The Old Normal

Voluntary Self-Isolation
My Couch
Medina, OH

June 4, 2020

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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.

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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.

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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.

Temporary

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

November 9, 2019

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Goalie

Sault College at Davenport
Patterson Ice Center
Grand Rapids, MI

November 2, 2019

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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute goalie Lovisa Selander earned a fair amount of notoriety in 2018-19 when she broke the NCAA Division I career saves record, finishing with 4167. Selander’s senior year was her most prolific, as she made 1232 stops – translating to 0.62 saves for every single minute she spent in the crease, or a hair over 37 per 60 minutes. By any measure, hers was an impressive work rate that would test any goalie on the standard guild assertion that they’d rather be busy and get a feel for the puck than the opposite.

However, roughly 672 miles west of RPI’s home base outside of Albany (and even further than that in terms of attention from The Ice Garden and other media outlets), another goalie was even busier last season, to the tune of 0.64 saves per minute and 38.43 per game while standing as her team’s only netminder and therefore never getting any sort of reprieve from the barrage. She topped 60 saves in a game five times during the year, while Selander only did so once.

Selander, who now plays in the NWHL for the Boston Pride, was and is a great goalie, of course. But she’s no Julia Gaynor, a hierarchy locked in well before Gaynor was introduced as Davenport’s starting right wing today.


At this stage of the sport’s development, most men involved in women’s hockey have something of an origin story, a triggering event or series of events that explains their presence in an area of the game that probably wasn’t a significant part of their childhood. For Miracle on Icer-turned-coaching legend Mark Johnson, it was a job opportunity. For thousands of fathers, it was a daughter who wanted to play. My origin story is all about goalies.

In the fall of 2010 I, like many other Penn State alumni, was excited about the addition of NCAA hockey to the school’s lineup – so much so, in fact, that I wrote a blog about it for three years. Initially, I focused exclusively on the men’s side, and the team I had worked for as an undergrad that was now receiving a long-overdue promotion. But then, a story in PSU’s Daily Collegian shortly after Terry Pegula’s initial exit from the news cycle caught my attention.

Once [Heather] Rossi entered the room, [head coach Mo] Stroemel told her she had been selected to represent the United States in the 2011 Winter World University games in Erzurum, Turkey. It was seconds later when Rossi was also told that her coach and three other teammates — fellow goalie Katie Vaughan, and defenders Lindsay Reihl and Kate Christoffersen — would be joining her overseas.

Two goalies from the same team headed to World University Games? Bet that third goalie is excited to get some meaningful minutes.

Except Penn State didn’t have a third-string goalie. Although one could hardly blame him for giving two talented netminders a spot on the national team, and the experiences of a lifetime that come with it, Stroemel had essentially sabotaged his team’s chances for success back at home during the tournament.

Indeed, while Rossi and Vaughan were helping Team USA to a fourth-place finish over in Turkey, a rotation of non-goalies took turns trying to hold things down stateside against eventual national champion Michigan State and a near-dynasty Robert Morris team packed with Canadian stars like Mandy Dion and Danielle McCutcheon, and therefore largely unaffected by the American roster selections.

Although Carly Szyszko, PSU’s leading scorer at the time (adding another dimension to the madness), managed a low-stress win against Division 2’s California (PA) where she only had to face seven shots, the MSU and RMU contests went about as expected for Szyszko, Julie Horn, and Lindsey Shuler, with final scores of 10-3, 16-4, 6-1, and 9-0. To add insult to injury, those results, along with a UMass upset of top-ranked Lindenwood – while the Lions were missing a ton of U.S. players and the Minutemen were not – wound up dropping Penn State out of the ACHA National Tournament that season.

Two years later, and somewhere closer to on point, PSU’s ACHA Division 1 team had become an NCAA team, and a new ACHA Division 2 team formed in its wake. That team’s biggest problem initially was one faced by many in a similar situation: numbers. They started their first season with 12 total players, three of whom were goalies. One of the goalies, team president Mary Kate Tonetti, did what she could to help the situation and played as a wing for her sophomore and junior years, helping the squad to a pair of runner-up finishes at nationals. She even temporarily stepped back in the crease while Vaughan was at her second World University Games in 2013 and shut out Delaware twice, sparing Szyszko (who was still playing at that point) from having to eat a few more pucks for the team.

The first of those events led to me writing about men’s and women’s hockey equally on my blog, the second helped me along as I became even more involved in the women’s game. I’d later learn that those types of position changes are more common than I realized at the time (for example, I had no idea that a goalie named Gena Goldbaum routinely played defense for PSU just a couple years before the 2010-11 situation caught my attention), but that doesn’t make them any less extraordinary.

And yes, it has crossed my mind once or twice that none of my experience in the men’s college game exposed me to either side of the most difficult position switch.

Goaltending is, in a lot of ways, an entirely different sport than what everyone else is doing on the ice. They have their own coaches, the equipment is very obviously different, the objectives, skills, and techniques are different, hell, the skates are different. Certainly, it’s not entirely foreign territory for most goalies to play elsewhere, either formally or informally, at some point of their hockey lives. In fact, Gaynor didn’t become a full-time goalie until 2012, and would often play half of the game in net and the other half out of it as a youth player in Goderich, Ontario.

But the ability to make that switch at a highly-competitive level? To sacrifice what you’ve trained for and what you’re good at, simply to give your team an extra warm and hopefully adequate body, so it can scratch for any advantage it may get? And when nobody would have said a single negative word about you for wearing a baseball hat and opening the bench door instead? That’s the type of selfless act that makes me want to know more about you.


Davenport, for most of its history, has had at least two things in common with those Penn State teams – lights-out goaltending, and a head count struggle, which puts a ton of pressure on that goaltending (as Gaynor knows all too well). The first DU team, in 2013-14, featured NCAA transfer Victoria Smishek and Lauren Yomantas, who would later depart and then star at rival Robert Morris. The following season brought Belgium national teamer Nina Van Orshaegen along with Caitlin Nosanov, another NCAA transfer who would become the first Panther to play at World University Games in 2015. Next came Karley Ferguson and Dawn Salo, who held the fort admirably until Gaynor arrived in 2017-18. Davenport’s roster size for those seasons, including the goalies: 16, 18, 15, 17, 17, 13, and now 12.

Gaynor’s every-other-game break from her usual spot between the pipes this year was made possible by the arrival of Dayna Templeton, a talented freshman from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. As anyone who’s seen a stunned Jim Craig exclaim “That’s my net man, you can’t do that!” in Miracle when Herb Brooks suggests benching him knows, goalies can be a bit possessive of their crease. It’s a dash of ego that helps them succeed in their unique role, and Gaynor certainly had earned some degree of deference after her record-breaking sophomore season. But that was never a concern between the two Panthers.

“Dayna came in, and she really did prove herself the first game she played,” Gaynor said. “She played phenomenal against McKendree [in a 51-save effort on October 6th]. I think that first game was huge, she really proved herself to the entire team. We’re good in our headspace when she’s behind us.”

“I’m so proud to have her as a goalie partner, it’s amazing. I have full faith in her, and I think the girls have faith in her too.”

Templeton, for her part, has enjoyed the veteran’s mentoring.

“Julia understands the fear of coming in your freshman year and thinking you might not play a lot of games,” she said. “She was one of the first players I met at Davenport when I was being recruited, she knows what she’s doing and has helped me blend easily with the team’s dynamic. She’s always encouraging me and supporting me when she plays out.”

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With all of that in mind, I was all set to watch the game, find a handful of positive plays that would be largely forgotten if made by a non-goalie, and use them to sing the praises of Gaynor, the ultimate teammate in the ultimate team sport. When the general expectations of goalies skating out are “keep up with the play, offer some sort of basic contribution along the lines of clogging a lane or screening the opposing goalie, and get the puck to your stars (who are hopefully a bit fresher late in the game thanks to a couple extra shifts off),” that’s plenty to run with.

Then she scored a goal.

It wasn’t an insignificant goal either. Mispon Martin’s drive from the top of the right circle through heavy traffic, off of a turnover, just 1:15 into the game put Sault College ahead, and as the game bled out – the score remained 1-0 into the third period – it looked like there was at least a chance of it turning into the most frustrating afternoon possible, a one-goal loss with 58 minutes of missed opportunities to build a hearty stew.

But out of just about nothing six minutes into the third period, Morgan Pippin managed to play an end-board carom of a puck thrown low towards the net from the left side. She and Amanda Ballestero then occupied the Cougar defense in front, allowing Gaynor to expertly play the ensuing situation.

“I just found a lot of open space back door on the right side, so I hung back there hoping it would pop out,” the goal-scoring goalie said. “Sure enough it did, and I got it on my backhand, pulled it over, but when that did come out, my linemates, they did a great job keeping their players tied up in front of the net, so I had that open space and time to get it to the net.”

“After the first one, we were ecstatic,” defender Olivia Rudberg said. “Me and Ballsy (Ballestero, who remained calm enough to collect the milestone puck from the Cougar net) looked at each other, we were just so happy. That first goal was just insane, especially coming from her.”

Then she scored another goal.

“That’s it, she’s the queen, she’s the goal scorer on this team now!” faux-enraged DU star Courtney Mulligan would yell at me across the rink lobby after the game.

While I wouldn’t go quite that far, Mulligan is an exceptionally-gifted offensive player, Gaynor’s second goal, like her first, wasn’t the sort of butt deflection or pigeon tap home typical of a talentless plug. And more importantly, it put the Panthers ahead with 1:22 left in the game.

Just after Davenport had missed on a power play, Elizabeth O’Connor did well to win a puck battle behind the Sault net and feed it to Pippin near the bottom of the left circle. Pippin then tried to slip the disc back door to Gaynor, but it hit a Cougar stick on the way through and skipped into the air. For most goalies trying to receive that pass, it’s a dead chance. For Gaynor? Hardly. She batted it home out of mid-air just like Wayne Gretzky, the greatest scorer of them all, once did on a goal that ultimately led to a stick-produced hole in my parents’ basement door when I tried to duplicate it.

“I think she’s awesome,” Rudberg said. “She really comes out and, every time she plays whether it’s in net or out, she does an amazing job. I think it’s cool that she’s able to do that and go back and forth, and also those two goals today really helped us obviously. She’s a great player and we love that she can do that.”

In the interest of completeness, I must mention that Sault tied the contest back up on the shift after Gaynor’s second goal (“we were still in an offensive mindset,” Rudberg lamented), then quickly won in overtime on Martin’s second tally. But that’s not what I’ll remember about the game.

This was: If you get around enough, you will see something extraordinary in this sport, and also something that reminds you why you love it. If both of those somethings are rolled into a single act, which then happens twice in less than 13 game minutes…well, you should probably write something if that happens.

Clockeytown

Michigan State at Grand Valley State
Griff’s Georgetown
Hudsonville, MI

October 5, 2019

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Detroit may be Hockeytown, but the epicenter of ACHA Women’s Division 1 hockey resides about 150 miles west of the Motor City, in Grand Rapids, where three of D1’s twenty-five teams reside.

Phoenix has Grand Canyon and Arizona State. St. Louis has Lindenwood-Belleville and McKendree. Concordia and Michigan are both located in Ann Arbor. But nobody else has three. Grand Rapids is Clockeytown.

Off of the southeast corner of the city, near an airport named after Gerald R. Ford (quite the sportsman in his day, I’m told), is Davenport. The Panthers are a lovable bunch that’s small in numbers but big in heart and goaltending, and usually good for the occasional win that nobody whatsoever saw coming.

Go two exits further on I-96 towards the center of town, and you’ll run into Aquinas College, although the Saints play at Southside Ice Arena in Byron Center which is, uh, on the south side. Aquinas is the newest program of the triumvirate, as they started up in 2015 and moved to Division 1 in 2017 immediately after an appearance at the Division 2 national tournament, so they’re still squarely in the middle of their initial build. They did, however, make headlines this past offseason when they hired Lisa Brown-Miller – a long-time U.S. National Team member who was on the first-ever Olympic gold-winning women’s hockey squad in 1998 – as their head coach.

Finally, on the far west side of Grand Rapids, is Grand Valley State University and their rink, Griff’s Georgetown. If the scope of this writing was wider, we could talk about the men’s ACHA teams in the area, including prominent ones at all three schools I’ve mentioned so far, along with Calvin University. Grand Rapids, as most know, is also home to the Griffins, the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, connecting Hockeytown with Clockeytown. Whether through a Wings pennant behind the concession stand at Griff’s or the clothing of the people ordering its basic fare, you’re never too far from a winged wheel in GR.

But we’re here to talk about Grand Valley, which presents a huge problem: unlike its neighbors, easy narratives elude it.

Which story do you tell? You could probably start with the fact that the Lakers are one of the ACHA’s most successful programs. Their seven ACHA National Tournament appearances rank tenth all-time, and most of the teams in the top nine have been around longer. GV jumped into the fray for the 2007-08 season, made their first trip to nationals the following year (starting a run of three straight), and by 2011 was sending three players (Ashley Rumsey, Shelby Kucharski, and Chelsea Minnie) and a coach (Cory Whitaker) to Erzurum, Turkey as part of the first-ever American women’s hockey delegation to the World University Games tournament.

The high-water mark, to this point, came in the 2015-16 season. The Lakers, deep and talented on the backs of players like Kendra Myers, Alexa Tenwalde, Frankie Wojtylo, Stacey Mathieu, and a goaltending tandem of Taylor Watson and gigantic Lauren Allen, posted a good-but-hardly-head-turning 17-7-0 regular season record. But GV then got hot at the proverbial right time, running through the CCWHA playoffs and besting Miami in overtime of the championship game on Téa Greca’s power play goal. Fortune (good, not Sam) was their ally again at nationals when Tenwalde beat Adrian in double overtime of a bizarre semifinal, one that featured two Bulldogpiles in sudden death, only for both masses of humanity to be neatly placed back on the bench after video review.

Whichever of the hockey gods is responsible for overtime demanded retribution the next day though: another winner-take-all and another overtime against the RedHawks was too much to overcome, and the Lakers settled for second.

Another story, I suppose, is that GV has achieved that level of success despite fitting the traditional definition of a club hockey team in the way that outsiders think of the pursuit, a status that’s become somewhat rare near the top of an ACHA increasingly dominated by fully-funded athletic department programs. The Lakers team members pay dues, take care of their own business and operational needs, and don’t have a ton done on their behalf from the club sports office.

All of that means that they’re both the most successful program in Clockeytown and also the only one that fits the “true club” model: Aquinas is fully-funded, Davenport was at one point, then unceremoniously jettisoned into a bizarre non-varsity tier limbo when the school moved its other sports teams from the NAIA to the NCAA, but they still receive something more than a dreaded “NV” tag on everything they do from the back office.

Grand Valley’s way of doing things isn’t any more correct than anyone else’s way; after all, everyone takes what they can get and is on the path they see as best for themselves. But there is something more pure about it, something more in line with what this was all supposed to look like, and what it did look like, before everyone realized that no rules actually exist against financial aid and letting salaried athletic administrators run everything – it was just always assumed they did, and reinforced through repeated falsehoods about the differences between NCAA and ACHA hockey.

It’s purely anecdotal, and may or may not even be accurate, but I’ve always felt that GV’s station has drawn some truly fascinating people with impressive academic interests into the program. There are certainly some stories there.

Let’s start with backup goaltender Emma Hembrough, who assists with game operations and social media when she isn’t dressed. She’s from Ubly, a village of fewer than 1,000 people in the mitten’s thumb (if you know, you know) and ended up at GV when it was the only school she considered after becoming familiar with it through a family friend and falling in love. Hembrough is studying nursing, with plans to eventually go to grad school and become a midwife.

“I love delivery and female care, and I love the idea of starting my own practice and doing home births,” she explained.

Defenseman Sally Hoerr recently closed her four-year career with the Lakers as a smart and reliable blueliner and an alternate captain.

“Regardless of the team, the score, injuries, whatever, I was our lock-down defenseman,” the Vermont native said. “I could rush, but I was there to shut down the other team and their best players wherever I could. I wasn’t going to be the one to put a lot of points on the board, but I made sure the other team didn’t either!”

As great of a player as Hoerr was, she might have been even better off the ice, where she ultimately ended up as the team’s co-president. Her chosen field is film and video (with a minor in business), and after doing the Lakers’ graphic design work while chasing down sponsors and streaming opportunities, entering the film industry or working in an NHL team’s media department will be a natural transition.

Wisconsinite senior Connor Denton, another fantastic defenseman and another alternate captain, has some pretty specific plans as well. After deciding to transfer from McKendree, she was looking for schools with good health and medical programs, and GV popped up.

“Once I visited, I was sold on the place,” she recalled. “It’s very affordable, and it reminded me so much of Wisconsin, that was my main reason for going.”

Denton is studying allied health sciences with a minor in psychology, as she seeks to go into medical sales, then take that money to pursue becoming a registered dietician.

Okay, one more.

Katie Gialloreti is the team’s current president and is double majoring in behavioral neuroscience and psychology. She plans to eventually earn a Ph.D. and become a neuropsychologist or a clinical psychologist, and work with patients who have had traumatic brain injuries.

“Grand Valley is just an amazing school, with so many resources and opportunities to utilize,” she said. “And the competitive atmosphere the team had is what really drew me in – I saw a bunch of girls who could be joking around and having fun, but when it was time to work, man these girls worked!”

So, to review: great school that feels like home, the chance to be whatever you want to be, and some highly-competitive hockey. Sure, it sounds like it’s straight out of the viewbook, but when player after player tells that same story, modifying it only for their major and chosen field, there has to be something deeper to it than marketing copy. It’s not like any of these women have an overprotective SID to carefully manage their interviews.

It’s hard to talk to any of them, see how passionate they are about the sport and about their off-ice interests, and not think they’re destined to change the world, or at least their corner of it.

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Of course, on the ice, the Lakers’ story is that of a program that is going through a bit of an identity crisis. A solid 2018-19 group that could have fairly been considered a darkhorse contender (they took eventual runner-up Lindenwood-Belleville to overtime of a deciding game three in the ACHA quarterfinals) included 11 seniors, among them long-time stars like Hoerr, Allison Carlson, Taylor Lampar, and Brelin Tasker.

Now they’re young – 14 freshmen and Arizona State transfer Sydney Hancock replaced those seniors – and uncharacteristically struggling a bit. GV opened the season by hosting a showcase with Aquinas, Concordia, and Midland, and while the 2-2 outcome wasn’t disastrous, it was hardly inspiring. The Lakers’ pedigree is that of a team able to skate with a Midland, not one that eats a 7-0 loss and says “well, they’re really good, that’s okay.”

Then the worst of all: yesterday’s 10-0 curbstomping at the hands of Michigan State in the front half of the series at Munn Ice Arena.

GV almost didn’t show up for the second game of the series either, although more literally in this case, as the Spartans stood ready for the starting lineups on their goalline for a couple minutes before the home side even emerged from their locker room. The scorekeeper hammered the buzzer a couple times, perhaps while wondering a little bit about the Lakers’ psychological state, finally drawing 20 brand new white, blue, and black jerseys to the ice. Fortunately, it got better from there.

In the early going, the undisputed star of the game was GV goaltender Morgan Lang. Lang, the only remaining player from the ACHA finalists of 2016 (although she was the third goalie back then) was incredible, turning aside just about everything the Spartans had to offer, including late in the first period when she dove to her left to make a glove save on Maddie Wolsmann. Wolsmann, the 2017-18 Zoë Harris Award winner, looked certain to score after Lang left a pad rebound on a Morgan Graham try.

At the end of the season, it will still hold up as one of the saves of the year in any level of hockey, by a woman, a man, or a genderless shape shifter. There isn’t any video of it, so you’ll just have to take me at my word.

Wolsmann did get the best of Lang once during the opening period by snaking down the right side of the ice herself from the Spartan zone, likely perturbed that the Lakers had just killed off her team’s power play, and delivering a pretty finish to make the score 1-0 for the visitors. While it seemed clear that the Lakers weren’t going to be 10-bageled again, it had the feel of one of those “fairly respectable score, but never actually in doubt” contests. 3-0? 4-1? Something like that. MSU would be happy they won, GV would be happy that they survived. Good game everyone, let’s go eat.

Before the expected could play out though, Grand Valley gave the few dozen attendees – and perhaps more importantly, themselves – a glimpse of what was possible.

As if ordained by Neptune himself, the Lakers started clicking towards the end of the first period. The program’s long tradition of quick and intelligent defenders, led in the present day by Denton, seemed as healthy as ever. Katie Tauer also stands as a core member of the unit, while rookie Angie Schulz (whose twin sister, goaltender Sammy, also joined the team this season) had what could be considered a breakout game, if it’s possible to have one that people will acknowledge without scoring stats.

The Lakers are going to be okay.

GV finally found a payoff on their increased footing midway through the second, when Lexi Anderson made a fantastic play just inside the Michigan State line, backhanding a puck back towards the slot to Hancock. The New Mexico native, who had a roughly a decade to work with after the Spartans had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque and prematurely chased a non-existent puck up the ice, flicked her CCM and filled the cage of the barn off Bauer Rd. Tie game, arms up, Pitbull’s Fireball on the public address.

Things got even better from there, as MSU took a penalty 30 seconds after Hancock’s goal, then two more to give GV a long five-on-three bridging the second and third periods.

But…nothing. The Lakers are going to be okay, but they’re still young, which means key opportunities sometimes get missed. Almost predictably once that happened, the Spartans’ Natalia Asimakis fired past Lang from the left circle with 11:15 to go, eventually giving her team a 2-1 win.

Should the Lakers be happier about that than they were about losing 7-0 to Midland? That’s tough to say. A loss is a loss, but the mental toughness and on-ice adjustments that produced such a dramatic turnaround against a good Michigan State team probably shouldn’t be ignored. Really, it’s a question that can only be answered in time. After all, GV’s roster isn’t the only thing that’s young.

You can write one of those stories, or you can write all of them. You can read the thing to yourself, think it sounds too much like a puff piece even though no truths were bent in the writing of this essay, put it down for a few days, then try again. In the meantime, the Lakers will be carrying the banner for Clockeytown, and trying to win a nearly impossible fight.