John Watkins’ work as an orthopedic surgeon was rewarding but not without costs, as it often took him away from his family to the point where he would sometimes only see his children, Alyssa and Tyler, two times a week.
So when Watkins received a job offer from St. Luke’s in Duluth, with the promise that he would be able to watch his children compete in sports and other activities a lot more, he jumped on it.
“When we came here, we got to see him every night,” Alyssa Watkins said.
The Watkins family, along with mother Haley, moved from Windsor, Colorado, to Hermantown before Alyssa’s first-grade year, and the rest, as they say, is history.
That history continued to be written this winter when Alyssa Watkins led the Proctor-Hermantown girls hockey team to its first state title, with Alyssa capping off a magical state tournament and a magical season with a double-overtime blast that lifted the Mirage to a 3-2 victory over Gentry Academy for the Class A title.
Watkins, the News Tribune’s All-Area Player of the Year, finished the tournament with seven goals but none, of course, more important than the last.
“People always ask me, ‘What did you think when it happened?’ and I’m always speechless and can’t tell them,” Watkins said. “All I remember is looking up and seeing the puck go right over the goalie’s head and then right after I don’t remember anything. I just remember being the happiest I’ve ever been.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to the season. Especially with the year that we had, to be able to end it like that was more than anything I could have asked for.”
Proctor-Hermantown’s season was no Mirage. Proctor-Hermantown (21-0) outscored the opposition by an average of 7.2 to 0.8 this season, rarely getting challenged until the state tournament semifinals at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
In an 8-0 state quarterfinal win over Luverne, Watkins was en fuego, destroying her career-high with five goals, including two on the same shift — shorthanded no less.
“Every player is eventually going to miss the net, including Alyssa, but not in that game,” said teammate Ella Anick. “I was like, ‘Seriously, when are you going to miss the net?’ (Anick laughed). So it was kind of surprising, but not at the same time.
“Alyssa can shoot from anywhere and score. She is just an all-around great player, both offensively and defensively, and great friend.”
In a rarity, Proctor-Hermantown found itself down against both Warroad in the state semifinals and Gentry Academy in the championship game but still won out with a combination of incredible depth and skill.
When that puck circled around on the power play at 5:03 in double overtime, going from Izy Fairchild to Ava Anick and finally toward Watkins, she knew what to do with it.
“Well, I’m open here so why not just shoot it while nobody’s on me?” Watkins said. “That’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”
To the victors go the spoils. Watkins and Anick, a defenseman, are two of the Mirage’s five selections on this year’s team. The field was wide open. They both received Player of the Year consideration as well as teammate Abby Pajari, a goalie, Duluth Marshall defenseman Maren Friday and Grand Rapids-Greenway forward Claire Vekich, who like Watkins and Anick is bound for Bemidji State.
Watkins’ state-tournament performance cemented her place at the top. It was only the second girls state hockey title for Northeastern Minnesota and first since Hibbing-Chisholm in 1997. The Mirage are just the fifth Class A public school champion.
Hockey is a fast game that utilizes lots of players and is balanced, with shift after shift after shift, but of the Mirage’s 14 goals at the state tournament, Watkins had half of them.
While 5-foot-7 Watkins was tenacious on the ice, she took the word “captain” to heart off the ice.
“Alyssa is kind of like the mother hen, just so caring. She wants everyone to do their best,” Proctor-Hermantown coach Emma Stauber said. “Everyone can go to her, so we’ve got some big skates to fill, for sure.
“On the ice she’s a dominant force. She’s a dominant presence. She contributes in every way possible, offensive zone, defensive zone, it’s just crazy. She’s the complete package. College coaches wanted to know, ‘What’s her biggest asset?’ And I would tell them, ‘All of it.’”
Watkins was a late college commit, as the recruiting process was trickier than normal due to COVID-19 and college players being granted extra eligibility.
The Wednesday after the state tournament Watkins went and toured Bemidji State and loved it, enjoying the classrooms, the school and especially the rink. A handful of days later, she and Anick were flying with their mothers to Clearwater, Florida, for vacation when she called the Beavers from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to tell them, “If the opportunity is still there, I’d love to commit.
“It’s going to be so awesome going there. I know a lot of the incoming freshmen, and it’s going to be nice having Ella there because we’ve been through everything together.”
From Colorado to the State of Hockey
Watkins’ mother was a gymnast and her dad played basketball, so her love of hockey was instilled through her relationship with older brother Tyler, now a center at Union College in Schenectady, New York.
“Everything my brother did I wanted to do,” Watkins said. “As soon as he was in hockey, that was the first thing I wanted to do. I’d drop everything just to do that. Hockey was always my favorite sport, and it was the one I was most competitive in. And especially with Tyler being there, just getting beat up all the time (she laughed).”
Well, if the Watkins were looking to foster their hockey games, they certainly came to the right state. Alyssa Watkins gave up softball and soccer to focus on hockey.
“We think about that sometimes, about what would have happened if we had stayed out there,” Alyssa Watkins said. “Would we still be into hockey as much as we are now?”
Tyler was the consummate big brother, always pushing his younger sister. With no other siblings, they’re incredibly close.
Tyler Watkins, who was part of the Hermantown Hawks Class A title teams in 2016 and 2017, has also coached his younger sister. He is constantly giving her tips and critiques, sending her text messages on what she was doing well and what she could do better.
Tyler was even sending Alyssa texts throughout the state title game against Gentry Academy, giving her a real-time feel for what it was like watching that edge-of-your seat nailbiter.
“He texted, ‘Everyone is tired, use your speed,’” Alyssa Watkins said, reading back the texts verbatim. “Then when we won he said, ‘Unbelievable shot, Alys. I’m proud of you. What a way to go out. Couldn’t have asked for a better ending and shot. Big-time player and shot.’
“Just knowing he’s watching and sending pointers is reassuring … he just knows when I’m nervous or when I’m loose. He just knows stuff like that. I used to say, ‘You’re always so negative,’ but in the end, I’ve learned to accept it and realize he is just trying to help.”
News Tribune girls hockey players of the year
Year Player Team
2021 Alyssa Watkins Proctor-Hermantown
2020 Taylor Nelson Cloquet-Esko-Carlton
2019 Sadie Peart Grand Rapids-Greenway
2018 Amber Tilander International Falls
2017 Mallorie Iozzo Hibbing-Chisholm
2016 Sophie McGovern Proctor-Hermantown
2015 Jordan McLaughlin Grand Rapids-Greenway
2014 Reilly Fawcett Proctor-Hermantown
2013 Carley Esse Cloquet-Esko-Carlton
2012 Molly Illikainen Grand Rapids-Greenway
2011 Amanda Arbogast Eveleth-Gilbert Area
2010 Julia Gilbert Proctor-Hermantown-Marshall
2009 Laura Bellamy Duluth
2008 Emily Erickson Grand Rapids-Greenway
2007 Emily Erickson Grand Rapids-Greenway
2006 Michelle Maunu Cloquet-Esko-Carlton
2005 Johanna Ellison Cloquet-Esko-Carlton
2004 Johanna Ellison Cloquet-Esko-Carlton
2003 Andrea Nichols Hibbing-Chisholm
2002 Andrea Nichols Hibbing-Chisholm
2001 Andrea Nichols Hibbing-Chisholm