WWFHA supports their players and the experiences they have on and off the ice. From time to time we will post articles written by the student-athlete. Leah Johnson plays for the Washington Wild U19 team. She writes about her opportunity to meet and skate with the U.S. Women's Hockey National team during the 2014 Four Nations Cup as part of the 'Experience a Dream' program.
Tears of joy welled in my eyes when I received news that I was going to be meeting the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team. And not only that, I was to stand out on the ice for the National Anthem with their first line!! I was practically floating on air as I tried to carry through with my usual routines.
The big day finally arrived! Friday November 7th!!! The U.S. was taking on Sweden that afternoon in the Women’s Four Nations Cup Hockey Tournament at the Interior Savings Rink in Kamloops, British Columbia. As instructed, I arrived at the Zamboni door with my mother and Coach Lisa McNeill from my U19 Washington Wild team with huge smiles on our faces. Emerging from the back door, Al Fitzgerald - Director of Kamloops Minor Hockey, introduced himself to me and gave us a run-down of what I would be doing. I quickly got dressed before I was led through the sea of hallways to the U.S. Women’s Hockey locker room. I was beyond excited at this point! I arrived by their locker room seeing players with smiles on their faces ready to go, coaches and staff bustling around preparing for the semi-final game in the tournament.
A few players including Paige Savage, Annie Pankowski, and Amanda Pelkey emerged from the locker room to take a picture and it wasn’t long before Amanda Pelkey invited me to take one with them too. I met some of the coaches and staff and they answered my questions about the team’s various stations outside the locker room for dry-land, skate sharpening, and even a large variety of food.
Alex Carpenter, the U.S.A. Team Captain, appeared from the locker room and she came and introduced herself to me with a coach by her side. I was kind of stunned… A national player… The Captain… is talking to me? For real? I was astonished to be meeting someone that I know works so hard and has proven she has what it takes to be Captain of this amazing team.
Leah with U.S. Women's Hockey National Team players
Not too long after that, another one of the players came from the locker room to grab a quick snack. She said hello to me and asked if I would like to participate in warm-ups on the ice with them. Adrenaline rushed through me as a nervous and excited knot formed in my stomach.
“Okay!” she said smiling before disappearing into the locker room.
“Wait, they said that to me? Doing warm-ups with them?” I questioned Al Fitzgerald as he stood by my side smiling at me.
“Yes, they invited you out on the ice with them. They are probably going to do some individual drills throughout and you can join in, and then when they hop in line go down and talk with them as they are waiting,” he replied. I was glad to have his support, and someone who knew what I was supposed to do.
All of a sudden the players started running out of the locker room fist bumping and jumping on the ice.
“I go now?”
“Yeah, go ahead. I will take pictures!” Al said. I jumped up and ran out with them and joined in, skating around the ice and shooting the loose pucks into the net.
Leah taking the ice with the U.S. Women's Hockey National Team
Lee Stecklein came skating by my side and introduced herself to me. I was starstruck by how warm and welcoming she was and also how dedicated and hardworking she must be, similar to every player on the ice. I floated a couple inches higher as I skated behind her and lifted another shot into the net.
I saw my team and coaches standing by the boards cheering me on and I felt so special having the encouragement of, quite honestly, my second family. The U.S. team began to line up in the corners and I skated over to talk with them. I met quite a few of the players including Hannah Brandt while standing in line. Kendall Coyne also introduced herself to me and convinced me to do a 3 on 1 with her in one of the drills.
Molly Schaus, one of the goalies, gave me a fist bump as I skated by making me want to just burst out crying with happiness all over again. I was a little nervous especially at the beginning, but they all definitely made me feel welcome with them on the ice.
Leah warming-up with the U.S. Women's Hockey National Team
It wasn’t long before the team headed back into the locker room. Alex Rigsby, one of the goalies walked past at that moment.
“Come on in!” she said
“Okay,” I said with a smile on my face ear to ear.
I headed into the locker room behind her. She offered for me to sit by her station where she got dressed. The locker room was huge and was filled with so many players! The atmosphere was similar to my games with everyone talking with others around them and adjusting their gear as they prepared for the game. I asked many questions and Alex Rigsby answered them all for me as I sat in the large locker room admiring all of the amazing players. At one point Hilary Knight even suggested that Alex show me the candy bowl. I declined the generous offer feeling the butterflies in my stomach.
Players once again started running out of the locker room fist bumping and high-fiving as their head coach stood at the doorway getting them pumped up with encouraging words as they flew out the door and onto the ice. A few more drills from before were carried out before the team huddle by the net. Being surrounded by all of the players with multiple arms wrapped around me, made me feel so special. It really made me realize that I can be like them and I can strive to be on the National Team through hard work and determination. They shouted out things like “We can do this!” and other inspiring phrases to each other before doing a cheer to prepare them for the game.
The players then progressed to the bench with the starting line-up at the blue line. I joined them at the blue line and I was so proud to be representing my association and standing with the American team while the national anthem was played. Millions of thoughts once again raced through my head as I skated over to the bench afterwards.
My teammates held a huge blue sign with my name in large letters across the front with their comments around the side. They definitely made my experience that much better, for they took away some of the butterflies and nervousness giving me high-fives as I walked down the path to and from the locker room. They cheered my name as if I was famous giving me even more confidence.
Leah standing with the starters during the National Anthem
I was soon greeted by Al Fitzgerald who kindly led me back through the sea of hallways as I floated beside him telling of how amazing my experience was. Quickly I changed out of my gear, I was escorted up to the main level and I received a warm-greeting from everyone as I approached my teammates, coaches, and family members sitting in the stands.
I realized after this experience that the players on the U.S. National team are a lot more like me and my teammates than I thought. They support, love, and respect each other and are like a great big family. I gained much confidence from this experience and I am still floating on air to this day, having a hard time believing that that was actually me. I want to thank all of Western Washington Female Hockey Association for giving me this amazing dream experience. I have found that hockey isn’t just a sport - it’s a way of life, and hockey teammates and coaches aren’t just friends - they are part of my family.
-- By Leah Johnson
Leah and her hockey family