Penn State’s women’s hockey is a lot.
For Captain Natalie Heising, a Minnesota native who comes from a state where the game is a second language, it’s a reminder of home.
Nothing beats those early rinks, those painful nights after a game. Nothing beats the crowd at the famous high school hockey tournament. Nothing beats pond hockey, the cold air rushing out of your lungs visible to your face before disappearing back into the atmosphere above. Nothing beats St Cloud, Duluth, Minneapolis or any place in between.
Heising knows what every believer knows, that hockey is beautiful at its best. It is a sport of constant transition, back and forth, from one stick to another. They are five actors who think as one, read thoughts, play plays without speaking. It is controlled chaos bundled in creativity.
For coach Jeff Kampersal, it’s an opportunity to create a program that lacks neither the facilities nor the potential support of a hockey-hungry city among half a dozen NHL franchises. It’s an opportunity to create something from scratch, it’s the chance to add to an already respected coaching career.
But as Kampersal said on Wednesday afternoon, no one is interested in something you haven’t done.
And that is the story of the early existence of Penn State’s hockey athletes. The things it didn’t do. Under former coach Josh Brandwene, the Nittany Lions put together one winning season in five years – not an automatic quality disqualification from a brand-new program – but the loss was accounted for by two separate allegations of verbal abuse and otherwise unhealthy treatment of locker rooms by Brandwene and others towards players.
Chances were, if you knew anything about Penn State women’s hockey, it was those two things. Losses and accusations.
Under Kampersal, who is in his fourth year at Penn State after serving at Princeton in the same role in Penn State gentlemen coach Guy Gadowsky’s gang, the loss has changed.
And perhaps more importantly, the culture surrounding his program too.
Trust. My greatest thing is trust, said Kampersal when asked the greatest key to a good culture. And so, as we go through certain phases of this program, there have been issues that we went through to get to the point where our players are a solidified group. They are not a perfect group, they can make mistakes along the way, just like me as a coach. But we trust each other. Communication is transparent.
This pays off in more ways than one. On days off, Kampersal has seen his entire team skate together instead of just a few players. The chemistry on and off the ice is better, there is trust, there is togetherness, there is fun.
Hockey is a sport, it should be fun. And for the Nittany Lions it has become that again.
Or maybe for this particular program, for the first time ever.
I think [culture] takes an incredible amount of patience, Heising said. For me this is at least my fourth year and finally having a team with that kind of culture takes a lot of hard work and a lot of patience and I am really happy that it is now where it is now.
I think that culture, and that environment, comes from the players, not from the coaching staff who want it in a certain way or want the team culture to be in a certain way. It came from every girl who wanted to create a team, which we work hard on, we trust and we do whatever it takes, and I think once all the girls were on board with that. It’s kind of unbreakable.
The results speak for themselves, Penn State is 6-1-1 of the year, ranked No. 10 in the nation and No. 5 in the PairWise, putting the Nittany Lions firmly in the picture of the NCAA Tournament. Penn State wins on the go, wins at home, takes leads and holds them. Everything clicks everywhere. There will be setbacks, because that’s how sport works, but there is faith, and there is a lot of power in it.
As they say, live better through chemistry. And better win if – to steal a sentence from James Franklin – you all pull the rope in the same direction.
If they don’t get along, or, you know, it looks like we’re fighting Penn State instead of the opponents, that’s a problem, Kampersal said. But this year we really only focused on ourselves in terms of hockey, but we actually got to play Robert Morris, we got to play Lindenwood, and that’s where our focus is and that’s like, that was great.
There is also the bigger picture to contend with. It’s a matter of almost public record that not everyone was in favor of Penn State acquiring a women’s hockey team to balance the requirements of Title IX when the men’s team was formed. Was an agricultural school, then just add equestrian. someone may have said. Hockey is expensive, hockey is a niche, women’s hockey even more so. And as the charges and losses piled up, there may have been something to be said for that, especially as athletics departments across the country want to make ends meet in a pandemic world.
To those people, Penn State women’s hockey was a thing, it was a mistake.
So winning this year means something to a team buried under a roster of women’s programs that bring home national titles and national recognition. With each win, their claim to the conversation grows. With every win, an unspoken reminder that these girls came to play and that they represent more than just a legal balance.
And with talented players returning and more in charge next season, winning this year is also a statement that they might stay here. Kampersal is hopefully talking about putting fans in the seats and adding his team to the campus must-sees list. But as he quickly says out loud, you have to win first. And do it again, and again, and again.
With lots of games to go and unforeseen setbacks to overcome, it’s not a mission accomplished yet, but Heising would be right to enjoy the moment. Players who build programs see it all, they see the worst and often leave in time to let someone else experience the best.
But they all come to a show hoping to leave it better than it was.
It means everything, because that was one of the main reasons I came to Penn State because I saw a program that I wanted to make exactly what we have now, Heising said.
And it took a few years and it took – we’ve been through a lot of things as a team, but now finally have a team where we have that culture, that environment and that winning mindset as it is, it’s amazing. It’s a dream come true.
When all is said and done, 6-1-1 is not a national title, but for a program that has been a lot for a lot of people, the Penn State women’s hockey may be all it dreamed of becoming.
A very good hockey team, and nothing else.