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.

Faith

Michigan-Dearborn at Concordia
Arctic Coliseum
Chelsea, MI

October 4, 2019

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It’s game day, and Maria Barlow is the head coach of the Concordia University Ann Arbor women’s hockey team.

Maria was also the head coach yesterday of course, although her official title was on the back burner for one of her others, Maria the Director of Hockey Operations, as she sorted out issues with her team’s ACHA-mandated coaching registrations and background checks. At other times, there’s also Maria the Equipment Manager, Maria the Graphic Designer, Maria the Social Media Manager, Maria the Spiritual Leader, Maria the Business Manager, and many others stemming from the myriad tasks that go into running a college hockey team.

This is a story that should start at the beginning though, because once upon a time, there was also Maria the Goalie: a standout at Michigan State, one of the ACHA’s most tradition-heavy programs, from 2011-15. Short of a national championship (she missed that one by a year), Maria accomplished just about everything else there is to accomplish. One of her signature moments came at the 2013 Central Collegiate Women’s Hockey Association playoffs, when she delivered a 1-0 title game shutout of powerful Robert Morris to deny the Eagles a second straight league title. She was also a member of the 2015 U.S National University Team, playing for Team USA at the World University Games in Granada, Spain.

All along the road, Maria had a favorite (if a bit cliché, she’ll admit) Bible verse on the side of her mask:

I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13

While there are few universally-accepted facts attached to Philippians (or The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians in its long-form title), scholarly consensus holds that it’s sort of a composite of several letters that Paul the Apostle wrote to Philippi, the site of Greece’s first Christian community, likely during the early 60s AD. The text indicates that Paul was in prison at the time of writing and quite possibly, it was his final time in custody, in Rome prior to his beheading on Emperor Nero’s orders between 64 and 67 AD.

What did Paul do while on death row? Wrote large chunks of human history’s best seller, which I’m now discussing nearly 2,000 years after his demise. Not a big deal.

Beyond that background, the context of the what he said is worth examining. Paul had been on a missionary trip to Philippi about ten years prior to his predicament and remained in touch, to the point where the Philippians sent him gifts in prison (which, unfortunately, did not include a nail file baked into a cake), and some of the epistle is essentially a thank you note for their generosity. However, Paul’s writings are also a series of final instructions to the church there. He urged them to reject worldly traditions and conflicts that interfere with proper worship, but more to the point, he was hopeful that his imprisonment would help spread Christianity, and he directed them to rejoice in the Lord regardless of circumstances.

His crime, since I haven’t mentioned it yet, was essentially “being a Christian in the Roman Empire.”

Job may be the standard biblical go-to for the perseverance of faith in the face of tribulation, but you could do a lot worse than Paul.

Next to the capital-Q Questions that Christians answer through the Bible, building a hockey program might seem trivial. But the nature of the faith needed in either case is similar: you have to trust in a larger plan, even when day-to-day circumstances don’t always offer much support for it.

As Maria the Goalie became Maria the Coach just a couple years before Concordia started a hockey program – God’s plan, she’ll tell you, given that she was one of the few in her family who didn’t attend the school – that’s what she was forced to do, because the Cardinals’ first season was, and there’s not really much way around this, ugly on the ice. Twelve games, six total goals scored, never fewer than five allowed in any one game, and a Death Valley of a low point coming from a 23-0 loss to a Davenport team that finished 8-19-0 (while playing without their only goalie, it should be noted). The last three contests on the schedule were canceled, more or less out of an effort to move forward with regrouping and retooling heading into 2019-20.

That team’s major bright spot was a top line of Mira Rolin, Brittney Badger, and Alex Ragon, a group that accounted for each of Concordia’s goals. Although the run of play typically made their job an impossible one, in general terms, they looked like a legitimate building block and possibly even a unit that would fit in somewhere on a championship contender.

Badger and Rolin left the team and the school during the offseason. So much for that.

What do you do? You started a program as determined by God’s plan, and poured everything you have into it. While you do have to make plenty of allowance for newness (even the most successful start-up programs in ACHA history generally weren’t at their best in year one) things really haven’t gone extraordinarily well by most of the visible measures. The answer isn’t to abandon everything you believe, it’s to double down on your process, your culture, and your goals. It’s to do what Paul did. It’s to have faith.

Sure enough, Maria the Recruiter got to work, and good things started to happen, including landing nine freshmen for 2019-20. One of the group’s headliners is Kassidy Scheben, a defenseman out of Kentucky with star potential. Scheben has more than a little in common with an old Maria the Goalie nemesis, Michigan’s Kalli Bates, who had a similar ability to carry the puck in from the line and create instant offense. Virginia’s Izzy Hootselle has already developed some chemistry with holdover Olivia Drys, as the pair combined on CUAA’s first goal of the new season and generated plenty of other chances over the first few games. Colleen Redding is a defenseman from an Upper Peninsula town named Iron Mountain, although she’s 5-7 and more of a puck mover than a choke slammer.

The class also includes a pair of goalies, Lizzy Knappenberger and Teagan Johnson, who join returning Britney Sibson in the Cardinal crease. With Maria the Goaltending Coach on the job, you have to assume at least one of them, if not more, will be fantastic.

Recruiting is as much art as science, but one common denominator is the work: thousands of calls, emails, and conversations that, if all goes well, produce a full roster eventually.

“I got an email from Coach Barlow about possibly coming to the school,” Drys explained of her recruiting process, then toured the school with [fellow sophomore] Kim Mills and loved the campus, loved the atmosphere, and the Christ-driven community, and just fell in love with it.”

“I actually grew up playing roller, and I came to Concordia on a music scholarship with no intentions of playing hockey,” forward Breanna Sheridan admitted. “Then I met these girls on the first weekend, and sort of got recruited in by them.”

Hey, plain old luck helps too. But however they arrive, the destination is the same, and also different from others.

“Measuring success with Team 2 is definitely different than how other teams may measure theirs,” Maria explained. “We are looking to build our current players to strive for excellence in academics, athletics, and personal growth, while maturing as Christians as well. We want to go our and be proud of the effort we give each and every game we play.”

It doesn’t take long to see some of those differences, or at least signs of them. Roughly half of the teams out there lose more than they win, but not many of those remain as upbeat and fun as the Cardinals. A lot of schools are affiliated with a denomination of Christianity (including a bunch of Concordias, and most who carry that very Lutheran name are related to the one in Michigan, although a couple aren’t), but not all of them pray before the national anthem and again at the end of the game. Many programs have rules about cell phone usage in the locker room or within a certain time of the game, but not all of them physically collect the phones in a repurposed box of goldfish crackers. Almost every team has injured players, but not all of them travel to away games and chart shots and faceoffs just to contribute whatever they can.

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When you’re at a Cardinals game, the primary sound you can identify from the benches across the ice is Maria the Motivator yelling “PERFECT!” or “THERE YOU GO!” Even the program’s supporters seem to buy into that brand of positivity, with a group of college-aged guys in front of me yelling “NICE SHOT!” on an early drive by Adrianna Rugiero and “THAT WAS CLEAN!” on a delay of game penalty assessed to Concordia later on. I thought about what that one possibly could have meant for a while, then let it go because hey, it’s still a work in progress on all angles.

It’s a unique sort of place, and there’s plenty to show that a strong identity is starting to form behind the scenes.

“Coming to Concordia is a very different experience than any other school. We may not have a Big Ten name or a multi-million dollar rink on campus, but our small school has so much more to offer than that,” Maria said. “We’re a small, family-like campus but also located in the top college town in the U.S.”

“Another huge sell is the emphasis on being a Lutheran school, and we pride ourselves on being a good example of Christian leaders and hope to help our students and athletes grow through learning more about the faith.”

After recruiting and culture building, the next step, of course, is to improve as a hockey team and start to compete in and win games. There’s evidence of that too, at least a little bit. The Cardinals opened the year on the other side of the mitten at a showcase hosted by Grand Valley State, and while they dropped all three games, the team generally skated well with the hosts, along with Midland and Aquinas, early on before fading late in games. Dressing eight skaters and a goalie will tend to do that, while Maria the Patient has to wait out the early season for a couple injuries to heal and a couple recruits to turn 18 and become eligible.

Things are trending in the right direction though, so much so that I felt confident enough to circle CUAA’s home opener against Michigan-Dearborn as a possible first win for the program, then drive up to Michigan to see it, ready to tell the world about faith and redemption through the gospel of hockey.

The Cardinals lost 12-0, because growth isn’t always linear, and because you don’t always get the story you want to write. That can be God’s plan too.

It’s not worth launching off the high dive when discussing the game’s details. The starting lineup was botched (Hootselle’s hometown was given twice, her name was given zero times), I kept stepping in a bright green wad of gum, the rink was freezing, and Concordia was down 3-0 within the first five minutes of the game, then 8-0 at the end of the first period. It was not going superbly.

A funny thing happened on the way to 24-0 though.

As the Cardinals stepped down towards the bench from their balcony locker room after the intermission, one of those guys in front of me, in the group that thinks delay of game involves hitting, yelled “THIS IS OUR PERIOD!” To be clear, there was nothing whatsoever to indicate that it was about to be the Cardinals’ period. The culture remained strong.

Concondia didn’t actually win the second period in any tangible, measurable sense. But they didn’t lose it either, and that’s important at this stage of the team’s development. Johnson was spectacular in goal, Drys found Hootselle for a close call on the same play that produced a goal against Grand Valley last weekend and blocked a couple dangerous shots, and Sheridan, the player who wasn’t even supposed to be here, produced another great scoring chance. At the end of the thing, the score remained 8-0.

“It wasn’t our best game, but I think after the first period, we all came together and we stayed positive,” Drys said. “Attitude is everything.”

“The second period was amazing, I think all the girls did great,” Mills added.

You might not always get the season you wanted, but you can get great games within those seasons. And you might not always get the game you wanted, but you can get great moments within those games. This second period felt like a moment, and after a little more work and a few more bodies, it will be a moment that serves the team well and ultimately helps delivers a win the next time their backs are against the wall, whether facing Nero or the Wolverines.

Take it on faith.