McKenna Hulslander is getting good at finishing her homework on late plane rides home to Kalispell on Sunday nights.
The 18-year-old travels nearly every weekend during the winter to bigger cities across North America, from Toronto to Chicago, to play goalie for the St. Louis 19U Lady Blues, the 14th-ranked team competing at the highest level of junior girls hockey in North America. Hulslander, a junior at Glacier High School, is in her second season as the team’s starting goalie, a distinction that is even more impressive considering she remains based in her hometown of Kalispell.
“Hopefully I get enough SkyMiles to go to Hawaii someday,” Hulslander said.
“I’ve thought about moving to somewhere like Minnesota, but I couldn’t leave home. I couldn’t leave Montana. So I’ve decided I’ll be unique and play from here.”
Hulslander is one of the best hockey players to emerge from Montana in years.
Growing up, her older brother, Taylor, got into the sport and played for talented traveling teams that competed in large tournaments in Canada and across the U.S. Taylor played goalie, and his youngest sister decided to follow her brother’s example. She started skating when she was just 4. Within a few years, she was naturally drawn to the net and idolized NHL greats such as Marty Turco, who played goalie for 11 seasons.
“That was the first jersey I ever had,” she said.
“I loved skating and I wish I could do both sometimes, but I love the competitiveness of being goalie and shutting people down.”
Hockey is not a sport with a huge following in Montana and few players have gone on to play at the highest levels. Bigfork native Bill Lindsay, who was raised in Fernie, played in 777 NHL games during his career. Patrick Dwyer, who grew up in Great Falls, spent three seasons in the NHL before moving on to the Swedish Hockey League.
In other words, Montana is not well known for producing elite hockey talent. But that hasn’t stopped Hulslander from playing the sport she loves.
Hulslander grew up playing against her brother and his friends, and by middle school she was qualifying to play for a talented boys team in Fernie, British Columbia. She was the lone female on the team during her sixth and seventh grade years, when she traveled north to compete every weekend in winter.
“It made me a lot better. It was fun to play hockey in Canada. It’s definitely a lot more competitive up there,” she said.
In high school, she played for a local valley club team and was recruited to play for a squad in Omaha, Nebraska. That’s when she caught the attention of the St. Louis Lady Blues, one of the best U19 programs in the U.S. Coaches had seen her play for Omaha and asked her to try out for the Lady Blues. She earned a spot, even though she told them she would stay in Montana and travel to competitions to meet the team.
The Lady Blues compete against top-notch competition, including the Shattuck-Saint Mary’s Boarding School, where NHL great Sidney Crosby attended.
Against the Detroit Little Caesars 19U team in mid-December, Hulslander made 23 saves on 25 shots for the win. Against Lindenwood University-Bellville, she saved all 14 shots for the win. Her record in goal is 8-7 with a goals-against-average of 2.69 in 685 minutes. She has notched two shutouts.
To stay sharp away from competition, Hulslander trains during the week with the Whitefish Wolverines, a junior hockey team in its second season in the Western States Hockey League, an amateur sports organization in its 21st year with 29 clubs across the U.S.
“She’s really good. She will play Division I hockey for sure,” Wolverines head coach Joakim Falt said earlier this season. “She’s one of the best we’ve seen.”
Her next goal is to achieve a Division I scholarship. It’s extremely competitive among the top high school players considering there are only 35 D-I women’s hockey programs in the U.S. Then again, she is already a three-time attendee of the USA Hockey National Camp, which distinguishes her as one of the top 10 junior goalies in America. It’s invite-only and Hulslander was only the second Montana goalie to ever garner a trip to the national camp. From there, the top two goalies are picked for the national team. Hulslander hopes to attend yet again this year before chasing scholarship offers after high school.
For now, she’s enjoying the thrill of competition and wracking up the airplane miles.
“I love going and competing and giving everything I’ve got,” Hulslander said. “(The puck’s) not in until I say it’s in.”
Correction: Hulslander was the second goalie from Montana to attend the USA Hockey national camp. Amelea Gray, a goalie from Bozeman, earned a spot at the camp back in 2007