MADISON, Wis. -- There are not many women who have the perspective of Sis Paulsen when you talk about the growth of women's ice hockey over the last 20 years.
She has seen the game from a lot of different vantage points – as a Division I player at Wisconsin, an assistant coach at two other Western Collegiate Hockey Association schools, Bemidji State and Minnesota State, a head coach at a Division III school, the director of girls hockey for an East Coast youth hockey program and a former assistant coach in pro hockey.
These days, if you want to talk to Paulsen, she can be found in an office at LaBahn Arena surrounded by red and white jerseys, skates waiting to be sharpened and requests from players and coaches to be filled. Her office space as the director of hockey operations for the University of Wisconsin's defending national champions is almost comparable to the space her Badger team dressed in the old visiting football locker room at Camp Randall Stadium and walked over to the neighboring Shell for practice. In those days, the Badgers played games at the Kohl Center occasionally, but also around town at either the Alliant Energy Center, Capitol Ice Arena in Middleton or the Eagle's Nest in Verona.
Oh, how things have changed, particularly since LaBahn Arena was built in 2012 and has served as the home of the Badgers where sellouts are common. Players can study, eat and train without ever having to step outside.
The cosmetic changes are obvious, but what is the biggest difference in the game?
"I wouldn't make the team right now," said Paulsen who is selling herself short as a player.
Paulsen played boys high school hockey in Eau Claire, Wis. She was recruited by Julie Sasner to UW where Sis was a three-time captain and recorded the program's first hat trick while setting club records for penalties and penalty minutes. She still is among the Badgers' top 20 career scorers with 42 goals, 88 assists and 130 points. She was a member of the WCHA All-Rookie team in 2000 and an All-WCHA defenseman in 2003.
But Paulsen doesn't want to talk about herself. She prefers to talk about the growth of the game.
"The players are so much faster," said Paulsen. "Their skills are so much better now. Their skating. Their puck skills. Everyone is better and so much faster. A lot has to do, number one, with the technology behind the sport. Then there is nutrition and the off-ice programs (for players). Everything has evolved so much over the past 20 years. The sticks are so different than when we played. For me if it was curved and right-handed, that was fine. You didn't deal with the flex or a lie. If it felt good in your hand, you went and played. Definitely the speed and skill level is improved. And it's so much fun to watch."
Sasner's first team compiled a 19-14-2 record in 1999-2000. The first graduating class had eight members: Paulsen, Kendra Antony, Kathy Devereaux, Kelly Kegley, Jackie MacMillan (now the head coach at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn), Julia Ortenzio, Michelle Sikich and Kerry Weiland, a member of the UW Sports Hall of Fame. Don't call them pioneers, said Paulsen. Call them hockey players.
"When we got here as freshmen we were just happy to play," said Paulsen. "You got to a put on a Wisconsin jersey and play a game you love. At the time, we didn't look at it as being a pioneer or anything. We just happened to be part of the first group and we set some standards as a team and tried to build a culture that we would want to be a part of and be proud of. And to this day I don't consider myself a pioneer You don't sit back and think about that. I think it is fun to watch the game has grown and see how it has evolved. We were happy to have a place to play. It was something to be a part of a program. I look back and think we had the same standards and culture. A lot of things we used to do are still high priorities for this team."
Mark Johnson took over the UW women's program in 2002, Paulsen's senior year, and has won five national championships. She was reunited with her old coach in 2017 when Paulsen was named director of hockey operations and equipment manager. Her duties as director of hockey operations include the coordination of all elements of team travel and scheduling. She also handles the purchase and maintenance of equipment.
It was quite a circuitous route to find her way back to Madison. After graduation, Paulsen served three years as an assistant coach at Bemidji State where she also was the head softball coach for one season ("We played three home games that year," said Paulsen about the challenges of being a softball coach at a northern Minnesota school). Then Jeff Vizenor, who was a former UW assistant when Paulsen played, hired her to be an assistant coach at Minnesota State for a season.
Paulsen was named head coach at New England College in 2009 and her team made it to the ECAC Division III title game her first year. In 2013 Paulsen moved to Morristown, N.J. where she served as the Director of Girls Hockey for the New Jersey Colonials organization as well as a USA Hockey Girls/Women's Section Representative for the Atlantic District. She went on to be an assistant coach with the New York Riveters during the 2016-17 season in the National Women's Hockey League before taking on a new challenge at Wisconsin.
Paulsen's job is time-consuming. During the season she is likely to be at the rink eight to 10 hours a day. On game day, the shift is 10 to 14 hours. Like her job when she was a coach, Sis is still on the bench during games, but she is now responsible for all "the behind the scenes stuff." That rink rat mentality runs in the family. Her brother Keith is the video coach for the Iowa Wild in the American Hockey League after a long career as a high school coach and a coach in the United States Hockey League.
"I love the job,'' said Paulsen. "I have a whole new perspective now in hockey ops. I am responsible for our travel, budget, equipment orders, our Under Armour stuff."
At home, Paulsen has to make sure jerseys are ready and skates are sharpened. On the road it's Paulsen's job to make sure the bus is at the airport when the Badgers' land, that the hotel is ready and team meals have been set up for the student-athletes.
"It's nice now because everything is a template when you go to Minnesota or Duluth or all the other places in the league. The exception is when we play out East or in Nashville or Pittsburgh, the places you don't play every week, then you have to make some calls and find out about new places. It isn't hard work, but it is a lot of man hours. I just love it."
Others have noticed Paulsen is good at what she does. USA Hockey has named her the equipment manager for the Rivalry Series against Canada Saturday in Hartford, Conn. and Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick.
Johnson is pleased to have a veteran hockey person around to complement his other long-time assistants, Jackie Crum and Dan Koch, and volunteer goalie coach Mark Greenhalgh. And having veteran coaches around her have allowed Paulsen to make the transition from coaching to her new job must easier.
"A lot of people ask if I miss coaching," said Paulsen. "I don't miss it because I am so involved in a whole different aspect of the game now. The cool part is that the coaching staff we have, we are all very close. They bounce ideas off me a lot. 'They ask "what do you see? What do you think?'
"Given the opportunity to coach again, and mainly it would have to be here because I don't see myself leaving, I would have a conversation with our coaching staff. But I absolutely love what I do.
"At the end of the day, I can check out. I don't need to make recruiting calls. I don't need to check on players' school work. That is kind of the nice part. I still feel responsible for these kids and want them to do well and make good choices. You want to be there for them if they need anything. But at the end of the day, I don't have to bring my work home with me. I can get away. I can escape from my day job and watch TV or go play my own hockey."
And Paulsen still plays – twice a week. The former coach also still runs one team. She oversees "The Moms", an all-women's team (except for the goalie) in an otherwise all-male 3-on-3 league on Tuesday nights at Madison Ice Arena. The Moms' roster includes former Badgers Crum, Sharon Cole Faust, Rachel Jones and Paulsen, who may have wrapped up GM of the year honors by adding a new team member this fall – Annie Pankowski, an all-American forward and Patty Kazmaier Award finalist last year and current member of the U.S. National Team
Pankowski scored nine goals in the Moms' 12-8 season-opening winner. "That triple hat trick gained a little respect for us from the rest of the league," said Paulsen whose team tied for first in the fall league. They will resume play in February. "It will allow us to get Annie all-tuned up for worlds and make sure she is on her A game."