In what should have been her final year as the starting goaltender for the Hamline University hockey team, McKenna Hulslander was back in his childhood home in Kalispell, learning to cook.
With COVID-19 throwing the 2020-21 athletic and academic years into question, Hulslander made the decision to take a voluntary year off rather than risk losing what was likely his last competitive hockey season to canceled games and quarantined teammates.
“When I first decided to take my year off, I had no idea what I would do to keep myself busy for that long,” Hulslander said. “I had just turned 22 and realized I wasn’t a great cook, so I got into understanding recipes for athletes and recipes to recover from workouts.”
The latter was important, because even though she wasn’t on the rink with her teammates, Hulslander was still training day in and day out – first in her parents’ basement while pandemic restrictions limited her options and, later, in any environment on or off the ice that would help her become a better goaltender.
“It was never a guarantee that I would have my place in goal when I came back to Minnesota,” Hulslander said. “My coaches, my teammates, they didn’t see what I was doing every day. I put myself on an island in Montana and the level of confidence from my teammates to know that I was doing the work to be that tri-state goaltender they deserved was huge.
Hulslander was a force on the skates from an early age, despite growing up in the hockey wasteland of Montana. She played almost exclusively on boys’ teams growing up and spent years commuting to Fernie twice a week with her parents so she could play on a travel team.
By the time she was a high school student playing for an U19 team in St. Louis, Hulslander seemed destined for an NCAA Division I program, but her roots in Montana kept her from proving her prowess to top scouts, who focus on hockey. Locations.
She eventually reached the college level, however, at Division III Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, a powerhouse at that level that made back-to-back Frozen Four appearances her first three years. , including finishing as a national runner-up in 2019. Hulslander set a school record as a rookie with 14 wins in goal and also holds the school record for career wins in goaltending.
As her senior year finally came to fruition after her home year in the Flathead, Hulslander was ready to embrace her final season on the ice.
“Facing the end of my career, I was so grateful,” she said. “I was just a small-town kid in Montana who had a crazy dream of playing college hockey and I was so grateful that God gave me the opportunity to have those experiences.”
As a college super-senior – affectionately referred to as “grandmother” by her young teammates – Hulslander has settled into a rhythm of extreme comfort on the net. The nerves that boiled over as she took to the ice, the pressure she felt to prove her decades of training was worth it, melted away.
“I was so comfortable last year. I had planned for this, prepared for it and wanted to enjoy every moment of my last games,” she said.
His last games were among his best. In 22 games during his senior season, Hulslander led the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) in .943 save percentage, was second in the league with a 1.78 goals-against average and third in shutouts. . Twice she had 42 saves in a game and was named to the All-Conference team.
“Throughout my athletic career, my faith has guided me every step of the way. You don’t really know the cards that are dealt to you – sometimes you get signed up DI, sometimes you go DIII, sometimes there’s a pandemic, sometimes there isn’t,” Hulslander said. “At the end of that road, I was so grateful; I wasn’t looking to go any further.”
But what does a talented hockey star do after devoting most of her young life to becoming the best goaltender possible? She picks up the phone when her best friend calls to ask if she wants to try playing professionally in Europe.
Hulslander began contacting teams to see what might be possible. Then the calls started coming from across the pond – with teams in Austria, Spain and Sweden offering competing contracts.
The offer from the Salzburg Eagles turned out to be the best solution. The Austrian club offered the best combination of competitive professional play, while giving Hulslander time off to enjoy being 24 and living abroad.
In a few weeks, she will fly to the other side of the world to start training with her new team.
“I love the sport of hockey and want to take it to the next level, but I’m also becoming a fresh graduate traveling the world,” Hulslander said. “I’m definitely a ride with it person, and if that attitude has gotten me this far, it will get me where I want to go next.