College women's hockey: 'Montana' grateful to be back on the ice as St. Scholastica assistant
Two-time national champion at Minnesota Duluth is four-plus years removed from a life-saving liver transplant
It may not always be the fastest way to get to Mars Lakeview Arena from her office at the Burns Wellness Center on the College of St. Scholastica campus, but East Skyline Parkway is the route for first-year Saints assistant women’s hockey coach Julianne “Montana” Vasichek.
“There are so many days where I'm just like, ‘Wow,’” the Great Falls, Montana-native said last week from her new on-campus office. “I take that moment to just appreciate that view.”
The scenic drive is all part of Vasichek’s approach to take things slow and feeling grateful for what she’s doing four years and eight months removed from a life-saving liver transplant. That mindset is in stark contrast — but also the perfect compliment — to what she and St. Scholastica want to accomplish this season on the ice, which is to start fast and be satisfied with nothing less than an NCAA tournament berth come March.
The Saints are coming off their best season, with 20 wins in 2018-19. A 21st victory would have put the program in the NCAA tournament for the first time, but Adrian snatched that milestone away 5:13 into the second overtime of the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association championship.
CSS graduated only two seniors from last year’s team and return a pair of American Hockey Coaches Association All-Americans in junior forward Rachel Anderson and senior goaltender Lexi Thomeczek. Both were also first-team All-NCHA first-team picks — Anderson the conference player of the year — along with junior forward Taylor Thompson and senior defenseman Greta Nundahl.
Now the program has promoted Vasichek — a two-time national championship defenseman at Minnesota Duluth and staff member under Shannon Miller on the Bulldogs’ 2010 title team — from being a seasonal strength and conditioning coach to full-time assistant.
Vasichek has added a whole new element to the 10th season of Saints’ hockey.
“She brings a lot to the table,” said Jackie MacMillan, the only head coach CSS women’s hockey has ever known. “She's been there as an athlete. She's had success as an athlete. And then there's more story behind that.”
That story begins during Vasichek’s one and only prior season as an assistant coach in 2007-08 under former UMD assistant Stacy Wilson at Div. III Bowdoin College in Maine. Vasichek only stayed there a year because she was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) — a rare disease that attacks the bile ducts inside and outside the liver. That prompted her to move back to Minnesota so she could seek treatment at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
Vasichek also returned to her alma mater as a strength and conditioning coach to work under her former coach, Miller. It was at the end of the 2014-15 season when she found herself being airlifted from Duluth to Rochester, just days after the Bulldogs closed the regular season with a home sweep of Ohio State. Later that week, she underwent a liver transplant.
Vasichek has undergone a total of five abdominal surgeries in the past four-plus years. Those broke her down physically, while the anesthesia and medication took a toll on her mentally. So in addition to physical therapy, Vasichek said she began playing Lumosity to strengthen her mind.
Last fall was the first time Vasichek started skating seriously again, helping warm up the Saints’ goaltenders before practice.
Vasichek said working with the St. Scholastica women’s hockey program has invigorated her recovery both physically and mentally. While she likes to stay in the moment — like during her drive to the rink — but she said she’s also well aware of how far she’s come since the spring of 2015.
“It’s really interesting to be back on the bench. It’s kind of caught me a few times,” Vasichek said last week. “The last game I was on the bench for was a day before I went into the hospital and six days later I was having a transplant.
“It's given me a new appreciation in terms of approaching work and in approaching how I take care of myself and actually approaching how the athletes take care of themselves too.”
MacMillan said she originally hired Vasichek in the fall of 2016 as a seasonal strength coach — and promoted her this fall — not just because she played for “a great program” at UMD and for “a great coach” in Miller, but for the positive energy she brings.
That positivity has stood out to Saints players ever since Vasichek first joined their staff, even when the former U.S. National Team didn’t have the energy to stand through entire 45-minute sessions back in the fall of 2016.
“She's gone through a lot of adversity, a lot more than we go through as a team,” Thomeczek said. “Just being able to have that positivity and that happiness for life is good to have on the bench for us.”
And with a hockey resume like Vasichek’s, players take that positive attitude to heart. It means something when a two-time national champion tells you to “relax” in a big game, Anderson said.
“We've seen the championship video of hers that she was in,” said Anderson, who had all three Saints goals on the opening weekend. “It gave us all chills. It helps us to kind of fuel our fire.”
Not that the Saints need anymore fire after that season-ending double-overtime loss at Adrian in the conference tournament championship. CSS opened the season last week at Mars with a disappointing 2-1 loss to Gustavus Adolphus, getting held to just 11 shots on goal. The next night the unranked Saints pulled off a 2-1 upset of fifth-ranked St. Thomas.
“When we lost that game last year in the championship in double overtime, there was an immediate sense of, ‘Let's get this next season started right now,’” MacMillan said. “They kept talking about it. They wanted it. It wasn't a typical year where it's great to have time off. They wanted to go right now. They've been focused on that since that day following the loss and they're hungry for it.
“For all of us, if we don't make it to that point, we're disappointed.”