There is a special bond that forms inside a locker room. One that you might not understand unless you have been there. There is a unique connection that exists when a group of individuals dedicate themselves to a common goal; together and without hesitation - never wavering despite the ups and downs that often occur between the starting line and the winners circle. You can't explain it, not in words anyway. Last week, when Abby Thiessen was asked about her best friend and SCSU teammate Hallie Theodosopoulos, the senior from Red Deer, Alta. tried.
"It's special but it's something you really can't explain, I don't know how to describe it," chuckled Thiessen. "I think we are just trying to soak it in and enjoy the moment because we both know it can be taken away in a heartbeat. It's been an awesome ride with her for sure."
How do you accurately describe the depth behind despair? The exhilaration that goes along with a second chance at hockey and the range of emotion that follows? The challenge of building a new culture at a program that wasn't even an option until it had to be. Thiessen's roller coaster ride started in the spring of 2017 and eventually dropped her in St. Cloud, Minn. at the front doors of the National Hockey Center. Sitting next to her from start to finish has been senior forward Hallie Theodosopoulos.
Both Thiessen and Theodosopoulos began their college playing careers at the University of North Dakota. As WCHA freshmen during the 2016-17 season, the duo cracked into the line-up early and often, helping the Fighting Hawks to 16 wins in 38 games. Theodosopoulos played in 36 games that season while Thiessen suited up for 35 and was named the Fighting Hawks' Most Improved Player. But on March 29, 2017, their academic and hockey lives were thrown into turmoil when the university announced it was shuttering the women's hockey program.
"It was definitely a wide range of emotions" recalled Thiessen. "We were just thinking like is this even possible and then the day when it happened, it was just kind of what do I do now? I felt like all of our worlds were turned upside down and the school we had all dreamed about for so long was gone. For some of us we had been committed to North Dakota since the 11th grade. It just kind of rocks your world and you are sitting back saying now what do I do and how does this happen?"
"It feels like a really long time ago when you look back and think about it but there is still a pretty vivid memory in my head; just being distraught. You felt defeated," recalled Theodosopoulos. "Being from South Dakota it was so hard to get anywhere to play a collegiate sport coming out of high school. The first thought in my head was I was probably done playing hockey because who else was going to take a girl from South Dakota on their team. I was really defeated, and I didn't know how my career was going to grow after that. I didn't know if I had anymore hockey left in me. I was really nervous with what was going to come."
As both players put it, they needed time to mourn and push the reset button. Theodosopoulos made the first move when the Brookings, S.D., product found a new home in the Granite City. After four teams reached out to her during the "second recruiting process", Theodosopoulos settled on being a Husky and a new chapter in her hockey career started. While she was writing her story, friend and former teammate Abby Thiessen was watching and sharpening her pencil; ready to write her own narrative. Soon after Theodosopoulos made her decision, Thiessen came to the same conclusion that St. Cloud State was the right place to be for her as well, and just like that, the two were reunited.
"I think all of us knew we had to do it kind of on our own and on our own time line in terms of when we were ready to move on and accept that we weren't going back to UND for our sophomore year," remarked Thiessen. "Once I committed to St. Cloud and decided to go there, it was more about excitement and that eased the uncertainty of it all. Just to know we were going there together and the fact that we knew what each one was going through was huge. That was really the biggest thing for me because all of us were going to different programs. Sure, they (other players) knew what happened and the logistics of it all but they didn't have the same feelings and they didn't understand the pain we went through when that happened."
"It felt like the world was ending kind of when we found out. I couldn't imagine this experience without Abby by my side. She's helped me so much through this transition and it's been really easy to lean on each other," continued Theodosopoulos. "Its way easier coming into a team knowing someone rather than walking into a locker room with 20 other girls that you don't have a history with. All they do know is you played against them the year before probably so it's good to have someone next to you that you recognize. That whole process really helped us grow stronger as friends and has for sure led to the life-long friend I have now."
Things have a way of working out.
Not surprisingly, after Thiessen and Theodosopoulos arrived on campus they became roommates with ironically enough, two other athletes from different sports who had also transferred to St. Cloud to play sports and were experiencing their own version of life in a new city. Now seniors and several years removed from the time period of uncertainty and despair, the pair are closer than ever on and off the ice. And yes, still roommates. The chemistry the pair share is about as obvious as the red light that flashes behind the net when a goal is scored; whether it's through a conversation over the phone, a casual stroll through the locker room or a shift on the ice.
"I think we still sometimes look at each other and we're like whoa, did that actually happen?" chuckled Theodosopoulos. "Are we both still here together? Was North Dakota actually our freshman year? It's always funny to think back on it and realize how far we have come and that we are seniors now- the years have gone by so fast. It's been fun and it's been good. Even though it was a pretty dark day at North Dakota it turned out to be okay and I think we have both found our home at St. Cloud and it has been a great transition."
They seemed to have found a home and together; a new challenge to sink their teeth into. Both admit that one of the intriguing aspects about St. Cloud and one that attracted them to the Huskies from the start was the opportunity for them to put their imprint on the program and help build a winning culture from the ground up. Driven by the frustration that went hand-in-hand with the failure of one program, from the second they arrived on campus, Thiessen and Theodosopoulos were determined to make this second chance count. Even though they had nothing to do with what happened in Grand Forks, the ripple effect of hurt and disappointment didn't just stop with the budget committee.
Back when Thiessen and Theodosopoulos were both freshman and dressed in UND's Kelly Green and White, The Fighting Hawks finished the 2016-17 season in fourth place in the WCHA. St. Cloud State finished sixth that season. The following year - Thiessen and Theodosopoulos first in St. Cloud - the Huskies skated to another sixth-place finish in the WCHA and an eight-win season. Since then, St. Cloud State has followed up those years with a seventh-place campaign in 2018-19 (10-25-2 overall/5-19-0 WCHA) and are currently last in the league this season through 19 games.
Now operating under the guidance and energy of first-year head coach Steve Macdonald, Associate Head Coach Jinelle Siergiej and former Wisconsin star, U.S. Olympian and first-year assistant coach Molly Engstrom; Thiessen and Theodosopoulos believe the culture of Husky hockey is changing, but it takes time. They can see that the best days are yet to come. Two of eight seniors on the roster, both Thiessen and Theodosopoulos know all about change, time and the patience. They also know more than most that the pot at the end of the rainbow is often well worth the wait.
"It's really unique for us as seniors because we have been through a big process in trying to establish this culture," mentioned Thiessen. "Most players just get to walk into a team and come in as freshman and the culture is already established. You don't have to think too much about it, you just almost conform to what the expectations are. Here in St. Cloud we are in the unique position to have that pressure but also the privilege to mold what this team is going to look for in the next coming years. Having the new coaching staff; coach Steve (Macdonald) has done a great job in making us have those conversations and thinking about things we might not normally think about.
"Also, with Molly, it's been awesome for the whole D-core. We can all see that she has brought in a fresh set of eyes and she has really changed how we think about the game and how to push ourselves out of our comfort zone by playing a different style than what we were playing before. She obviously has a vast amount of knowledge and she has little tips and pointers that you never really would have thought about before. It kind of shows how good of a player she was if she is noticing those small little details you're not really thinking about."
Midway through her first season on the staff, Engstrom is seeing the culture building within the Husky program.
"I think we are trying to get the girls to establish a culture amongst themselves in terms of understanding what it is to be a team - a true team, and what it means to be a teammate," Engstrom said. "I think they have taken that on, and they have taken that seriously. It's just a great group of girls. Essentially what it comes down is just being leaders. Trying to create that culture where your juniors and seniors really lead and establish a culture of what it's like to be a Husky, to teach that and be role models for your freshman and sophomores coming up."
Engstrom is the very definition of a leader. Whether the topic of the day focuses on her time playing college hockey, at the professional level or suiting up for her country, the Siren, Wis., native understands that often times one must first walk through a storm before you can fully appreciate the clear skies on the other end. To her, it's during that very stroll the qualities of a leader are perfected. In St. Cloud, Engstrom sees a locker room full of current leaders; players like Thiessen and Theodosopoulos along with numerous future ones. All of whom are defining what Husky hockey is and wants to be with every shift they take.
"When you are in the trenches, you don't always get out of the trench when you want to," described Engstrom. "You might go through an entire season and be in the trenches the entire time. Ideally, when you get to the playoffs you get out of there and have a spectacular ending and that sometimes happens but that's not always the case. We are in the trenches right now here at St. Cloud; there is no doubt about it. In this game you are going to go through your challenges but that's what it's all about; going through it together and learning and then coming back and being better the next day. I think this group is doing that and showing up every day and it's just a matter of time before it shows. That character one learns through those experiences never goes away."
Through it all, Thiessen and Theodosopoulos have stayed the course despite the ups and downs.
"I think when we came in here, we both knew there was going to be a transition period," concluded Theodosopoulos. "We wanted be a part of a program where we could help turn it around and help get it back on its feet towards being a contender in the WCHA and I think that is why we chose to come here. Not because it's a place where we would be the best player or anything, but this was a place where we would be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It takes times but I think we are on the right track."