Skating full speed across the ice and into the boards, Aspen Konowalchuk had no idea this would be the last hockey game of her high school career.
Konowalchuk said she was tripped by the opposing team’s goalie in December 2017, causing her to flip in the air and fly into the boards, breaking her back at her T-12 vertebrae.
“I remember flying through the air and thinking ‘Oh my gosh, this is actually how I’m going to die,” she said.
Konowalchuk’s father and her coach immediately rushed to the ice, worried the crash had paralyzed her. At Konowalchuk’s high school, Benilde-St. Margaret’s, in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a men’s hockey player, Jack Jablonski, was paralyzed in 2011 after being checked into the boards. Laying on the ice after the injury, that’s all she could think about, she said.
Konowalchuk is now one of only two women on Chapman’s club hockey team. Previously, she had only played on all-women’s teams and was nervous about the intensity of men’s hockey. Despite her nerves, her teammates say she’s already made an impression in the rink.
“Aspen is humble enough to not say this, but she is one of the best people on our team,” said Harrison Lowe, freshman undeclared major and Konowalchuk’s teammate. “She is crazy good. She is super fast, super confident with the puck — and tough.”
Before her injury, Konowalchuk was tired of hockey. She had been playing since she was old enough to walk, she said, and she didn’t know what life was like without it.
Growing up, she missed out on socializing, birthday parties and even trick-or-treating because she had practice almost every day, Konowalchuk said. After a lengthy recovery, including a two-and-a-half week stint where she could barely move, Konowalchuk began to miss the sport.
She came to Chapman unaware that the school had a club hockey team, but once she learned about it, she knew it was time to get back on the ice.
“(My dad) was like ‘Yep, I’m paying for all of it, don’t worry about the cost, we’ll get your gear out there,’” she said. “He’s coming out to watch a game at some point. My mom, of course, was like, ‘Be careful.’”
Konowalchuk is from Plymouth, Minnesota, where the culture surrounding hockey is serious, she said. She said she was intimidated to play with the men’s team at Chapman after witnessing the physique of male players from Minnesota.
Freshman Rachel Kang also plays for the club hockey team, and Konowalchuk said Kang’s comfort with the men on the team helped Konowalchuk adjust to California standards.
“(Kang has) been playing on boy’s teams her whole life,” Konowalchuk said. “If a girl tries to play on a boy’s team in Minnesota (they) would get so shamed … The guys would all just be like ‘What are you doing.’”
Though Konowalchuk said the women are treated equally on Chapman’s hockey team, Lowe said there are some “unspoken rules” dictating how the male players treat their female teammates.
“The courtesy is you bump or shove, but don’t hit (the women) head on or destroy them,” Lowe said. “It’s less of a courtesy and more like every single guy on the team would go after you from (then) on if you hurt a girl. For example, if Aspen got hit, we would bring the pain to (the opposing team).”
In the team’s first game of the season against California State University, Long Beach, the Panthers lost 19-0. Despite the defeat, Konowalchuk said the team stayed positive, something that would not have happened with her high school women’s hockey team.
“After the game, we all went out together and had fun,” Konowalchuk said. “(On) my old team, if we were losing that much, they would be frustrated during the game. Then nobody would talk after the game.”
Konowalchuk said her injury didn’t change her love of hockey, but gave her a fear of the boards, which she hopes to overcome as she plays more with the Chapman team.
“I’m so scared to go toward the boards again,” Konowalchuk said. “If (the puck) went toward the boards too fast and I saw a guy chasing after it, I would just let him go get it. That part is challenging, but hopefully I’ll get over that as I play more.”