During what should have been her senior year as the starting goalie for Hamline University’s hockey team, McKenna Hulslander was back in her childhood home in Kalispell teaching herself how to cook.
With COVID-19 throwing the 2020-21 athletic and academic years into question, Hulslander made the decision to take a voluntary gap year from school rather than risk losing what was likely her last competitive hockey season to canceled games and quarantined teammates.
“When I first decided to take my gap year, I didn’t know what I’d do to keep myself occupied for so long,” Hulslander said. “I had just turned 22, and I realized I wasn’t a great cook so I threw myself into understanding recipes for athletes and recipes for recovering 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 goalie.
“It was never a guarantee that I’d have my spot in the goal when I got back to Minnesota,” Hulslander said. “My coaches, my teammates, they didn’t see what I was doing every day. I put myself in an island out in Montana and the level of trust for my teammates to know I was putting in the work to be that goalie they deserved from three states away was huge.”
Hulslander was a force on skates from an early age, despite growing up in Montana’s hockey desert. She played almost exclusively on boys teams growing up and spent years shuttling up to Fernie twice a week with her parents so she could play on a travel team.
By the time she was a high school senior playing for a U19 team in St. Louis, Hulslander seemed bound for an NCAA Division I program, but her Montana roots made it hard to prove her prowess to top recruiters, who focus on hockey-heavy locations.
She ended up making it to the collegiate level, however, at Division III Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., a powerhouse at that level which made back-to-back-to-back appearances in the Frozen Four her first three years, including finishing as national runners-up in 2019. Hulslander set a school record as a freshman with 14 wins in goal and also holds the school record in career goaltending victories.
As her senior year finally came to fruition following her year home in the Flathead, Hulslander was ready to embrace her last season on the ice.
“Facing the end of my career, I was just so grateful,” she said. “I was just a small-town kid in Montana who had a crazy dream to play college hockey and was so grateful that God gave me the opportunity to have those experiences.”
As a college super-senior — lovingly referred to as “grandma” by her younger teammates — Hulslander settled into a rhythm of extreme comfort in the net. The nerves that used to bubble up when she took to the ice, the pressure she felt to prove her decades of practice were worthwhile, melted away.
“I was so comfortable this last year. I’d planned for this, I’d prepared for this and I wanted to take in every moment of my last games,” she said.
Her last games were some of her best. In 22 games during her senior season, Hulslander led the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) with a .943 save percentage, was second in the league with 1.78 goals against average and third in shutouts. Twice she tallied 42 saves in a game and was named to the All-Conference team.
“Throughout my whole athletic career my faith has pulled me through every step. You don’t really know the cards you’re dealt — sometimes you get recruited DI, sometimes you go DIII, sometimes there’s a pandemic, sometimes there isn’t,” Hulslander said. “At the end of this road, I was just so appreciative; I wasn’t looking to take it any further.”
But what does a talented hockey star do after dedicating most of her young life to becoming the best goalie she can be? She picks up the phone when her best friend calls to ask if she wants to try and play professionally in Europe.
Hulslander began to reach out to teams to see what might be possible. Then the calls began to come from the other side of the pond — teams in Austria, Spain and Sweden offering competing contracts.
The offer from the Salzburg Eagles turned out to be the best fit. The Austrian club offered the best combination of competitive professional play, while giving Hulslander time off to enjoy being 24 and living abroad.
In just a few weeks she’ll fly halfway around 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 also get to be a kid out of college who’s traveling the world,” Hulslander said. “I’m really just a roll-with-it kind of person, and if that attitude’s gotten me this far, it’ll get me wherever I want to go next.”
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