I guess the best way to start this is to say that I never wanted to start a piece like this at all.
Yesterday, the University of North Dakota cut its women’s hockey program. No matter how many times I read that, the immediate, gut-wrenching reaction is, How? How?
It’s inconceivable to think that a premier program that people–great people–have poured their hearts and souls into building up is just no more. That it just ends, here. Before all of that hard work and passion and heart-and-soul-pouring could ever fully be realized into the one thing that ever matters in sports: a championship.
Because it was on the way. Oh, it was on the way. Don’t for a second think that women’s hockey should be out at this school because of results, or because the program just wasn’t up to par. With 12 Olympians to its name already, with multiple appearances in conference championship games and the NCAA Tournament, this team was going places.
But it seems almost wasteful at this point to talk about what was, instead of what is, and what will be.
A thousand years ago, it seems, the returning group of UND players were on the ice, getting ready to go to those greater places, preparing for next season. That season will never come. Not here.
That is an impossible reality to live in. Just ask the players. Go on. Ask them where they want to be. Ask them where they want to play. They won’t tell you they only want to be here. They’ll tell you the only place to be is here.
How? How do you wake up in the morning and face that? How do you look toward this storm of crushing heartbreak and hurt and lift your head as it breaks you open?
This is how this team has done it: selflessly, with the people next to them in mind.
I’ve heard and seen a lot of things these last few days, in the short time I’ve been able to spend with the players and staff. Lots of tears. Lots of, “The worst part is…” (God, do you even know how many things about this situation can possibly be the worst part of it? The answer is all of them, somehow.)
But the thing I’ve heard more than any other is the people in that locker room thinking of each other first. Each and every one of them just lost what feels like everything today. And they still have nothing but concern for everyone else’s loss, too.
I am so proud, so proud, to say I have been a small part of this group, now more than ever. It has been incredibly hard to watch people’s dreams get crushed and this family ripped apart, through no fault of their own. But I talked to a player yesterday who said that even with all of this happening, even with this collapsing down around everyone now, she’d still have chosen to come to UND. She would not trade away her years here just to escape what she feels now.
That, to me, is the definition of what this program has meant to all those who have passed through it, whether as a coach, an Olympian, a student worker, or some dorky media intern like me.
The chance to work with UND women’s hockey was the greatest gift I’ll ever be granted in life. From the moment I left home halfway across the country and in the three years since, people have asked, Yeah, that sounds fun, but isn’t it hard being so far from your family?
I have never once been without family here. Never once.
It has been a privilege to get to know this group, to call myself a friend to them, to get to cheer on their successes, to also pay witness to the lows and watch them grow from it. I’ve watched them become fixtures in the Grand Forks community, as players and coaches and as people. I’ve seen them firsthand do some incredible work in the classroom, and embody what it means to be a student-athlete.
The knowledge that none of that ended on Wednesday is the only redeeming thought in all of this. UND women’s hockey will continue beyond this, even without a team on the ice at the Ralph next fall.
It continues with all of the players who will represent their countries at upcoming IIHF World Championships, including three from the 2016-17 team who were looking to bring medals back to UND.
It continues with those, however many, who will represent their countries at the Olympics in 2018–some for the second or third time.
It continues with those who have graduated this program with multiple degrees, completed research and thesis studies and otherwise left their prints on the academic landscape at UND.
It continues in a small way with me, who was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of what this program was about and will be all the better for it. And those around me will be better for it, too.
I am forever grateful to the coaches, players, and staff who always made me feel welcome, and taught me so much about hard work and integrity. And I am genuinely sorry for UND and what this school is losing by giving up on this program.
To all of you: I know I’m not alone in the flood of emotion that has come this week. But the only thing I haven’t felt for anybody over the last few days is scared. I don’t worry about the future for any of you because it is bright, and promising, even if it might not be here. I know you will all be successful in countless ways. And I know you will change the people you meet and places you go for the better, just like you’ve changed me.