The Death, and Life, of a Hockey Program

On March 29, I sat in the stands and watched a hockey team I loved skate for the final time.

I had already played my last game for North Dakota a few weeks before. I was at our arena, the Ralph, to work out in the weight room with a few other graduating seniors. Down on the ice, the girls were already starting their preparations for next season.

We knew that cuts were coming to a few of the athletic programs at UND, but it had never once crossed my mind that they would cut women’s hockey.

Grand Forks is a hockey town. UND is a hockey school. The women’s team has finished in the top four of the WCHA every year since 2011. Nine current or former Fighting Hawks players took part in this year women’s world’s in Plymouth, Michigan.

How could UND cut women’s hockey?

A few minutes later I was doing some stretching in the weight room when Gracen Hirschy, one of our seniors I was working out with, yelled over to me to come check out a tweet on her phone. It was from a local reporter who said that the word on the street was that UND was cutting the women’s hockey program.

I looked at Gracen and said, “No way … there’s no way.”

She refreshed Twitter, and sure enough, a few more tweets from other sources popped up.

We heard nothing official from our school president or athletic director. Just tweets from random people letting us know there wouldn’t be women’s hockey in Grand Forks anymore.

We walked out to the penalty box to try to get the attention of McKynsay Vanderpan (our athletic trainer). She told us she had already heard the news from Kevin Vaughan, our equipment manager. Another member of the hockey staff, Tori Williams, came over to join us. She was holding our assistant coach’s phone while he was on the ice, in case any info came down. We were sitting in the penalty box, trying to figure out what was going on when an email appeared on our coach’s phone. It was from our AD and it said that coaches and staff were to meet in Gamble Hall, one of our school’s auditoriums, that afternoon.

It didn’t confirm the rumor, but in our minds it made things official.

News on our team continued to roll in while we sat in the box. We tried to keep our emotions in check. We didn’t want to give any hints to the girls practicing that they wouldn’t have a team after they stepped off the ice. Just imagine that, if you can. A group of young girls excited for what the future holds, but whose careers are already in jeopardy — they just don’t know it yet. We wanted them to enjoy their final practice. It was hard to sit there and watch. There were some tears, even before we could all meet together in the locker room.

When practice ended, we learned that our head coach, Brian Idalski, had received the same news we had.

He called everyone together in the locker room. By this point you could feel the mood in the air. People were starting to choke up and nobody could talk.

“Look … it’s not official yet.” Brian said. But he could barely get the words out.

That’s really all that needed to be said.

We were shell-shocked. It was silence like I had never heard before. One of our sophomores, still in her gear, was just staring straight ahead. After a few minutes she just broke down crying — that feeling started to hit us all pretty quickly after that.

One of our European players came up to me:

“I have no plan B,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”

That hurt more than anything I had heard all day.

So many of us had left our homes, our families and our friends to be here. We traveled far from home to give everything we had to chase our dreams and be a part of this program. The girls from Europe, who uprooted their lives to come to Grand Forks, were going to have to start all over — in a foreign country.

I watched the players hang-up their gear for the last time in a place that had been like home to me: Ralph Engelstad Arena, or the Ralph. It’s the best arena in college hockey, and I won’t hear otherwise.

Two years ago, we had a Hungarian recruit who was visiting the U.S. for the first time. Coach Brian picked her up from the airport and was just going to take her around the campus and show her a few facilities. When they drove by the Ralph, she was like, “Oh, is that the school? It is so beautiful.”

Brian looked at her and said, “No, no. That’s the rink.”

She started to cry.

She couldn’t believe how breathtaking it was, and how — even in this small town —people could care about hockey enough to have a world-class arena.

That’s what the Ralph meant to us.

And now, that arena will be home to half as many UND hockey games next year.

That means half as many opportunities for little girls to fall in love with the game of hockey the way I had.

I was that little girl nearly 15 years ago. But I have a small confession to make.

I was a Minnesota Gophers fan growing up. I know, I know, but we all make mistakes when we’re young, right? I grew up in Shakopee, Minnesota, about 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, and I used to go to Gophers games with my family and my team when I played youth hockey. Big crowds would come and watch the women’s team play.

I knew I wanted to be a hockey player from a very young age, but seeing those girls at UM play in front of those fans … I don’t know. It made it seem real. I thought that I could do anything I wanted in the hockey world after watching that.

Most of all, I just wanted to be part of it.

Experiences like those are what make college sports so great — especially in a town like Grand Forks. We really loved being a part of the community here. I can’t even count the number of times someone came up to me when I was at a restaurant or a coffee shop just to wish me good luck for our next game. They always know who we were playing or what was going on. That sense of belonging meant a lot to me, but for our international girls, it really made their experience here that much better. The town was so welcoming and caring, we felt we owed them our all every time we stepped on the ice.

Our support at games was outstanding, and I have to give a shout-out to a special fan: Jane.

Jane sits up near our parents’ section in the corner. Every time we scored she would do this … yodel? I don’t know how to quite describe it. It’s like a yell, and everyone on the ice can hear it. The day after the program was cut, Jane sent me a message on Facebook:

Hi Amy, this is Jane, the lady who yodels after every goal. I just wanted to say how terribly sad I am for you all and everyone who has played UND hockey. I have LOVED watching you all play hockey at the most elite level. Please take care and know we as fans have aching hearts for the loss of the program and are thinking about you all.

That sucked to read. I felt like we had let her down.

I felt like Grand Forks had lost a bit of its soul.

We traveled far from home to give everything we had to chase our dreams and be a part of this program.

Amy Menke

Look, I know, North Dakota is a school first and foremost. I understand the complications that come with running a program as expensive as hockey. UND cut men’s golf and baseball last year, and our team had been making small budget adjustments all season. Cheaper travel, less meals, all that stuff. But what really made the news tougher to take was the manner in which we found out.

No meeting, no call, no text. Like I said, I found out that the program that I had given everything for over the last four seasons was gone via Twitter. Having to watch those girls practice while the entire hockey world was talking about how they basically no longer existed … it was horrible.

No athlete should have to go through that.

It wasn’t until later that day that we were able to speak with the UND president and AD. We met in Gamble Hall, according to the instructions in the earlier email. When we got there, we also saw the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams. They had suffered the same fate that we had, and had that same look on their faces. Everybody in Gamble Hall was talking, hugging, crying and waiting for the UND representatives to show up.

When they did, they gave us a complicated explanation. They threw a lot of numbers at us, trying to justify their decisions. I know it wasn’t easy for them. But hearing why your program was the one that had to go was hard.

Financially, I understand. And I don’t wish that it had been another program — or certain classes — that had gotten cut. I just wish that the school could have found a way to accommodate our team because of the foothold we have in the community of Grand Forks. I felt we were an important part of the town.

When we walked out of Gamble Hall about an hour later … it felt like we were leaving a funeral.

Our program was a big family, and it died that day.

The past four seasons, our group of girls have embodied the fighting spirit that our sports teams are so proud of. The culture that was passed down to me from the seniors whom I had met as a freshman shaped me into the woman I have become today. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for my team — my hockey family.

I look back on my time at the Ralph with immense pride. Everyone from our staff to our fans have been incredibly supportive throughout my time here, as well as during this unfortunate process. I am proud to be a North Dakota alum. But what fueled a big part of my fire was the legacy we were leaving behind for future UND hockey players and Grand Forks.

Now that’s all gone.

I met so many little girls at our games. I gave them sticks and pucks and took selfies in hopes that they would go home and remember how much fun they’d had watching us play. In hopes that they would go home and tell their mom they wanted to play hockey like I had all those years ago.

Now there will be a generation who won’t have that opportunity.

Thank you for all of the love, Grand Forks.

I’m so sorry it had to end like this.