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 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.

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.”