagles’ women’s locker room. While most of the world looks forward to the beginning of the 2020s, Edge remains somewhere near the end of the 2000s, when championships and future NHLers were the norm.

So what happened?

That’s never a simple question to answer, in any context. You could probably start with the fact that, according to the Chicago Tribune, Robert Morris enrolled 6,100 students in 2008 and just 1,900 in 2018, a catastrophic drop, regardless of how you dissect it. Like many similarly-situated schools, RMU uses sports as an enrollment driver, and turns a disproportionate amount of its budget back into the teams that delivered its students. Under that structure, declining enrollment, whether due to the usual broad reasons (concern over student loan debt and increased scrutiny of the value of a college education) or something more specific (increasing numbers of Illinois high school graduates who choose to go to school out of state), is death for an athletic program.

For Eagles women’s hockey, the effects of that belt tightening are probably seen most obviously in the coaching staff. Since original head coach John Burke’s abrupt departure in the middle of the 2008-09 season, RMU has had six different head coaches over 11 years overseeing a series of diminishing returns that were largely beyond their control since, unlike many other fully-funded teams, Robert Morris’ leaders need to hold down other jobs in and out of hockey. Current head coach Mason Strom also teaches and coaches at Fenwick High School, and associate head coach Carla Pentimone fills numerous other roles in the game, even including as an assistant coach with an entirely different ACHA program, DePaul’s Division 2 men’s squad.

The pitfalls of that arrangement should be obvious, even before looking down at the Eagles’ bench during the game against the Lynx and seeing that neither Strom nor Pentimone were present; former RMU men’s star Nate Chasteen managed things in their absence. Substitute faces during games, or things like asking opponents to wear their dark jerseys at home and white jerseys on the road because the school can only afford one full set at a time, are more optically awkward than anything that actually affects the team’s performance, but they’re nevertheless symptoms of the larger problem and, cumulatively, can bleed into the roster’s psychology.

Recruiting that consists mostly of the coaches’ existing circles because the manpower and budget don’t allow for anything else is a more on-point story. Robert Morris’ most recent national tournament team, 2013-14, had star players from Alaska, Alberta, Minnesota, Manitoba, and Ontario to go along with a crop of local talent, while the current roster has just three total players from outside of Illinois and the adjacent states.

Because of some of that, or all of it, along with RMU stubbornly clinging to the idea that an overly-generous distribution of grant money was essential to recruiting (in fact, student-athletes were permitted to double dip by playing multiple sports until last year), the program bled alongside the university for several years.

Then, just about a month ago, the hammer finally fell: Robert Morris announced that plans are in the works to merge into neighboring Roosevelt University, continuing forward under the Roosevelt name.

While this might read like an obituary, it really shouldn’t. Robert Morris is not Wisconsin or Rainy River. It isn’t even Lindenwood-Belleville, as superficially similar as their situations may be. LUB is being absorbed by a campus with an existing NCAA team, while RMU will be acquired by a separate institution with no current hockey team.

The case for the merger actually being a positive isn’t paper thin. Combined, the Roosevelt-RMU enrollment will be back at the level it was when the Eagles were a contender. That, by itself, doesn’t solve everything – Roosevelt is also much smaller than it used to be – but it at least buys some time to resolve the issues that led to the current reality while possibly creating more resources for athletics in the short term.

On the ice, the newly-rechristened Lakers will have a couple more years of Scislowicz and Donchez and at least one more of Sinnett, a fantastic puck-moving blueliner. Urban, one of the ACHA’s elite power forwards, plans to return for a fifth year. The team has nine freshmen, including a couple standouts, proving that the program can still be a draw for quality players.

But even more than any of that, the merger is a clean break from the past. And the more time you spend around the current Eagles, the more you get the sense that all of those banners and all of those trophies are an albatross, less a reminder of what the team can become than what it isn’t right now. While nobody openly admits to that being the case, it’s not terribly difficult to read between the lines.

“Being here for about five or six years, it’s definitely been a change in the program,” Arias said. “We don’t really carry the history of our program that much, it seems to be a little bit of a scramble unfortunately. My time being here, I’ve had at least three different coaches, so each time we’ve kind of come in new each year, the coach starts off fresh.”

“While we look at history, we also focus on the idea not every team is going to be the same, and you’ve gotta keep pushing forward with who you’ve got,” Urban added.


As for the younger players? Freshman defender Cora Weibye was born in May of 2001, making her five when RMU won its last national championship. She didn’t end up at the school because of tradition or because she might win a title during her career, she chose it because of reasons that remain in place without those things.

“What really sold RMU for me was the schedule,” Weibye explained. “It allowed for me to easily manage being both a college student and athlete, and I hope that it remains manageable next year and in the following years.”

“I also really enjoyed the team dynamic and the relationships between the players. From my first recruit skate onward I could tell that there was something special about the team chemistry and that has only proven to be true in the past several months. Despite our less than stellar current record and looming merger, I couldn’t imagine myself with any other team.”

With Arias done after this season and others like Urban moving on within the next couple years, Weibye and her classmates shoulder a lot of responsibility for defining what it means to be a Laker, not an Eagle. And she’s looking forward to it.

“The merger was definitely a curve ball for all of us, returning and new players alike,” she said. “We were told that we didn’t have to worry about the program being cut or merged due to Roosevelt not having a women’s hockey team. I can only hope that this is a good thing for the team in the long run, hopefully we can receive better funding for the hockey programs.”

Trophies are nice, but there’s an expiration date on their relevance, and they don’t pay the bills. The fruits of the merger might. If nothing else, there’s a guarded optimism about the program’s future for the first time in several years, a sincere belief that things can and will be better than they are right now. That’s not the entire answer, of course, but it could be the beginning of one.

So maybe losing the past is what the team needs to move forward.

Maybe, just this once, temporary is a good thing.

The Pros

Connecticut Whale at Buffalo Beauts
Northtown Center at Amherst
Williamsville, NY

October 19, 2019


Maddie Norton sat at a long table in the rink lobby, along with her teammates, in her number 16 Buffalo Beauts jersey, signing any souvenir pushed in front of her – pennants and shirts mostly, with the occasional hat or puck thrown in. As the NWHL’s standard postgame autograph line inched its way past her, it’s unlikely that many realized that Norton’s powder blue jersey, the primary thing that identified her as one of their heroes and worthy of scribbling on a $30 piece of merchandise, has not actually been used in any of the Beauts’ games to this point.

As far as Norton remembers, nobody’s said “nice game” to her in those lines, in my mind the worst thing that can happen in that situation, but the reality of a healthy scratch isn’t without some mild uneasiness.

“One time I was sitting in the bleachers watching our game and a little girl named Daisy, five or six years old, who I helped coach previously, came over and said to me, ‘Hi Maddie, your team is playing really good,’” the native Buffalonian remembered. “I kind of laughed to myself, and then replied, ‘Yeah they are!’”

“At first, I felt awkward that I was even signing autographs, but the fans don’t care, they love us all just as much. They are a great supportive community of all of us, regardless of our playing time.”

Of course, navigating those situations isn’t the worst part about not playing, not playing is.

“It’s definitely different than what I’m used to,” Norton added. “In college, I went out every other shift, sometimes double-shifted if needed, power play, penalty kill, you name it. It’s frustrating not making the lineup, but it motivates me each week to come to practice and try to be better than I was the previous week. Everyone’s really talented so the bar is set high, hopefully I’ll be in the lineup soon.”

After the postgame autographs were complete, a more relaxed Norton reappeared in the rink – wearing sunglasses, but not her jersey – to take in her alma mater, the University at Buffalo, as the Bulls hosted SUNY Oswego. She certainly couldn’t be blamed for wanting to shake off the frustration of her situation by leaving and doing just about anything else, but at that point she was no longer a healthy scratch, she was the best player in program history, triumphantly returning to overlook her queendom. After five College Hockey East regular season or playoff titles, four nationals appearances, 208 points, a pair of first-team All-American honors, and the 2018-19 Zoë Harris Award, Norton has certainly earned that much.

She was still sitting and watching at a rink where she wasn’t used to sitting and watching, but the energy of the situation both on and off the ice had changed dramatically.

“Going to a UB game actually leaves me with a feeling of ‘did I actually play at that level?’” Norton explained. “It’s just such different skill level and a totally different pace compared to the NWHL. It was a great time, but it really wasn’t an optimal place to be ever since I realized I wanted to take hockey seriously. I enjoy watching but not as much as I love playing.”

The atmosphere of UB game is also significantly different from that of a Beauts game. It’s almost impossible to believe that only an hour before in that same Feature Rink, Marie-Jo Pelletier snuck low on the weak side of an overtime power play and converted, following up her own shot. That goal capped a Buffalo rally from a 3-0 deficit, exploded a crowd of maybe 1000 ticket holders, and drew a very loud “REBOUND…THEY SCOOORE! M.J. PELLETIER! ON THE BACK DOOR, CHIPS IT BEHIND SHELLY!” from play-by-play guy Steve Bermel.

Just about the only noises produced by the Bulls-Lakers game were skates on the ice, sticks on the puck, communication between players and coaches and, occasionally, a whistle. A couple dozen onlookers managed to find their way in, but it was uncomfortably quiet, even by club hockey standards, sort of how I imagine one of those European soccer matches where a club is forced to play behind closed doors after a fan violence incident sounds (or doesn’t, I suppose).

I’m admittedly obsessed with the handful of ACHA alumni who have played in the NWHL, the defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, or, in a couple cases, overseas somewhere. The most obvious reason is that those players offer the opportunity for all of us to be counted. The opportunity to say hey, we might not be considered “real” college hockey by most people, but we’re still pretty good, even when competing with and against some of the best in the world.

Norton is just the latest in that light, but steady, stream. Unofficially (since a comprehensive record doesn’t exist) Lindenwood’s Kat Hannah and Penn State’s Andrea Lavelle were the first two, as each had a brief stint in a coincidentally-named National Women’s Hockey League, unrelated to the current outfit, in the early 2000s. When the modern NWHL started up in 2015 and nearly doubled the number of North American professional roster spots, Paige Harrington (UMass) and Hayley Williams (Robert Morris/Miami) found a home on the Buffalo Beauts. Cassie Dunne (Penn State) signed with the Connecticut Whale in 2017, followed by Norton with the Beauts in 2019.

Over in the CWHL, Liberty’s Sarah Stevenson was picked 17th overall in the 2015 draft by the Toronto Furies, while Rhode Island’s Kristen Levesque and Sydney Collins went to the Boston Blades a year later. Williams crossed the border in 2016 to spend a pair of seasons in the CWHL with the Furies and Brampton Thunder, while the European ACHAers include UMass alumnae Chelsea and Raschelle Bräm, twins who have carved out a six-year run in Switzerland with SC Reinach.

That group has found some measure of success. Williams was voted to the first NWHL All-Star Game in 2016, scoring a goal in the contest. Harrington won the Isobel Cup as a regular in Buffalo the following season. Stevenson’s selection came ahead of plenty of women who had played in the NCAA or Canada’s U-Sports. Events like the World University Games and the IIHF Women’s World Championships offer additional support, as those tournaments have afforded ACHA players the chance to compete and win against senior national teamers from countries like China, Japan, Slovenia, and even Russia.

Studies have found that the peak age for hockey players is around 27 years old. In the women’s game, that statistic is often cited when advocating for a professional league offering full-time salaries, and guaranteeing that we see the best of what the game has to offer. As a corollary, it’s also used to lament what might have been when the latest in an unfortunate string of 24-year-olds retires. But for Norton, or any ACHA player trying to compete with the best in the world, there’s an extra dimension to it.


While the NCAA has enacted rules to block recruitment until players are halfway through high school after things had crept to uncomfortably young ages, the fact remains that a ton of key decisions, assessments, and projections are being made on 16-year-olds. And 16-year-olds are not 27-year-olds. They aren’t even 20-year-olds.

“Pre-college I was a little bit of a suitcase, not that I was a bad player or no one wanted me, it was just how things worked out,” Norton said. “I bopped around [youth programs], from Regals to Bisons to Cazenovia. During high school I was all over the place about playing college hockey. Do I want to? Do I not want to? And before you know it, it was basically too late.”

“My last season before college, I tried out for the Niagara Purple Eagles and got cut. If I hadn’t got cut, I probably would have gone to an NCAA school to play hockey. I had received offers to go play at Cortland and some other DIII schools, but I wasn’t really satisfied and just made the choice for UB since it was close to home and I would be debt free.”

So there you have it: Norton was financially responsible and maybe a bit indecisive, and that meant she was an ACHA player instead of an NCAA Division III player, something that probably would have helped her developmentally and given her more name credibility when walking in the NWHL door.

The potential for error in the process that stamped Norton as Not Good Enough for NCAA Hockey is massive, a fact that’s been proven repeatedly by players who are cut from NCAA teams, end up playing in the ACHA, and don’t dominate. Or the numerous times ACHA teams have taken down NCAA Division III squads, or even (a couple times) ones from Division I. There’s already overlap between each of the levels at 20. So what about at 27?

Under the current reality, we often don’t get to find out. Williams turned 29 last summer and is still going, an outlier among outliers, although it certainly hasn’t been easy – since starting college, she’s played for seven different teams (in three different countries, presently including Russia) over eight seasons. Harrington played her last NWHL game at age 24. Stevenson, despite her lofty draft status, was done in the CWHL after a single season. Dunne became a healthy scratch over the second half of her rookie year and was out of the league in 2018-19, but persisted and found her way on to the roster of the Metropolitan Riveters this season, where she takes a regular defense shift.

Even the ACHA’s biggest success stories are often found around the fringes, fighting to stay on teams and in the pros, and required to make enormous sacrifices on every front to keep going, while being ignored by the minimal publicity women’s hockey has to offer. All along the way, the uncertain status of the women’s pro game acts as a sword of Damocles for the entire situation. The #ForTheGame/PWHPA protest that led to more than 150 players boycotting the NWHL this season – and probably played some role in Norton and Dunne having spots in the league – could just as quickly be resolved and take them away, or the NHL could start its own fully-paid women’s league limited to the most elite of the elite, the Olympians and near-Olympians, and drive the NWHL out of business.

Either one of those outcomes, or any number of others, could mark the end of ACHA graduates competing in the best pro leagues available at just about any point in time.

Norton is not someone who tolerates silence. Almost immediately after noting the relative lack of a scene around the UB-Oswego affair, she enlisted the help of a couple people to connect the rink’s sound system (which, for some reason, had been completely unplugged even though the Beauts had just used it for their game), casually started spinning music during stoppages, and even took a couple cracks at making public address announcements. When UB’s Hannah Latour was whistled for a couple penalties in succession, her old teammate was sure to lean down towards the boxes and offer a couple light chirps. Wherever she is, and whatever her role entails, she’s someone who’s meant to be involved, and her current responsibility of sitting cheerleader during Beauts games is completely at odds with how she’s wired.


It’s a trait that has served her well in life to this point. NWHL founder and commissioner Dani Rylan may have coined the description “dreamer. doer.” through her Twitter profile but Norton, at minimum, should probably seek some sort of royalty arrangement on it.

“There is no typical week when you are me,” she explained. “There are two things that are consistent in my life right now: going to the gym for an hour to an hour and a half four days a week, and practicing with the Beauts two days a week. Some days I’ll work my part time job which I’ve had for five years now.”

That much might not sound exceptional in a reality where all NWHL players need a primary source of income outside of their league paycheck, but we’re not quite done yet.

Norton enjoys photography and graphic design, and has done work in both areas for UB’s men’s and women’s teams, while also producing an apparel line under the label “Top Shelf Hockey.” She hops on the ice as a coach whenever she can, and has a natural intellectual curiosity, presently including learning French. But her true passion is personal training, growing her brand, developing as an entrepreneur, and breaking into that business.

“My priority right now is focusing on growing my training business online and in person. That is what I want to do in life and that’s what’s most important right now,” she explained.

“I want to be like John Opfer, who owns Proformance Sports Training [in Buffalo]. If I can be anything like him, super knowledgeable, training the some of the best athletes in the world, and have swagger at the same time, that’s when I know I will have made it.”

The ACHA, at its core, is fueled by players with a complex spectrum of motivations. Some people treat it no differently than if they were an NCAA student-athlete and give their honest best at competing at the highest level possible while getting an education. Others will look at that group, laugh, and say “calm down, it’s just club hockey, and I’m just here to have fun,” while occasionally skating in between hockey parties. There aren’t right or wrong motivations – one of the truly glorious things about all of this is that it can be whatever you want it to be – but for me personally, I’m always looking for the ones who care. The ones who hate silence.

After all, I care. And while appreciation feels good, when I’m spending most of the night at a Pilot Travel Center and writing while fending off awkward advances from the only other person there, before trying to sleep a little bit in my car through the bitter January cold, because I only have enough money for gas to get home and not for a hotel room, what I really want is to know that there’s someone on the other side of all of that who cares just as much about excelling in their own role. Feel free to insert the locker room speech from Any Given Sunday at this point, particularly the part about the guy next to you fighting for that inch with you, or any one from an entire category of similar sports clichés, but most of them are true. When you give more, those around you want to give more too.

I’ve pushed every last one of my chips to the middle for a player or a team when I get the sense that they’re in for the full pound, and I’ve flat-out quit when that wasn’t the case.  And if you’re willing to do what it takes to navigate the world of women’s professional hockey, famously low-paid and featuring innumerable other inconveniences and hardships (leading U.S. National Team veteran Kendall Coyne Schofield to go on ESPN and infamously declare that players “dread” going pro), just to keep playing this stupid game? Quod erat demonstrandum, you’re Pilot material and I’m going to follow you off the edge of the Earth.

Norton cares too. And whatever the future holds for her hockey career, that ability to draw the best out of people and make her surroundings a little better will make her a fantastic personal trainer and a success wherever life takes her.