Penn State women’s hockey is many things.
For captain Natalie Heising, a Minnesota native who comes from a state where the game is a second language, it is a reminder of home.
Nothing beats those early morning rides to the rink, those sore nights after a game. There’s nothing like the crowd at the state’s famed high school hockey tournament. There’s nothing quite like pond hockey, the cold air pumping out of your lungs, visible in front of your face before vanishing back into the atmosphere above. There’s nothing like St Cloud, Duluth, Minneapolis or all the places in between.
Heising knows what every believer in the game knows, that at its best hockey is beautiful. It is a sport of constant transition, back and forth, from one stick to the next. It is five players thinking as one, reading minds, making plays without speaking. It is controlled chaos bundled inside creativity.
For coach Jeff Kampersal it is a chance to build a program that lacks neither the facilities nor the potential backing of a hockey hungry town nestled between a half dozen NHL franchises. It’s a chance to make something out of nothing, it’s the opportunity to add to an already respected coaching career.
But as Kampersal said on Wednesday afternoon, “No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.”
And that has been the story of Penn State women’s hockey’s early existence. The things it hasn’t done. Under former coach Josh Brandwene, the Nittany Lions put together one winning seasons in five years – not an automatic disqualifier of quality for a brand new program – but the losing was bookend by two separate allegations of verbal abuse and otherwise unhealthy locker room treatment by Brandwene and others towards players.
Chances were if you knew anything about Penn State women’s hockey, it was those two things. Losing, and allegations.
Under Kampersal, who is in his fourth year at Penn State after serving at Princeton in the same role down the hall from Penn State men’s coach Guy Gadowsky, the losing has changed.
And perhaps more importantly, the culture surrounding his program has too.
“Trust. My biggest one is trust,” Kampersal said when asked the biggest key to good culture. “And so, when we go through certain phases of this program, there’s been issues that we’ve worked through to get to this point where our players are a solidified group. They’re not a perfect group, they could make mistakes along the way as well as me as a coach. But we trust one another. The communication is transparent.”
This pays off in more ways than one. On off days Kampersal has seen his entire team skating together rather than 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’s supposed to be fun. And for the Nittany Lions, it has become that again.
Or perhaps for this particular program, for the first time ever.
“I think [culture] takes an incredible amount of patience,” Heising said. “For me, at least this is 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’m really glad it’s where it is now.”
“I think that culture, and that environment comes from the players, it doesn’t come from the coaching staff wanting it to be a certain way or wanting the team culture to be a certain way. It came from every girl, wanting to create a team, where we’re hard working, we’re trusting, 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 finds itself 6-1-1 on the year, ranked No. 10 in the nation and No. 5 in the PairWise which puts the Nittany Lions firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture. Penn State is winning on the road, winning at home, taking leads and holding them. Everything is clicking everywhere. There will be setbacks, because that’s how sports work, but there is belief, and there’s a lot of power in that.
As they say, better living through chemistry. And better winning when you are – to steal a phrase from James Franklin – all pulling the rope in the same direction.
“If they’re not getting along or, you know, it seems like if we’re battling Penn State instead of the opponents, then that’s a problem,” Kampersal said. “But this year we’ve actually solely focused on ourselves in terms of hockey, but we’ve actually been allowed to play Robert Morris we’ve been allowed to play Lindenwood, and that’s where our focus is on and that’s like, that’s been awesome.”
There is the bigger picture to contend with as well. It is a matter of near public record that not everyone was supportive of Penn State acquiring a women’s hockey team to balance out the Title IX requirements when the men’s team was founded. “We’re an ag school, just add equestrian.” someone may have said. Hockey is expensive, hockey is niche, women’s hockey even moreso. And as allegations and losses piled up, there was maybe something to be said for that, especially as athletic departments across the nation look to make ends meet in a pandemic world.
For those people, Penn State women’s hockey was something, it was a mistake.
So winning this year means something to a team buried at the bottom of a roster of women’s programs that brings home national titles and national recognition. With each win, their claim to the conversation grows. With each victory an unspoken reminder that these girls came to play and that they represent more than just required legislative balancing.
And with talented players returning and more headed in next season, winning this year is also a statement that they might be here to stay. Kampersal talks hopefully about putting fans in the seats, adding his team to the list of must-sees on campus. But as he is quick to say aloud, you’ve got to win first. And do it again, and again, and again.
With many games to go and unforeseen adversity to overcome, it’s not a mission accomplished just 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 for someone else to experience the best.
But they all come to a program with the hopes of leaving it better than it was.
“It means everything because that was one of the main reasons why I came to Penn State because I saw a program that I wanted to create exactly what we have now,” Heising said.
“And it took a couple years and took – we went through a lot of stuff as a team, but finally having a team now where we have that culture, that environment and that winning mindset like it’s, it’s amazing. It’s a dream come true.”
When it’s all said and done 6-1-1 does not a national title make, but for a program that has been many things to many people, Penn State women’s hockey might finally be the one thing it has dreamed about becoming.
A very good hockey team, and nothing else.