The Day My College Hockey Career Ended

August 8th was the day I decided to end my college hockey career. Even though one door has shut, many more still remain open. I may be done playing in college, but hockey is a lifelong sport and thankfully Minnesota’s favorite winter past time….

It was the day of my “exit interview” for hockey, something nearly every college team does between the coaches and each player at the end of every season.

My 2015-16 year playing under Natalie Darwitz was beyond tough. I put in the most effort I ever had into every single practice, every single day and not once was rewarded. My endurance has never been the peak of my game, yet I suffered and pushed through every Monday “Senior Skate”, our team’s hardest practice of each week led by Coach Darwitz Senior. I did everything I possibly could to impress the coaches. I worked hard at every drill. I encouraged my teammates on the ice. I came to 7am practices that weren’t required so that I could get better, and that my coaches would see my commitment. For the first half of the year, I went out of my way to chat up teammates who were also sitting. I stickhandled aggressively in the locker rooms every game day, motivated to dress the next weekend. And the next weekend. And the next weekend. Then things began to get old.

I never got even close enough to the ice on game days to even smell the air. My coach dressed me for two games the entire season, never even looking my direction during game time. In fact, my coaches would rather play 4 defensemen than put me in, one with a basically shattered shoulder and another with a broken thumb. Yet every day I did my best to keep my mouth shut and to keep pushing harder. “This is the week” I’d tell myself after every practice. I am extremely hard on myself, so there weren’t many practices I’d feel confident about. In my mind, I’d replay each entire practice, dissecting every play I made. “I maybe missed that angle but my passes were great”, or “I wasn’t the fastest out there today but I scored on almost every shot” were some of the things I’d tell myself. I asked maybe three times throughout the whole year if my coaches could sit down with me, which they accepted, seemingly annoyed with me every time. I was always professional, asking if there were some things I can be focusing more on in practice, or if there were things they noticed I was doing that were keeping me out of the lineup. Each time it was a new excuse. The worst excuse I got was “you know, it is the first year of our program and we kept everybody. You are the 15th forward, and there’s not a whole lot you can do to fix it.” Why don’t you just rip my heart out.

Let me tell you a little bit about my hockey career up to this point. I started playing hockey at the age of five. I grew up playing in Brooklyn Park, moving over to Spring Lake Park for my second year of U10s. My last year of U12, I was an assistant captain, and set an association record for most goals scored in a single season, tallying 65. I had nine hat tricks that season. I then moved up to High School hockey for my eighth grade year, becoming a starting forward in playoffs. I played some defense my freshman year, and more forward my sophomore. I was drafted onto the Advanced 15s and Advanced 17s, only to tear my ACL a week before the 17s tournament the spring of my sophomore year. After an incorrect diagnosis from the doctor, I ended up playing hockey all summer, leaving me with a torn ACL, MCL, both Meniscuses, and Micro-fractures along the bottom of my femur. I didn’t find out until my high school coach wouldn’t let me play, saying I needed to get an MRI before I could start. My doctor decided I was to have surgery that December. I missed my Junior season of hockey, and my Sophomore and Junior seasons of lacrosse. I fought tirelessly in my physical therapy appointments to come back fighting for my Senior season. Despite not even playing my Junior season, I was voted captain. I ended up being the highest goal scorer and points leader, along with receiving an All-Conference award. I was recruited by Bethel University, where I was overjoyed to continue my hockey career into college.

At Bethel, it took some getting used to on the ice. College is a lot faster and more aggressive than high school. Nonetheless, I would get thrown onto different lines throughout my first season. Some games I’d be on first line as a forward, other games I’d be second or on the bench. The inconsistency was hard, but I knew I was blessed to still be playing, knowing my time would come.  Sophomore season came. I was tried at first line for a week, but understandably my endurance needed some work. I was then moved to fourth, and would eventually have a month long stint on third line before being back at the bottom. When that season ended, my coach had a sit-down meeting with me and told me to look other places if I wanted to keep playing. He said he had talent coming in that was going to exceed my potential. I disagreed, but took the news respectfully and immediately started looking at other options. With the motivation I had, I was not going to give up my dream so soon. I was also already looking at transferring anyways due to the inconsistent playing time I had been getting. Then along came Hamline. I thought since Bethel was top 4 in conference every season, joining Hamline, a generally low conference contender would get me the consistent playing time I was looking for.

After a promising meeting with the head Hamline hockey coach, I went through the entire pre-season festivities and try-out process with the Hamline team, only to be the last girl to be cut. I was told I was “third line material” and that he didn’t want to waste my time not getting the playing time I was looking for. I was shocked and so was my team. So I sat the year out. I took some time off, but then got back at it, training diligently in preparation for the next season. Then the news broke out immediately after the unsuccessful Hamline Women’s Hockey season ended that the coach was let go, and that Natalie Darwitz was coming in as head coach. The excitement I had was naïve and immense. “Finally a normal coach who knows what she’s doing!” I would tell myself. I scheduled a meeting with her right before summer was out to introduce myself and to explain my interest in joining her team. I told her about my career and asked her what she looked for in her players and how she wants to build her program. In the end, she expressed that she’d be happy to have me try out. Little did I know, the season of heartbreak would begin shortly.

Not only did I never play, but I was flabbergasted and how lackluster Natalie was in regards to social skills and interactions in social environments. She was short and seemingly uninterested in talking to people at team events. She never once asked me who I was or how my day was, something she’d ask her favorite players all the time. Instead, I was basically the benchwarmer, always in charge of equipment and water bottles. I would get in trouble if I didn’t have the doors open in time for the coaches coming in between periods of games. Multiple times I would overhear Natalie and the coaches vent about how bad our team was and how we had no skill, especially after tough periods or losses. I wasn’t eavesdropping, I was sitting in the locker room with the doors open, waiting for the team to come in. How discouraging is that. I worked my ass off day in and day out to overhear something like that. “If they’d only give me a chance”, I’d think. Fast forward to the very end of the season, which brings me back to the day of my exit interview.

Since I never got a sniff of ice time, I figured my meeting would be grim. She had us schedule our meetings in 15 minute increments. Mine lasted 20 seconds. We were asked to fill out a survey before the meetings about our experience on the team that year. I thought it was strange she had us write our names on it. Either way, I was honest yet respectful, since I really wanted to play next year. When I walked in, she said “how has your day been?” I answered jubilantly, trying to show them my personality that they never cared to get to know. Then she said, “well I hope you had a good year and a good time with the girls. Next year we have a lot of recruits coming in and we don’t see you being on this team next year. So from now on you will no longer be a part of the team, okay?” I had expected this type of answer from her and had prepared a speech where I would tell her I wasn’t taking no for an answer and was going to work my butt off to try out again, but nothing more came out of my mouth in the moment than “okay…”. She then opened the door and smiled, waiting for me to leave. Like I said, it lasted about 20 seconds.

I didn’t even care. I had prepared myself for that news. My head was onto the next thing, training hard and losing weight so I could try out again next year. I wanted to show up and be the best player out on that ice. I didn’t care if she cut me at try-outs, but I was sure as heck going to show up and try. Which is the plan I stuck to all summer.

Then, one day during my first recreational soccer game of the summer season, I heard a weird pop in my knee during a pivot while playing defense. My knee suddenly didn’t work. I couldn’t explain what had happened, but it felt like I was missing something in my knee and it was very painful. So I got off, went home, and scheduled an appointment with my doctor. I took it very seriously, since I was no stranger to knee injuries and the amount of time it takes to heal. After an MRI a week later, the results found that I had blown a chunk of cartilage off of my knee that was floating around, and that I had something called “femoral chondral cartilage defects”, a fancy term meaning I have small ridges and defects along the bottom of my femur, a somewhat typical product of previous ACL repairs. Shocked, I found out I was going to need another surgery. I scheduled it as soon as my doctor could do it, which was the beginning of June. I knew I was going to have a lot of work to do in order to get back in time for those try-outs, but I was up for the challenge.

Into surgery I went. A 4-6 week recovery is what they told me, which proved to be true. It was now the second week in July. I was at the highest weight I had ever been, with little to no endurance around the time of being cleared. I pushed myself to start running miles every day, which I successfully did. I told myself I would do two workouts a day, which began to stress me out, as most times I wouldn’t make it back in for a second workout. I would play pick-up hockey here and there, becoming frustrated with my now loppy stride, due to my under-strengthened surgical knee. By the time I began to realize how close season was, it was around the beginning of August.

It was now Monday, August 8th. I was playing pick-up hockey with some of my dad’s old teammates, many of whom were old or not very skilled. It became apparent to me how lopsided my stride had become. I would start out fine, but as I grew more tired throughout the game, my surgical leg would not be able to hold a sustained knee bend. I became extremely discouraged towards the end of the game, eventually getting off early because of my leg. I drove home that night telling myself it was over. Reality had sunk in. I was just not physically ready to come back. I held in my emotions all throughout dinner, but as my dad and I pulled into the parking lot of our nighttime job, I completely lost it. I cried the hardest I had in a long time.

I never cry in front of my dad. I think he could tell I was really hurting. I told him my college hockey career was over. Reality had hit me that I had not had enough time to make a full recovery from surgery. I was done fighting. I was not going to frantically stress myself out over workouts to possibly not even get a chance at trying out for Darwitz again. I had briefly thought about going back to Bethel for my Senior season, but I realized that just wasn’t in my cards. It was the worst night of my athletic life. The sport, the life I had had for 17 years was coming to a close. This door was shutting. I was afraid I was going to disappoint my family, but my dad assured me that was not the case. In a way, I felt like I was giving up. However, even on my very best day, I was never going to be enough for Natalie and her program. A few days after I made that decision, I came across a quote on my friend’s facebook that read “At your absolute best, you still won’t be good enough for the wrong person. At your worst, you’ll still be worth it to the right person.” Seeing that solidified my decision, as it seemed to ring through about Darwitz and her team. Even if I was the best hockey player in the world, I wasn’t going to mean anything to her.

Fast forward to now. Here I am at Hamline, a usual tri-sport athlete reduced to being a no-sport athlete. I am no longer able to play lacrosse, and have chosen to focus on healing and my education rather than to fight tirelessly to play hockey for an unfair coach. It still stings to see the new hockey team in pictures or around campus in their cliques, but ultimately I know I made the right decision. I feel like I listened so hard to God on this one, that it is just not in His plans for me.

It took me a long time to decide whether or not I wanted to share this beyond emotional story with the world, let alone anyone. I ultimately decided that people need to hear it. Someone out there somewhere is probably going through or has already gone through the same thing, and can find comfort in knowing they aren’t alone. Lots of high school athletes don’t go on to play in college. And I am now learning that it’s okay. It’s okay to not be the all conference go-to player anymore. It’s okay to know the difference between giving up and choosing to move on. One can only suffer so much.

I feel like there are so many components to this post. Some parts deal with coaching and how unfair coaches can be. Other parts of my story talk about the transition so many athletes go through when deciding to no longer pursue their sport. Either way, I know some will be offended with my post, and others may find understanding and acceptance in it. Ultimately, I decided that life is too short to care about what people think anymore. I’m done filtering my content so that certain people won’t be offended. If people acted better, there’d be better things to say.

In conclusion, August 8th was the day I CHOSE to end my college hockey career. I listened to God and to what He was calling me to do. I know it probably sounds silly being emotional about a sport, but this sport was my life for 17 years. The beauty about athletics is that even though I am no longer a college athlete, I can still play hockey until the day I die. There are so many opportunities out there, like leagues, pick-up games, coaching and even reffing. It’s going to be a tough journey at first, but I know I made the right decision.

Game Day: A Pine-Rider’s Perspective

Endless amounts of instagram pictures and facebook posts of action photos litter my feed every Friday and Saturday morning, reminding me that today is the two dreaded words, “game day.” This day is not “dreaded” because I hate the team, I’m not dressing, or anything along those lines (which are all beyond false). Game day is dreadful for a pine rider because this day consists of a large spectrum of emotion. We must sit and watch our team play the sport we’ve loved since we were little girls, while we contain the anger, happiness, anxiety, fear, and eagerness that we are flooded with.

I would be lying to you if I said we weren’t angry when we didn’t dress. If we were satisfied with watching our friends play the sport we love while sitting out, we would be poor athletes. We’re happy because we love the sport, and can’t wait to see the outcome of all the hard work our team has put in all week. We are eager to see what happens throughout the game, keeping injuries, goals, penalties, and our team’s overall performance in mind. We watch like hawks for any opportunity that may arise for us to play. While we want the team to be successful, we also hope the success includes us being in the lineup. We feel anxiety and fear because we are afraid of being in someone’s way or not doing something we have been asked to do correctly, which brings me to my next point: all the things we do for the team.

While my teammates warm-up, tape their sticks, listen to their iPods, play soccer, and sing out blurbs of rap songs that come on in the locker room, we are busy doing all the dirty work that the sport entails. We are grabbing 50 hockey sticks by the arm-full and carrying them to the bench, which may or may not be all the way across the rink. We then organize each stick into numerical order, which isn’t always a speedy task. We then fill up all 12 water bottles with the best quality water we can find, and must carry them around to the bench and into the locker room, only to have to refill them a half hour later. We must make sure the whiteboard for drawing plays is in the right spot on the bench. We must make sure the medical kit is somewhere easily accessible. All before the game.

Finally, we get time to rest. As a group, we talk about what we think the outcome of the game will be, and how we have been looking as a team in practice. We ask each other how we’re holding up, giving each other emotional pep-talks to keep each other going for the next three hours. Maybe if we’re lucky, we can sneak in a quick book read or juggle with the soccer ball. After what seems like an eternity, it’s finally game time.

Now, we must record the game, our hands ice bricks by the end of the period. One of us must rush down to lock and unlock the locker rooms in time for the team to come in. Most times, we will pat each player on the shoulder as she walks by, sometimes getting the occasional sour face and “not now” comment, depending on how the period went. In between periods, we often get the “can you get me a…” comment, which we rush off to get before it’s time to hit the ice again. Then, there’s the team meal.

Each away game, we are asked to meet the caterer at the door, grab the food, and place it on the bus. Doing so results in us missing a portion of the game, just our luck always happening to be the most eventful parts. When the game is over, we have to round up 25 sticks, inhalers, water bottles, the board, and anything else that was left on the bench. We then dump the water out and round up ice bags for the athletes in need. These tasks may not seem terrible, which they generally aren’t, but it’s an entirely different experience for the team pine riders.

Sometimes, flustered teammates take their emotions out on us. Sometimes coaches lecture us about a mistake we made in regards to one of our assigned jobs. Sometimes, we aren’t quick enough to get the items teammates need and hear about it. We are floating in a subliminal exile, since we don’t get to wear the sweater we dreamt all week about wearing. Sometimes our comments to the team in between periods are contested, even though we have the best view in the house. Every single game, we are given blank stares by parents, condescending looks from the other team, and are laughed at by cocky college boys. This makes our lives even harder while we try to hide all the powerful emotions we are feeling.

You have no idea how amazing it feels when a teammate thanks us for something on game day, no matter how small the task was. It makes us feel reconnected with the team, and reinspires us to keep helping. It makes us feel respected on a day where we are just bystanders at a hockey game. After all, we are your biggest supporters and loudest fans.

I think every player should have to sit one game to understand how privileged they are to pull the sweater over their head every game day. Those who do find it humbling to see what we see and do what we do. We fight all week through the sweat, tears, and internal frustration only to reap no reward. Try sitting for one game, two games, eight games. It only gets harder. It takes a hard shelled, mentally tough, irrationally supportive, strong person to be a pine rider, and only the toughest survive.