Into the Fire

May 3, 2020


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

Then I took a walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t forget the other one.

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

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

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

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

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

The Goldfarb School of Nursing in St. Louis

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scoreboard

March 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adams also found a positive nugget in the chaos.

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

“But right now, it feels like an L.”

The Overnight

WMCH Playoffs
FSI Shark Tank
St. Louis, MO

March 6-8, 2020


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

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

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

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

I instinctively found one of my favorite passages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Oh yeah, and there’s the hockey too.

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Day

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

January 25, 2020

Photo: David W. Preston

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

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

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

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Le Petit Prince

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six years is not much time.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if they pull that thing off?

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

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

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


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

November 9, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Center Ice

Lindenwood-Belleville at McKendree
McKendree Metro Rec Plex
O’Fallon, IL

September 21, 2019


As much as I hate the hours-long drive to just about any game, I do appreciate it on some level. If nothing else, it’s a clear line in the sand. Either you want to be there enough to make the drive, or you don’t. If you don’t, you should probably find something else to do with your time and money. On the micro level, it’s a weekly personal test. On the macro level, it’s a filter that weeds out many of the less committed across the ACHA.

The beginning of a new season raises the stakes even further. Every offseason presents an opportunity to make a clean break, to say “okay, my cycle here is complete, what’s next?”

And the thing is, no matter how committed you are, no matter how excited you are for what’s at the end of the drive, there are always going to be moments of doubt. Sometimes they happen before you start, sometimes they come in the form of a thunderstorm a couple hours in that make 9 a.m. pitch black, and suddenly you’re cursing the confluence of decisions and circumstances that placed you in that moment.

The conditions were treacherous for a while, but just as suddenly as the storm appeared, a stratified sky appeared in front of me. Dark above, but bright blue below, in the near distance.

If I could just get through the next ten minutes or so, everything was going to be okay.

As drives go, the eight hours to the St. Louis area from Northeast Ohio has at least one positive. The first half is littered with checkpoints – Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis – that sort of divide the whole thing into manageable bites. After Indy though, you’re engulfed by the near-literal nothingness of western Indiana and southern Illinois. Counting miles is a terrible idea at that point. It’s best to let your music, your podcasts, college football games and, if you’re lucky, some long trains of thought do most of the work.

I wonder how many ACHA women’s teams have their logo at center ice.

McKendree is one. Their purple bearcat with an arched “McKendree” on top lives in the faceoff circle in the gleaming, new McKendree Metro Rec Plex, located six minutes away from campus in O’Fallon, Illinois. The facility, which opened in early 2017 (right at the end of the team’s first season of existence) includes a pair of ice rinks, but also a swimming pool and a gym. As the name and logo suggest, the Bearcats women’s and men’s programs are lead tenants there, a rarity in the ACHA.

There are others, although most (but not all) carry a massive asterisk as teams playing in arenas used by NCAA teams at their school. The ACHA teams in those cases are incidental to the logo, not the reason it exists.

What’s the logo worth?

Intrinsically, not a ton. It’s just paint under three-quarters of an inch of ice, after all. On a broader level though, it surely indicates something about the mutual commitment between venue, school, and team. It’s not something you have if you’re entirely self-funded and throwing out your sticks on a Saturday at whichever local rink had availability.

McKendree’s athletic department-funded program has recruited high-end players from not only the St. Louis area, but also Massachusetts, British Columbia, and many points between to a mostly-anonymous school in a small, southern Illinois town. Between its talent level, off-ice culture, and on-ice product, coach Derek Pallardy’s team emerged as one of the ACHA’s best in 2018-19. The Bearcats ticked off wins over perennial powers like Massachusetts and Michigan State on the way to its first ACHA Division 1 National Tournament bid. Not bad for year three of existence.

“With McKendree being an NCAA Division II school, we essentially have an NCAA Division II hockey program, and not a typical ‘club’ team,” Pallardy explained. “We have full-time coaches and staff, full funding from our athletic department, and a great facility just minutes from campus. Our players get to play hockey every day, compete at a high level, and do it wearing their school’s jersey.”

Senior forward Chase Hallemann agreed: “What separates us is the commitment level and intensity of our team. We have the schedule of an NCAA team, and I think that’s why we have been such a successful team so quickly.”

McK is an easy team to like. They play a superstar-free brand of hockey with an emphasis on toughness, defense, and goaltending – the right way to play the game, according to purists and old people – with Jazmin Malinowski and Naomi Leasck representing arguably the ACHA’s best goaltending tandem last season. They’re also good elsewhere, very good, while nevertheless occupying a sweet spot where they’re still something of an underdog next to most national championship contenders, avoiding the bulk of the irrational hate that perennial powers like Adrian and Miami receive.

Need more? Defenseman Jana Garrow won the ACHA’s annual Community Playmaker award for 2018-19, in part for her push to designate a charity of the game for each of the Bearcats’ home weekends. For my trip to Illinois, the charity is Be The Match, the non-profit facilitating bone marrow donations. Throughout the week, the team shares information about the charity and donation links, culminating in a display at the game.

“My freshman year, I started doing different kinds of charity work for our team, like a Christmas stocking stuffing donation and Relay For Life,” Garrow, a Pittsburgh native explained while setting up the display. “So we’d already been doing some charity events, but I wanted to think of a way to get our audience, our friends and family, involved in the process.”

“I think it’s really important that we foster a sense of giving back to the community on our team. You can win as much as you want, but if you’re not really doing anything to help others…”

In other words, they’ve lived up to that logo on and off the ice, they’re not a fraud hiding behind the veneer of money and legitimacy.

The story of how all of this came together so quickly and with few major hiccups is a complex one, but it has common threads.

Hallemann was the first player to commit in the program’s history, and did so largely on academic considerations (specifically, her biology pre-professional program), with the hockey side of things still an unknown at the time. “All of my professors know me personally, so it’s super easy to get help if I need it, and the campus is also very small, so you get to know a lot of people fast, which helped my move from home to college.”

Assistant coach Nina Elia, a former player at Penn State, saw McKendree as the ideal place to continue her young coaching career and her studies and when a graduate assistant spot opened up, a backup plan at Ohio’s Gilmour Academy was the only other option she pursued. Elia also cited McK’s size and flexibility as major positives.

Team captain Callie Hoadley, from Massachusetts, had options but liked what the team had to offer. “They have a real family bond out here,” she offered. “I liked how small the campus was and that everyone knew each other.”


Everyone makes the drive in club hockey, in one way or another. For Hoadley and Elia, it was heading halfway across the country to an unfamiliar setting (if Lebanon, Illinois has much in common with suburban Boston, I missed it). For Hallemann, it was the leap of faith of being the first commit for a new program, then sweating it out when the second took a bit longer than expected.

It’s a path not at all dissimilar from the one blazed by their opponent, Lindenwood-Belleville, a school located just 20 minutes from the McKendree Metro Rec Plex, in the opposite direction from McK’s campus (although the Lynx play their home games on the other side of the Mississippi River, in a rink that does not have their logo at center ice). LUB started up in 2014, made nationals in 2016, and finally broke through a string of heartbreak to make it to the championship game in 2019. While they’ve had players win most of the ACHA’s major national honors, at their core, the Lynx are still built on unselfish play and the depth of roster pulled from (quite literally) all over the world.

The oddest part of the McK-LUB relationship is that in a world where nearby opponents of any quality are as good as cash, the pair didn’t meet on the ice until their third year of mutual existence. It was a cold war of sorts, if you enjoy terrible wordplay.

That’s not to say that it was uneventful. Just like the proper-noun Cold War, the early seasons featured their share of tense moments. Its Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was Craig Buntenbach, who was Lindenwood-Belleville’s inaugural coach during a fairly successful 2014-15 season…then abruptly left to become the first coach at McKendree in August of 2015, in preparation for the 2016-17 campaign. Détente finally began when Buntenbach didn’t last at McK either, and was replaced by Pallardy for year two.

ACHA Division 1’s nearest neighbors outside of the state of Michigan finally played each other in 2018-19, although the senior program took all three meetings by decisive 5-0, 7-2, and 4-1 counts.

So are they rivals? Hallemann thinks so. Pallardy believes it needs another year or two to develop. Lindenwood-Belleville stars Lindsay Gillis and Alicia Williams say that it might be starting to become one, while Lynx sports information director Johnny Lange has spent most of the last two seasons refusing to use “the r-word.” Everyone thinks, nobody knows. Let’s go with a qualified no for now, and just call it what it definitely is: a huge game between national championship contenders, with the added intrigue of officially christening Women’s Midwest College Hockey, the teams’ new shared conference.

Of course, there’s also a downside to having a center ice logo. When your not-really rival spoils opening night in a 3-1 slugfest littered with missed opportunities, it’s a bit more personal. There’s a reason locker rooms generally feature a logo on the floor and rules against stepping on it: that logo matters. And when your opponent forms a grinning conga line to skate through the middle of that logo, shake your hand and say “good game,” you can’t make them do pushups.

They came into “Bearcat Country” (as giant letters above the Metro Rec Plex entrance proclaim), took a look at the purple dashers and stanchions, and then took the hockey game. There’s a hurt connected to it that isn’t really applicable at West Chester’s Ice Line, whose four sheets are heavily used by everyone from age six to beer league, or even LUB’s FSI Shark Tank.

A slow start hurt the Bearcats, as the Lynx piled up the first ten shots of the contest, largely through All-American defenseman Gillis hammering Leasck from the left point. It was the Lynx forwards that opened the scoring four minutes into the game however, with Michaela Read and Dakota McAlpine punishing a tired McK unit by working to the front of the net from the left side, and McAlpine finishing on a second hack from the doorstep.

And for a while, a long while, that was it. McKendree gradually grew into the game, led by blueline trio Garrow, Delayne Ivanowski, and Kayla Waldbillig. They started to draw penalties and generate scoring chances, with Alyssa Albee and Juliana Davis getting more involved.

It’s a formula I’ve seen a million times, with at least a few of them coming from McKendree: a team doesn’t take full credit from an early surge, the opponent hangs in, stiffens as the game goes on, then gets a couple big ones late and wins the thing.

And for a long moment, even after Jessica Walker’s drive from the line made it 2-0 Lynx early in the third period, I thought that’s exactly what was happening. The game was getting increasingly physical (a second period hit by McK’s Brittany Koch on Hallie Fisher particularly irked Lange, who may have muttered the r-word after the game), and the special teams situation, even if it didn’t produce any goals, it was at least offering the sort of uncertainty that is the mortal enemy of any team ahead in a hockey game.

“We showed a lot of grit staying in the game and giving ourselves a chance against a very talented team,” Pallardy said.

Just over a minute after the Walker goal, with 14:12 remaining in the contest, Davis made a nice play in the neutral zone to turn the puck into the Lynx end, then assisting Hoadley in winning the puck out of the right corner.

“I was on the wall, then I won a battle, and I saw Billie in front of the net, number 22 Alyssa Albee,” Hoadley said, thankfully remembering at the last moment that I wasn’t on a nickname basis with Billie. “So I just shot it at the net, tried to go either five hole or far pad for Billie, and she shot it in.”

Thirty seconds later, big Lindenwood-Belleville rookie Kennedy Frank was hauled down from behind while cleanly in on goal, earning a penalty shot. And when she beat Leasck with a forehand-backhand move but pushed the puck wide to keep the score 2-1, I was convinced there was some magic in the building. McKendree was going to find a way to notch their latest big and somewhat unlikely victory.

Except they didn’t, because the thing about great teams is that they don’t just get one chance. A lesser team than either on the ice probably would’ve needed that penalty shot, but the 2019 runners-up didn’t. Defenseman Tessa O’Connor fired through from center point to make it 3-1 Lynx anyway moments later. In the space of less than three minutes, LUB had scored a backbreaking goal, withstood McKendree’s immediate pushback, and re-asserted their advantage. Through the chaos, chalk had emerged.

“That’s a really good team over there, they’re going to be in it at the end again like they were last year, our goal is to get there as well,” Pallardy said.

“It sucks to lose, but it wasn’t a terrible start to our season.”