Pioneer Spirit

Colorado State at Colorado
CU Recreation Center
Boulder, CO

November 15, 2019

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Travel can be terrifying and exhausting.

The reasons for this vary somewhat based on individual circumstances, but there are common threads. Specifically concerning air travel, there’s the financial stress of buying a ticket and getting two hotel nights that aren’t needed for a standard two-hour drive to Adrian or Mercyhurst. Flights, for some reason, always seem to depart at 5:30 in the morning, which means a 9:00 bedtime and a 1:00 alarm and, ultimately, staying awake for 24 hours straight because of a check-in too far from arrival and too close to game time.

Did I forget anything? Did the x-ray machine erase my voice recorder? Is the boarding pass still in my pocket? Are my dogs pissing all over my brother’s house or, worse, having some sort of health issue that 15-year-old dogs are prone to have? Is 30 minutes enough time to make a connection at O’Hare? Is the flight on time? Did that change in the last five minutes? Wait, they overbook flights, right? Maybe people who fly often or have fewer issues with anxiety don’t have an identical monologue, but for me, air travel is essentially a constant stream of random worries flowing through my brain.

The Denver area has an incredible public transit system – a train and then a bus can get you from the airport to downtown Boulder in about an hour and a half with minimal waiting – so saving some money by skipping the Enterprise counter is an option, but then getting around once there becomes a series of 30-45 minute walks, even for the simplest errands. And God forbid my phone die at the intersection of 28th and Pearl in a strange town, leaving me to frantically search for, really, any stray outlet that would allow me to find my bearings.

Of course, there’s also the small matter of my driver’s license, set to expire while I’m away. I remembered to renew it before leaving but was dismayed when the BMV employee handed me a sheet of paper instead of a new card (which would be mailed at a later date). Playing out all possible scenarios at the TSA checkpoint for the return trip, up to and including pricing a car for the potential 19-hour drive home, began to dominate my thinking. There is absolutely no way TSA accepts an expired card and an easily-forged 8.5 x 11, right?

Travel can also be rewarding and life-affirming.

A funny thing tends to happen right when you’re at your lowest. You’re completely alone, standing on a street corner in a state you’ve never visited and with nowhere to go, your legs are all but gone thanks to a few hours of walking and that massive sleep deficit, and everything you own (at least in that moment, and in any sort of practical sense) is in your backpack. Any number of things could go wrong in that moment, or shortly after it, and wipe you out in any number of ways. But instead of panic, you feel a calm resolve. After all, there’s magic in the Flatirons and in the town they overlook as anyone who’s visited Boulder from Chief Niwot on down can attest, and it fuels the pioneer spirit in everyone from 19th century gold prospectors to 21st century club hockey writers.

I took a deep breath, crossed the street, and entered a local coffee shop to fuel up for the next leg of the journey.


The University of Colorado women’s hockey team has included plenty of pioneers over the years. The program dates to the mid-1980s, making it older than just about every U.S. college team outside of a handful in the northeast (Brown University’s Pembroke Pandas became the first in 1964, and by the time CU got going, roughly ten other eventual NCAA Division I squads had joined the re-christened Bears, although none were further west than Rochester), as well as the ACHA and NCAA women’s hockey championships, both of which started during the 2000-01 season.

As should be obvious from those circumstances, the Buffs have spent most of their history playing just about anyone and anywhere they could, with colorfully-named senior teams like the Steamboat Springs Chix with Stix and the Rocky Mountain Rockets lining a typical CU schedule into the 2010s, along with top girls programs like the Colorado Springs Tigers. The Women’s Association of Colorado Hockey provided structure for all of it, and offered a state championship tournament as a schedule centerpiece for the team (and still does for other college teams like those at the University of Wyoming and Colorado College that don’t want to absorb heavy travel and financial commitments) while the rest of the sport caught up with the west’s trailblazers.

The women’s hockey boom that followed the 1998 Nagano Olympics and Team USA’s gold medal performance helped bring along a handful of western college teams – Denver became an obvious rival, as did Iowa State and here-and-gone teams at Arizona and Arizona State – along with the ACHA itself over the next several years. But with a heavy running start on everyone else, Colorado has always been, in some sense, the flagship of the group.

There’s a certain synergy to that timeline as well, since the Colorado Avalanche arrived from Québec City in 1995 and won two Stanley Cups within their first six seasons in Denver, helping to turbocharge the growth of the sport across the Rocky Mountain state. Colorado had 15,641 registered players in 2018-19, with 2,788 of them being girls or women – a number that ranks eighth in the nation, behind only the sport’s blue bloods and a couple other states with much larger populations, Illinois and California. It’s a place that has rapidly matured as a hockey market, and CU has been there to help lead the way throughout that explosive period.

Even Minnesotans like Buffaloes president, co-captain, and starting goaltender Lexi Hartmann are impressed, while also understanding that the state’s followed a different formula than the one with which she’s familiar.

“I love it, it’s so much fun, and it’s not that far behind by any means,” she said. “It’s kinda weird because growing up, me and all of my friends played for our high schools, but a lot of kids here play for club teams, like Team Colorado and stuff. I came here assuming that they all played for their high school, but they don’t have nearly as many opportunities that way.”

“I mean the hockey is great, but it’s a little different.”

“It’s just grown so much and it makes me so happy,” said senior forward Melissa DiPonio, a product of the Denver suburb of Littleton. “We do so much to try to get girls involved every year, we’re getting more girls coming to try out, coming to our skills camps, so Colorado’s in a really good place. “Hopefully they can add some more teams in our league in the near future, but it’s super exciting.”

CU was an instant powerhouse upon the founding of the ACHA’s first women’s division. The Buffs qualified for nationals seven times in the tournament’s initial nine seasons, highlighted by third-place finishes in 2001 and 2005, and on an individual level by Stefanie Metcalf’s Zoë M. Harris Award in 2003-04. After a downturn for a few years, thanks in no small part to the growth they helped trigger, Colorado re-emerged as a contender in the mid-2010s under coaches Kristen Wright and Jamie Hazelton. The headlining players by then were All-Americans and World University Games selections like Leah MacArthur, Kathleen Ash, and Maura Kieft – all of whom received in-state tuition – and the newer generation has managed the 2017-18 championship of the Western Women’s Collegiate Hockey League (which was founded in 2014 and presently includes six teams, all in Four Corners states, a far cry from battling the Chix with Stix for adult state titles) as well as a spot in the ACHA semifinals that same season.


Sometimes pioneers are memorialized forever through museums, statues, and history books. But much more frequently, they die from some Oregon Trail-sounding disease along their route and disappear into oblivion.

For my part, powering through my mental and physical obstacles led me to explore a beautiful town and a gem of a campus. CU holds up next to any school in the world, with its signature Tuscan Vernacular Revival sandstone, black iron accents and roof tiles that define most of its buildings, from Norlin Library to Folsom Field to the Rec Center, which includes the school’s ice rink. And of course, those mountains always stand ready to make the most mediocre photography look spectacular.

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Even the local Rodeway Inn is fascinating, although that’s not the word most would use to describe it. My lodging, which would prefer to be called the Broker Inn (the Rodeway branding is minimized in many cases, initially leading me to think I was lost and should’ve headed towards the Green River instead of Fort Bridger back where the trail split), is a former luxury hotel whose glory days are long past. In a few short years, it went from hosting campaign events for current state governor Jared Polis to making headlines for shootings and drug-related explosions, and don’t even bother checking the Yelp reviews. But the vintage décor inspired by a period well before the building’s 1974 construction, including plenty of stained wood and stained glass, and mailboxes behind the front desk, along with the modern concession of an automatic pancake maker, was well worth the $70 per night to me.

In short, I kept going, I survived, and I was rewarded.

As for the Buffaloes, well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

One of the universal truths in sports is that there’s no real conclusion to any of it on the macro level, no point where you can stop and say “well, that’s it, I guess we made it.” Win a title, and you have to get right back out there in a few months to try and win it again. Beat your rival, and they’ll get another chance, possibly the very next day. And as any pioneer knows, if you become the first to do something successfully, you can be damn sure that someone else is going to be second, and they’re going to try to do it bigger and better than you.

While Colorado State wasn’t the second college team in the west, they were the first to provide a credible, sustained challenge to CU’s state and regional hegemony beginning with their 2009 entry to the fray. The Rams toppled their southward rivals for the first time on November 5, 2010 by a 3-2 count behind a pair of Hannah Prochnow goals, and shortly after that began a run of 15 wins in 16 tries (including 13 in a row to close the stretch), before things began to tilt back in the Buffs’ direction during the 2015-16 season.

“Our team had just started beating CSU when I got here, and then it’s been a complete 180 since then, knock on wood,” Hartmann said. “We have a very deep rivalry, it’s a fun game, but it’s brutal out there, nobody’s joking around, we’ve had some rough history with them.”

“Our two clubs have been very competitive back and forth over the years. If you’d have asked us five, six seasons ago, CU never won against CSU, it was always CSU,” Rams captain Kristen Perry agreed. “But you can see throughout the ACHA, it’s filling in, filling out, teams come in with some good talent, teams drop some talent and need some rebuilding years.”

Continuing the recent run of the rivalry, a young but talented Colorado team held off their would-be usurpers by a 3-0 count tonight in a game that wasn’t easy, a tough Rams squad made sure of that, but also wasn’t ever really in doubt.

Speedy Megan Johnston created several CSU chances in the early going, but Sydney Browne’s snipe after peeling off the left wall late in the first period put the hosts ahead to stay. After the intermission, CU stars Kieft and Sara McNamara found their legs and combined on several pretty plays that didn’t quite click, then an ugly one that did, as McNamara fired off of Rams goalie Teagan Ries’ chest protector and got a fortunate bounce over the line midway through regulation, with Kieft available to clean up if needed.

Kieft later did the honors herself, putting a bow on Hartmann’s 19-save shutout with 5:26 remaining in the game, thanks to an absolute rip following an offensive draw (when I marveled at her shooting ability later, Kieft informed me that she learned from longtime NHLer Paul Stastny, back when he played his college hockey locally at DU, if you’ve been wondering why all of this growth stuff matters).


With many frontiers – women’s hockey, Colorado hockey, ACHA hockey – conquered and their turf defended, one might think that CU would be satisfied with things as they stand. But a couple more horizons remain. The most immediate is the national championship, and the Buffaloes look like they have the skill and depth to at least have a shot at that.

Further in the distance, becoming the first NCAA women’s program west of Minnesota seems like a natural goal for a program that is a full decade and a half older than the NCAA women’s hockey tournament. On the men’s side, Denver’s eight national championships make them one of the nation’s most storied programs, while Colorado College, which also owns a pair of titles, and the Air Force Academy have certainly had their highs as well. But to this point, Colorado has been a vacuum for the women’s game at the NCAA level.

“Actually, the basketball arena, they were trying to figure out how they could turn that into an ice arena, kind of like DU does, so they do NCAA basketball and hockey in the same arena,” Hartmann said. “I don’t know what that’s looking like right now, but if they could do that…it could take decades though.”

Okay, that one might seem like a longshot right now. But never count out the pioneer spirit.

Digging Up Gunpowder

Colorado at Colorado State
Edora Pool and Ice Complex
Fort Collins, CO

November 16, 2019

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Colorado State and its archrival, Colorado, are only 50 miles apart in the physical world, but they reside much further from each other in a cultural sense. CU and Boulder are the relative Hollywood. They have Mork & Mindy, Michael Scott (who moved there after he left Dunder Mifflin), the South Park guys, and that line about the stolen mattress in the 2016 Chainsmokers/Halsey hit “Closer.” Boulder, of course, was also the home of JonBenét Ramsey, the victim of one of the most famous murder cases in modern history, and the town’s role in that tragic story can generally be summarized as “look at what a perfect life the Ramseys had before JonBenét was killed.”

Fort Collins has…pretty much none of that. It’s the Rust Belt on the Front Range: chronically overlooked and underrated, but with a fierce pride and a blue-collar ethic that can’t be duplicated in a place that enjoys every luxury and is frequently told how great it is. You can walk around CSU’s campus on a gray, blustery Saturday afternoon in November, make your way through tailgaters getting ready for a big football game between the Rams and visiting Air Force and, aside from those ubiquitous, region-defining mountains in the background and maybe a few extra cowboy hats, you might as well be at Michigan State or Cincinnati. It’s a welcoming, unpretentious place filled with hardworking people like Andrea at the Silver Grill in Old Town, who can deliver the best cinnamon roll west of the Mississippi, and probably east of it too.

Of course, the differences between CU and CSU also extend to hockey.

The Buffaloes play in a gorgeous rink brightened by natural light and built into their campus rec center, while the Rams play at the Edora Pool and Ice Center (usually known by its fun acronym, EPIC), a decent-enough facility but one located a couple miles from campus and downtown Fort Collins, and hosting numerous activities unrelated to the university. If you want to distill things down to one line, Colorado has a school-branded Zamboni with a bold “GO BUFFS!” down the side, and Colorado State has a generic Olympia.

“It’s hard, because when you go to try out for a team, you want to know what they can offer you,” sophomore defender Darby Easterday said. “Well, we need to double our dues based on the ice, because we have off ice, we don’t have campus ice. We struggle, we really do. And then we have problems with getting that ice, where we have 6 a.m. practices and 10 p.m. practices, welcome to CSU hockey. The boys team takes X, Y, and Z, and we’re in a battle with EPIC right now to get better practice times.”

Fellow blueliner Kristen Perry, the team’s captain, agreed: “We’re not handed the luxuries of not paying for practice ice, or game ice, and not having to schedule against youth hockey.”

“Just the ease and what our team can offer incoming freshmen and recruits is not as appealing as, say, [the University of Denver] or CU,” Easterday added.

Those inconveniences relative to their primary recruiting competition can have a chilling effect on the Rams’ depth and talent level, particularly in a climate where most other ACHA Division 1 teams are fully-funded or are club teams that receive a bit more support from their universities.

“We don’t have the depth that other teams do,” Stephanie Talone, a senior forward and the club’s president said. “Our bench, we’ve got two lines, and that’s it. We don’t have healthy scratches, we have to find people to help us take stats. It’s such a hard thing to do.”

“There isn’t the top-notch talent of an NCAA player coming down or leaving NCAA, or even girls [who played] AAA,” Perry said. “We don’t have many of those, a lot of our players are girls who have come from house leagues. So it’s more like we start not with what CSU can give you, but what you can give to CSU, and how we can build upon your skill.”

What do you do, given those circumstances? Sure, you’re allowed some time to complain about it, that’s human nature, but whether you’re in Fort Collins or Buffalo, at some early point you stop talking and get to doing.

You start by making your home a little better however you can, and for Colorado State, that means being one of the ACHA’s most active teams in the community.

On October 19th, the Rams hosted a First Responders Night during their game against Denver.

“For that, we just connected with the Larimer County K-9 unit,” senior forward Katie Hurley explained. “We knew they had been in need of some money, not all of the K-9s have tactical harnesses, they don’t all have bulletproof vests, so we wanted to help give back to the community.”

“We did a cool silent auction, we did a K-9 puck drop, we raised over $1300 for them, and we presented that money to them last week at their training. They were very appreciative, and it was a lot of fun, actually.”

More recently, a couple Rams volunteered to referee the Guns vs. Hoses charity game between the Fort Collins police and Northern Colorado firefighters, held at the Budweiser Events Center in nearby Loveland, the home arena of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles.

“We did Fall Clean Up, which involves helping out elderly people in the Fort Collins area who can’t necessarily sweep up their leaves by themselves, clean up their yard, stuff like that,” Easterday said. “So we coordinated with our club sports office to set that up. We helped two families out, split up the team, took two houses, took a day, and cleaned up the yards.”

Spearheaded by Hurley, a local native and a season ticket holder since she was five years old, the team has also worked to cultivate a relationship with the Eagles and unify the Northern Colorado hockey community, whose growth she feels has come in stops and starts.

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“I’ve known Chris Stewart [the team’s first head coach, who currently is the Eagles’ president and general manager], for the longest time,” she said. “His son-in-law was actually my coach for a few years. Former Eagles players are directors of my old hockey organization, and have been my coaches too. As I got older, I kind of knew them going into college. I’ve actually had a few friends who were interns for the Eagles too, so I kind of wanted to have that relationship between our team and theirs.”

“I think especially with the Eagles moving up in leagues and divisions, and then being an Avs affiliate, hockey in general in the entire state has come together, I think it’s becoming bigger and bigger, and it’s really fun to see.”

Another way to beat adversity is through sheer will.

There are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate your level of resolve during a hockey game of course, and although the Rams dropped the home half of their rivalry series against Colorado by a 3-1 count, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. Consider these facts:

  • The Buffaloes took an early lead on a Kenzie Zaumseil shorthanded rebound goal, following a CSU turnover. However, just before the end of that same body checking penalty to CU’s Cali Gonzalez, Talone flipped an innocent-looking backhander towards the goal off left wing that surprised Buffs netminder Lexi Hartmann and tied the game.
  • In the dying moments of the first period, Colorado star Mariah Dally scored a spinning rebound goal just as the buzzer sounded to give her team the lead back. While just about everyone in the rink outside of those from Boulder thought the puck crossed the line after the period ended, a legal goal was signaled on the ice, and it remained on the board after a brief discussion. Rather than buckle after the play, which was either backbreaking or unfair depending on perspective, the Rams dialed up their intensity even further and kept the visitors off the board for the next 33:30 of game time.
  • Rams goalie Teagan Ries battled as much as anyone against the effects of CSU’s short bench that became more and more evident as the game went on. She closed with an incredible 80 saves on 83 shots in what easily qualifies as one of the ACHA’s best goaltending performances this season.
  • Although CU’s shot count might give off a different impression, Colorado State remained very competitive throughout, with breakaway threat Megan Johnston and opportunistic Kallie Clements generating consistent chances for a squad that was within one goal of the Buffaloes for all but 6:30 of the evening.
  • All of this occurred just nine months removed from the teams’ last meeting, a 13-0 drubbing by Colorado at the 2019 Western Women’s Collegiate Hockey League playoffs – a game that saw Dally deliver the further ignominy of a Michigan-style lacrosse goal in the late going, with the contest long decided.

“I know this is a CSU rebuilding year, but things are changing,” Perry observed.

“It’s definitely on the push forward, especially from the games last year. So I think it’s back in that mentality that it’s always back and forth between us, always some good hockey, and it definitely gets a little chippy. It’s really close to the heart with Colorado.”

“I think our culture is really marked by going into every game as ‘don’t go outskill these girls, go outwork these girls,’ because that’s what we have,” Easterday said. “We don’t have the NCAA skill, but we have a group of girls that’s willing to put their hearts and souls in it, because we show up to things like this rink, it’s not the easiest to get to, and stuff like that. So we have the mentality of ‘don’t outskill, outwork.’”

“These girls that are committed, all 15 of us now, we’re really committed,” Talone added. “We’re willing to work as hard as any other bench with twice as many players.”


The Cache la Poudre River runs just north of campus and central Fort Collins, and gets its unusual name from a corruption of the French phrase for “where the powder is hidden.” The incident behind the moniker took place in the 1820s, decades before the United States Army established a camp named after Colonel William O. Collins (an Ohioan, incidentally – this Rust Belt thing runs deep), when a band of French fur trappers was caught in a snowstorm and forced to bury their gunpowder to protect it from the moisture.

That powder is still in the ground today, at least metaphorically, for those able to survive the snowstorm and willing to dig for it.

A couple things happen when a college hockey team demonstrates the resolve that’s characterized its town and its school since the beginning. First, people will take notice and support it, even if it loses more than it wins. And there’s little doubt that’s started to become the case: the crowd at off-campus EPIC was bigger, louder, and more engaged (including numerous homemade signs) than the one that witnessed the teams play the night before on the campus of the more-recently-successful team.

Even more importantly, that effort alters the players making it, both in terms of their relationships with their teammates, and internally – after all, CSU and not NYC is the place where, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Blessed are those who get that powder.

“I would not change our program,” Perry said. “I think having to fight for what we get, and having to deserve everything we have on this team, compared to other schools being handed stuff, makes us who we are. Every girl wearing that jersey is out there to give it 100 percent for themselves, and for the person next to them.”

“Adversity humbles us, and it makes us want to be here, makes us want to play hockey,” Hurley said. “It’s not a chore for us, it’s a privilege to play.”

“Because we don’t come from such high-end backgrounds, we all know what it’s like to work hard, and we’re willing to do that for the people next to us, and that’s kind of what makes our team, what drives our team is knowing that you’re going to play not only for yourself, but for the person next to you, for the coach behind you. I think this team is not just a team, it’s not just a sisterhood, it’s truly a family.”

“A Ramily, if you will,” Easterday quickly corrected.

Goalie

Sault College at Davenport
Patterson Ice Center
Grand Rapids, MI

November 2, 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she scored a goal.

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

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

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

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

Then she scored another goal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Man Standing

SUNY Oswego at RIT
Frank Ritter Memorial Arena
Henrietta, NY

October 26, 2019

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“HOW MANY STUDENTS DOES RIT HAVE?”

I had no clue what RIT’s enrollment was, but the drunk New Hampshire fans in front of me demanded an answer. They didn’t appear able to process the explanation that I was just a guy in a t-shirt because I, like many others in the spring of 2010, had fallen in love with the Tigers and their shocking run to the Men’s Frozen Four. RIT accomplished the feat as a mid-major in its fifth season of NCAA Division I play that took down two of the sport’s blue bloods on the way there, and although they had already been extremely successful in Divisions II and III (including a pair of national titles), they were an unknown on any kind of larger scale.

Therefore, to them, I must have been A Guy in a T-Shirt: an alumnus, or a Rochester lifer with season tickets, or someone who had extensive knowledge of the team and school, because who else would own a RIT shirt? Well, someone who had visited the stand near the Ford Field entrance and had $30 to burn, to name one.

So, I took my best guess at it. RIT was bigger than people assumed, I reasoned, but obviously not a colossus of a university. I knew hockey was its only NCAA Division I sport; its others were still in Division III. “Uh…about 17,000?”

“WOW! THAT MANY?!”

Their surprise made me doubt myself, although when I checked later, I found that I hit it pretty closely. I tried to refocus on the warmups taking place on the ice below, hoping that would be the end of it. It wasn’t.

“WHAT’S RIT KNOWN FOR?”

“Well, a Frozen Four hockey team, right? But also, deaf studies.”

I had heard something about that on ESPN during one of the Tigers’ previous NCAA Tournament games, helping me to pass the unexpected and unwanted quiz. I was mostly correct there too, as RIT is the home of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and deaf or hard of hearing students make up nearly ten percent of its population.


While Christopher Tanev eventually became the best-known player from that 2009-10 roster thanks to his long NHL career, in that moment, the Tigers’ stars were goaltender Jared DeMichiel (somewhat obviously, as the goalie is almost always the star on an underdog team) and the its student section, dubbed the Corner Crew for its location in the northwest corner of Frank Ritter Memorial Arena.

Student sections in NCAA men’s hockey are always lively and loud, with a cache of go-to chants. But RIT’s group was something different.

Their integration with the school pep band, while not entirely unique, was seamless. They had signs on top of signs. They had the fanatical noise level and hard edges of a group climbing to unprecedented heights with their favorite team, that those whose schools are in the Frozen Four nearly every season simply don’t. In fact, as the UNH guys and I were getting to know each other, a sea of orange-clad fans, at least a couple thousand in number, stood in the corner of the Detroit Lions’ home stadium that matched their familiar and much cozier confines at Ritter. They had been there since their convoy of buses met the freshly-opened gates, and didn’t seem like they had exhausted their cheer catalog to that point. Adding a special twist to things was the large percentage of the group who flashed the corresponding American Sign Language letters with a raised right hand while chanting “R-I-T! R-I-T!”

Could a group of UNH supporters, or anyone on the outside, be blamed for finding the nearest person in an orange shirt and trying to get at least some sense of what makes RIT and the Corner Crew, these new and exciting phenomena in the usually-staid world of NCAA hockey, tick?


In a bit of cruel irony, the Frozen Four run that pushed Ritter Arena and its fans into the national spotlight wound up being a fulcrum for fundraising efforts to replace the rink, which dates to 1968, when the school relocated from downtown Rochester to a newly-built campus in suburban Henrietta.

So one national semifinal loss and four seasons later, the Corner Crew circus packed up and left Ritter, following the NCAA men’s and women’s teams about 700 feet south to the Gene Polisseni Center, a gorgeous and state-of-the-art 4,300-seater that stands as one of college hockey’s newest gems. Polisseni has six squeegee guys to follow up the Zamboni and guarantee an even sheet of ice, Ritter has a giant window that throws light at the shoot twice end and does unspeakable things to it. Polisseni has twin video boards, one on each end of the ice, a dedicated TV studio, luxury seating, a donor reception area, a team shop, an inflatable shooting game, and history displays lining the walls, Ritter has…pretty much none of that. Polisseni (presumably) has a person to work the scoreboard, Ritter has…

“John! John! Can you do clock?”
“I don’t know how.”
“They’ll show you how to do it.”
“Do I get paid?”
“This isn’t NCAA.”

Despite the unsuccessful efforts of Tigers star Bridget Hamlin to recruit her boyfriend’s help for a game starting in a half hour, don’t count out the old barn just yet. After all, it beat the odds of most venues in a similar position by surviving and continuing to host competitive hockey, including RIT’s ACHA women’s team. And as the Tigers got underway with in-state College Hockey East rival SUNY Oswego late in the afternoon, the ghosts of the raucous student section made their presence known.

“R-I-T! R-I-T! R-I-T!”

Then…

“[clap, clap, clap clap clap, clap clap clap clap] LET’S GO!”

And a little later…

“SAY IT AIN’T SO, I WILL NOT GO
TURN THE LIGHTS OFF, CARRY ME HOME
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA”

Wait, do arena ghosts know Blink-182 classics?

Of course they don’t, nor do they generally continue singing songs from stoppages after the game begins again. These incongruities (and a few others, the existence of ghosts in the first place, to name one) caused me to look in the direction of the noise, and notice that while the Corner Crew may have found a new corner to call home, they left someone behind – Tom LaSalle.

LaSalle, a recent RIT computer science grad, attends every single home game played by the ACHA women’s version of the Tigers, standing in that famed corner of Ritter Arena alone and chanting in support of the team. A one-man Corner Crew, he calls himself.

“I actually stumbled upon the team by chance,” LaSalle said, when asked the very obvious question of how one ends up being him.

“I’ve been a fan of RIT hockey for five years, and walking home one evening, I happened to see the team in the middle of a game,” he continued. “I was hooked, and the rest is history.”

Before we go any further, let’s be very clear about something: this is not a team that’s supposed to have fans. RIT is a new-ish organization, but a pretty unsuccessful one by any reasonable measure. After starting life in the non-ACHA Upstate New York Collegiate Hockey League, they first joined ACHA Division 2 in 2016-17. The Tigers won their first ACHA game on December 3, 2016 by shutting out a first-year Pittsburgh team 6-0 behind three Hamlin goals, two from Rebecca Searns, and Maddi Dillabough’s 27 saves.

They have yet to win their second. What’s more, RIT hasn’t been particularly close most of the time, allowing 9.44 goals per game over the ACHA portion of their history, while scoring 1.47. And even if they were world beaters, the hard truth is that the presence of NCAA hockey at the school will always kneecap the potential interest in an ACHA team from students and the general public.

But LaSalle is there, regardless of any of that. And his definition of “there” means showing up at 3:00 for a 5:45 puck drop, well before either team arrives, then standing and making noise for the entire game, win or (mostly) lose. Between his extreme support level without the help of alcohol or other fans, as well as the team’s nature and lack of success, he is clearly among the most extraordinary of the extraordinary. A true bearer of the Corner Crew legacy.

“It definitely is nice to have a fan that’s here all the time and pepping us up,” Dillabough, who also captains RIT’s NCAA lacrosse team, said. “When I make a good save, I can hear him no matter where I am. It means a lot that someone is noticing us and always cheering us on.”

“It means so much,” Hamlin added. “Especially because we don’t get a lot of fans, his presence brings energy to the team.”

“He loves hockey, he loves RIT, it’s so nice to have a guy on campus like that.”

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The craziest part of all is that LaSalle’s faith may actually be paying off, at least incrementally, because RIT’s team tonight was as competitive as it ever has been. Where the old Tigers were often Hamlin getting the puck, winding up, and taking it to towards the net from anywhere on the ice, players like Deirdre Cannon, Kristina Klishko, Christine Miller, and Sarah Limberger have dramatically elevated the team’s talent level.

“A lot of our incoming class is made up of people who have actually played before, while a lot of the girls last year were people who had not played organized hockey before,” defender Jess Beckmeier offered. “So I think that the experience that our new players have is really having a positive impact on our performance as a team.”

And, of course, they have LaSalle, ready to throw his arm in the air, yell “ICE! ICE!” and wave Oswego back to their defensive zone at a moment’s notice.

“He never stops,” Hamlin marveled. “He’s standing the whole frigging time.”

A talented Lakers squad remained unfazed by the upgrades though, opening the night’s scoring when Christina Ravesi buried a rebound on an Oswego power play from the bottom of the left circle five minutes into the game.

“LET’S GO RIT!”

By the end of the opening period, it was 3-0 to the visitors, thanks to a pair of turnovers that became Laker breakaway goals, first by speedy Nicole Moriarity, then from Carly Sukiel.

“WE’LL GET IT BACK!”

As the second period opened Dillabough, who wound up with 45 saves, made a pair of fantastic pad stops on Libby Morel. Then on a penalty kill a few minutes later, her right-to-left movement to poke check the puck out of danger was instrumental to the Tigers returning to even strength unscathed.

“YEAH MADDI YEAH! WOOOO!”

However, Oswego finally cracked RIT’s strong goaltender (and LaSalle’s staple “DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!” chant during Tiger penalty kills) again late in the middle frame, as Lauren White tapped Sukiel’s feed from the right side home.

Then, with 1:46 to go, the most bizarre goal of the evening started with a loose puck halfway through the depth of the RIT zone, roughly equidistant between Dillabough’s crease and White. Preferring to play the puck instead of, potentially, another breakaway, the netminder barreled out towards the disc, and…absolutely flattened her green-clad adversary. Steve Atwater, Rodney Harrison, Kam Chancellor, meet Maddi Dillabough.

“It wasn’t my main motive, I was trying to get the puck, but it was kind of satisfying that I was still standing and she wasn’t,” Dillabough admitted.

Just one problem: the puck. With both players involved in the collision well out of the play, Morel wound up getting to it first and firing into the vacant net.

At 5-0 through 40 minutes, the game might have appeared as a blowout on a casual scan, but a deeper analysis would reveal that it wasn’t some throwaway game up in Rochester. The Tigers had managed a respectable 19 shots (en route to 26 for the game), most of the goals against came from a couple very correctable mistakes and a fluke play, and the ice surface had largely leveled out after early Laker dominance.

“I actually thought we improved a lot as the game went on,” Dillabough said. “Like by the third period I thought we were figuring out what we were doing wrong and fixing it.”

Hamlin, a good player for Oswego’s perennially-strong NCAA Division III team from 2013-15 before transferring to RIT (where her plan to play for the Tigers’ DI squad was undone by concussions), finally got her team on the board in the first minute of that final period. It was one of her trademark solo efforts, as she carried in off left wing to the front of the net, briefly lost the puck, kicked it back to her stick, and buried.

“It’s nice to score against Oswego, but it’s tough because I don’t relate to that team,” the sustainability Ph.D. candidate said. “When I was at Oswego, we weren’t even allowed to talk to the club girls.”

“It’s still a little nice because my mom was like ‘ooh, you scored against Oswego!’”

There were other RIT chances subsequent to that. Klishko drew a penalty soon after, Limberger drew another in the late going, Tyler Lucey fired high on a partial breakaway in between. But despite those and LaSalle’s “R-I-T! R-I-T!” guiding his Tigers to the final buzzer, the 5-1 scoreline stuck.

Defeated, but encouraged (Dillabough offered a plan to win consecutive games by the end of the season soon after stepping off the ice), the Tigers skated towards the northwest corner of Ritter Arena and, maybe for the first time in history, offered a stick salute directed solely at one fan, Tom LaSalle, the last man standing.

Clockeytown

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

October 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, one more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lakers are going to be okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Faith

Michigan-Dearborn at Concordia
Arctic Coliseum
Chelsea, MI

October 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Philippians 4:13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take it on faith.

Center Ice

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

September 21, 2019

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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.”

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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.”

Introduction

California (PA) at Pittsburgh
Baierl Ice Complex
Warrendale, PA

February 3, 2018

Katie Pucci was under siege.

That fact alone was somewhat surprising. Her University of Pittsburgh team had taken a 2-0 lead in the first period against a California (PA) team that dressed just eight skaters and a goalie on that Saturday evening. And while the scoreline lingered at the cliched “worst lead in hockey” well into the third period, it looked for all the world as if Pitt would cruise to the finish line with an unspectacular, but expected, victory. Cal, as teams with fewer than ten players often must, would still be able to muster some sort of growth takeaway or moral victory from a relatively tight outcome. Or, failing that, at least it wasn’t a long trip home.

There’s no such thing as a bad day at the rink, of course, but it would have been a routine one – had the status quo held.

Instead, the Vulcans’ Jayda Mears, the team’s undisputed best player, started to find some seams that were likely part late-game fatigue and part complacency. The local native, who had cut her teeth with the Steel City Selects youth program, took advantage of two of them to score her 32nd and 33rd goals of the 2017-18 season roughly seven minutes apart. Pitt’s Lindsay Gorman connected between the two Mears goals to keep her squad ahead, but make no mistake: Cal was coming on, and every player on the short visiting bench was emptying whatever they had left in the tank with five minutes remaining to pull off an upset.

As the Vulcans pressed, the assembled crowd – maybe a hundred or so – watched intently. Me? I did the exact opposite, and squinted until my vision became blurry enough to melt years together. Because while this situation may have been lightly-charted territory for Katie Pucci, it was not for Katie Vaughan.

I’m not sure whether it was five seconds, or a minute, or more, but I let myself drift to another game in another season and another state, specifically, the 2014 ACHA Division 2 national semifinal between the Vulcans and a Penn State team backstopped by Vaughan, then an unmarried engineering undergraduate.

PSU and Cal, as the keystone geography might suggest, were bitter rivals, albeit briefly. The teams split four 2013-14 regular-season meetings, with Penn State taking the regular season title of their shared conference, College Hockey East, thanks to a 6-0-2 record against the rest of the league, compared to the Vulcans’ 6-1-1. The final PSU-Cal regular season series, bridging January and February, was an explosive one: during the first game, Cal’s Dana Bowersox took a run from behind at Nittany Lions defender Tara Soukup during a pileup in front of Vaughan. The two came to blows, and both received fighting majors and game misconducts, but Soukup got an extra major for facemasking. The Vulcans scored twice during the resulting advantage en route to a 5-2 win.

The home team, however, rallied the next day for a 3-1 win to clinch the regular season title. Elizabeth Denis, once an NCAA Division I player at Brown, but attending Penn State to earn her geosciences Ph.D., scored 52 seconds into the game to set the tone, and Vaughan’s 30 saves did most of the rest.

Appropriately enough though, the teams wound up splitting CHE titles, as Cal took the conference’s playoff championship game 2-1 a couple weeks later in what would qualify as a forgettable game, if it was played in November and out of the sight of the league’s cartoonishly large trophy.

Of course, the silver lining to the defeat, from Penn State’s point of view, is that nobody really cares what happens in the conference if you can manage to win a national championship, and PSU was still one of the favorites to do exactly that, if they could navigate through – surprise! – Cal in the ACHA semifinals, played on March 15th in the University of Delaware’s Fred Rust Ice Arena. That contest largely followed the same script as Pitt-Cal four years later, as PSU star Devon Fisk scored twice early on, and the Vulcans’ Kelsey DeNardo answered with one to set up yet another tight finish between the teams.

Penn State delivered a suffocating roster-wide closeout effort to get the last laugh against their nemesis and advance to the championship game, so it would be wrong to give Vaughan the full share of the credit, but she nevertheless was asked to stand tall through some hairy moments. “Hairy” is a term of some subjectivity of course, just ask Vaughan’s mother Kim, who was standing next to me that day and bellowing “GET IT OUT OF THERE!” whenever the puck ventured below the dots in the PSU zone. But some of the moments required objective greatness.

Midway through the third period, DeNardo worked the puck to the front of the net through heavy traffic, but Vaughan’s glove beat the mass of bodies to the rubber disc. Moments later, Bowersox won a faceoff and rifled a surprisingly quick backhand on, but Vaughan was again up to the task.

She was unflappable, an essential trait for a goalie (she probably didn’t get that from her mom), but her work wasn’t quite done yet. On a delayed call to Nittany Lions captain Carly Szyszko late in the third period, a bouncing puck to the front dangerously wound up on DeNardo’s stick on the back side, requiring Vaughan to stretch across with her right pad to make another vital stop. During the penalty, Megan Cooper found Bowersox driving the middle with a centering feed, only for Vaughan to make another routine-yet-difficult save. That Bowersox try wound up being the last the Vulcans would manage as PSU held on for the win.

While the parallels between Katie Vaughan in 2014 and Katie Pucci in 2018 were bluntly obvious, I wasn’t done daydreaming just yet. I squinted a little harder and went back a few more months, to December of 2013.

That winter, Vaughan had been selected for the U.S. National University Team, which competed at the World University Games tournament in Trentino, Italy. The games (generally called “Universiade” outside of North America) are sort of a biennial Olympics solely for college student-athletes. Its hockey tournament is something of an oddity in the sport, in that the different participating countries demonstrate wildly varying degrees of investment. The U.S. is on the lower end of that scale, and rather than send NCAA Division I players, the accepted best eligible, USA Hockey allows the ACHA to assemble an all-star team for the tournament (the alternative, for a couple decades prior to 2001 when the arrangement began, was no team in the tournament at all, so it is mutually beneficial to some extent).

Russia, Team USA’s opponent to open the tournament, is towards the opposite end.  While never a carbon copy of the country’s senior national team, the Russians do typically include several of their best on the squad. Taking the crease opposite Vaughan, for example, was Anna Prugova, who had already represented Russia at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and would do so again a couple months later in Sochi, around the same time Vaughan was battling Cal for the CHE titles.

And on Tuesday, December 10, 2013, that Division 2 club hockey goalie was better than an Olympian, stopping 33 of 35 shots as the U.S. stunned Russia 4-2.

A fluke? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Eight days later, Vaughan arguably outplayed Prugova again in the semifinals, but Russia emerged with a 3-2 shootout win that time around. The U.S. recovered to beat Japan (a country that largely sends its full national team to World University Games) two days later to earn bronze medals – the first-ever podium finish for any American team in the modern era of the tournament. Vaughan played a massive role in the last contest as well, stopping 37 of 38 Japanese shots, including the final 31.

That June, she was named USA Hockey’s Adult Player of the Year, an award presented at the governing body’s annual congress. Among the others taking the stage to receive their own awards: Hilary Knight, Johnny Gaudreau, and legendary Boston University coach Jack Parker. Not a big deal, right?

As I snapped back into the present, I wondered how many people watching Katie Pucci close out Cal knew about Katie Vaughan doing the same thing four years earlier. Or about her scaling even bigger mountains that same season. Katie’s husband and parents were present, so I certainly wasn’t the sole keeper of that information, but I still concluded that few were aware of just how noteworthy their bespectacled grad student netminder actually was.

From there, I took note of the limitations in my own knowledge. Sure, I pay closer attention to ACHA women’s hockey than most people. But still, to a large extent, I only know what I’ve presented here because I know Katie, and because I worked for her Penn State team for five years. And while she had an extraordinary career, surely there are other stories to be told, ones that have been outside of my sphere of observation to this point.

Then I thought about Cal. Their journey to February 3, 2018 certainly hadn’t been smooth sailing. After dropping that 2014 semifinal to PSU (and after a heroic effort to eliminate pointless third place games by ending theirs early with an altercation the next day), the Vulcans put together solid seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and made two more trips to nationals, although they didn’t escape the pool round either time. They had much larger problems than tournament elimination on the horizon, however.

In 2016, most of the core of the team – DeNardo, Cooper, Bowersox, goalie Maria Sciacca, and standout defender Margo Laboon included – graduated. And thanks in part to heavy coaching turnover, along with the effort needed to constantly stock the cupboards in college sports, the Vulcans were stuck with nobody to replace them. The program went on hiatus for the 2016-17 season and, to their credit, beat the odds (anyone who has followed minor league sports is likely aware that “hiatus” rarely ends well) by returning in 2017-18, although with the aforementioned short bench. Suddenly, the former alpha dog found itself losing by nine to Buffalo in each of their two games prior to facing Pitt, as UB had used Cal’s stumble to help itself become the new queen of the CHE. No matter how good you are, it’s always temporary, isn’t it?

Those thoughts were interrupted by a buzzer, and Pitt gathering around their victorious goaltender before heading to center ice for the handshake. The game was over.

Time to find another one.