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.

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.