By Jane Horvat, WCHA
Collegiate athletics demand a great deal from student-athletes. Balancing academics and training for future careers with a full schedule of practices, workouts and a 30-plus game season would take a toll on anyone, but we ask hundreds of NCAA hockey players to shoulder this responsibility every year.
This feat is extraordinary in and of itself, but two WCHA Women's League competitors take it to the next level as they work another responsibility into their daily schedules: managing type 1 diabetes.
Wisconsin junior forward Brette Pettet and Bemidji State junior forward Lydia Passolt are both type 1 diabetics who have been factoring their disease into their daily lives, and their performances on the ice, for years.
As type 1 diabetics, the two skaters see their islet cells – the cells that produce insulin – attacked by their own body. Since neither woman produces the necessary amount of insulin (a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps the body use the glucose from food to fuel our everyday activities) on their own, they have to monitor their blood sugar levels and inject insulin or adjust their diet to manually correct their highs and lows.
Their disease hasn't slowed either hockey player down on the ice.
Pettet has seen ice time in 107 games for Wisconsin, tallying 23 goals and 26 assists for 49 career points. So far this season the Kentville, N.S., native has potted 11 goals and added 13 assists for 24 points, marking her as the fifth-best point producer for the Badgers who boast the best scoring offense in the nation.
Over in Bemidji, Minn., Passolt has contributed 17 goals and 11 helpers for 28 points in her 79 career games with 10 of her scores and three assists coming in 2019-20. The junior has already matched her sophomore point total at 13 with a regular-season series against St. Cloud State and the postseason left to skate.
Both women entered the season with high hopes for their squads. Pettet returned to the ice in 2019-20 fresh off seeing herself and her fellow Badgers crowned the 2019 NCAA Champions while Passolt came back on the heels of WCHA First Round series loss to rival Minnesota Duluth. Despite the differences to the end of their sophomore seasons, both women exude determination as they discuss their team's goals for this year.
The Badgers have aspirations to make it back to the championship game, and after seeing themselves ranked as one of the top two teams in the nation all season (taking the No. 1 spot 13-of-19 weeks in 2019-20) they've put themselves in a position to do so. Their top line is the highest-producing trio in the country and are backed by a team full of talent.
In discussing some of Wisconsin's strengths this season, Pettet spoke to the leadership and experience the Badgers boast.
"We have Mekenzie Steffen who is an unbelievable captain, and our alternates are equally as good. I think having a leadership group like that is exactly what we need to start off as a good team. I think this year is a younger team but we have those that were here last year and know what it takes to get that victory. I think the experience from last year and knowing that every team we play wants to come out and beat us is good for us to know and take as a challenge."
One of the only teams to stand up to that challenge and upset Wisconsin this year is Passolt's Beavers, who pulled off their third win against a ranked team this season in a 3-2 victory on Jan. 11.
Bemidji State has once again been on the cusp of greatness in 2019-20, posting a program-record eight-game unbeaten streak during December and stealing crucial points from top-ten teams. According to Passolt, what sets this year's team apart from previous years is the attitude that pervades from the bench to the ice.
"For our team I think it's our positivity on the bench," she explained. "We're always there for each other whether we have a bad shift or execute something right, and we often communicate about what we can do better on the next shift. I think our ability to learn from each other is our team's strength."
That ability also helped the junior winger as she first learned how to control her diabetes, but back then she was taking cues from her dad. Her father Mark has been a type 1 diabetic since he was six-years old, so she had already been exposed to diabetes as a little girl.
"It would have been a bit more difficult to figure it all out at first without him also being a diabetic," Passolt agreed. "It's not too complicated, but it's like learning a math equation. At first it's a bit confusing, but once you get it down after a few weeks you get that moment where 'Oh, that makes it work pretty easily!' It was like that with diabetes. You have to learn how to do the disease and you have to manage it."
Her father passed his love of hockey on to his daughter long before he shared his knowledge of dosages and diets. He and his six brothers all played hockey and passed their passion for the sport on to their children. Three of her uncles went on to play collegiately, one suiting up for North Dakota, another for St. Cloud State and the third for Minnesota State. She even has a cousin who competes in the WCHA on the men's side for Northern Michigan.
"I was probably around five or six when I started to play hockey," Passolt remembered. "I played with the boys for a while until I was 10 then I switched to girls. I liked playing hockey. I wasn't forced into it, but that knowledge was there that they all played. They [her uncles] always email me and we go back in forth about how I'm doing too."
She recalls being on the ice as a little girl and hearing the audience's cheers when she scored, thinking, they're cheering for me? I want more of that.
That drive to excel was at the forefront of her mind even when she was diagnosed. Passolt laughed as she remembered, "I cried for maybe a minute but then I looked up at my mom and said 'okay, what do I need to do to be able to play hockey?'"
Pettet describes a similar origin story for her love of hockey. The younger sister of two hockey-playing boys from Nova Scotia, , she grew up being shuffled to the local rink alongside her siblings.
"I fell in love with it from the get-go," said Pettet. "Having two older brothers in it definitely motivated me to play and be better than them. One is a goalie and the other is a defenseman. They were my motivation to not get made fun of and hold my own. I kept going ever since."
While starting out skating alongside the boys, both Pettet and Passolt eventually switched over to girl's hockey. Pettet jokes that she made the decision "right around when all the boys were getting into checking" so that she could stay healthy as she focused on her future in the sport.
With the end goal of collegiate hockey in mind, Pettet chose to leave home to attend Shattuck St. Mary's in Minnesota to grow her game. She had just settled in after her freshman year at the school when she found out that summer that she was a type 1 diabetic.
"I went home after 9th grade for the summer," she remembered. "I had been experiencing symptoms for quite a bit and I had wanted to wait until I got home to find out what was wrong. [Finding out] was overwhelming, and I definitely didn't know how to feel about it at first. It was a bit tough for me to deal with for a while."
At 15 and having just started at a new high school far away from the comforts of home, the changes that being a diabetic brought to her life could have disrupted the future she was trying to build. Fortunately, she found support in her teammates and coaches.
"When I went back after that summer, my roommate Maddie Mills [now junior forward at Cornell] was the first person I told," Pettet said. "She was super supportive along with my coaches. Right away they said if I needed anything or needed different doctors or whatever I might need that they would make it happen if I let them know."
She began to manage her diabetes with an insulin pump, which is a small device that is inserted just under the skin and taped in place to measure and adjust blood-glucose levels.
A pump is just one of the technologies diabetics can use to monitor their levels, but for a fifteen-year old girl it was a tough transition to her new normal. "I wasn't confident wearing it around and I didn't really want to tell people about it," Pettet confided.
Passolt also recalled playing with a pump when she was younger, but found it to be a bit unwieldy for hockey with the tube occasionally getting caught in her gear. Over the years, both women have chosen to switch to a system that best fits their lives as constant competitors.
They now utilize a patch they apply to their skin that reads their levels and connects to their phone via Bluetooth. The device helps them monitor their diabetes without having to constantly prick themselves, so they can look to the screen and adjust when necessary, even on the bench.
At this point in their lives, managing their diabetes is simply part of their routine. While they both went through adjustment periods, the athletic training staffs at Wisconsin and Bemidji State eased them through their transition to college and collegiate hockey.
Pettet praised the Badgers staff explaining, "Stephanie Arndt has been here for me since I walked through the door. I told her my situation, and she knows exactly what I need and what I need to do to be at my best. And if she doesn't then she figures it out or asks someone who does know."
Passolt shares her experience with a similar level of support from the Bemidji State staff. "I just tell them my blood sugar and we talk about how I feel, what I need," she said. "They have gel blocks for me sitting on the bench in case I get low. They've been great and it's eased my mom's mind that I have such great help here. Being in the sport and having the help and support of the training staff really made the transition easier for me."
Everyone involved in their careers as hockey players has gained an education on the best way to help them succeed in their new normal. For most of their coaches and doctors, Pettet and Passolt are the first diabetics to go on to play at the NCAA level.
"I don't think there's been a type 1 diabetic on the women's hockey program," Pettet confirmed. "But there have been two guys that I know of who have been through the men's program with type 1 diabetes. I think that helps too, knowing it can be balanced and you can come here and be successful and balance everything else at the same time."
Also her program's first type 1 diabetic, Passolt expressed her curiosity about other diabetics' routines. "I wish I knew what they go through so I could see what they do. I find it interesting and fascinating to see how other diabetics function and what works for them. Our differences are all so different.
"It's so easy to not know someone else is a diabetic," Passolt continued. "For example, Brette Pettet. I never knew she was diabetic until a teammate my freshman year who used to play with her said 'Hey, she's a type 1 diabetic too!' and I thought, 'What? Really?' For me it was almost exciting that someone else goes through this."
Both women have mentioned the impact that knowing other prominent hockey players compete with type 1 diabetes has had on their game. Pettet attributes players such as the Minnesota Wild's Luke Kunin as a figure whose success was an inspiration to her.
"Seeing other athletes compete with diabetes can become a motivation and help you realize that it's not something that has to hold you back," Pettet explained. "It's something you can control and move forward with." She also feels comforted that there's at least one other player in her league skating with the same experience. "It's good to know someone else in the WCHA knows what it's like," she said about Passolt.
The Beavers forward feels similarly, commenting "You read in the newspaper about the NHL players who have it or other men in the WCHA or around D-1 hockey and I think 'wow someone else goes through this."
Both women hope to be that figure for young hockey players moving forward. Often, type 1 diabetics are diagnosed in their early teens or younger as seen by both Pettet and Passolt. The duo remembers feeling uncertain about how their diagnosis would affect their ability to compete, but they were determined to make diabetes part of their new normal as they worked towards their goals. They now serve as an example for what is possible if you stay dedicated to your health and your dreams.
"I just want to let kids younger than me to know that you can still live a healthy, normal life, said Passolt. "It's your normal, and it's going to be your normal for the rest of your life until they find a cure."
"For younger athletes and children growing up it's not easy, but I hope they can realize that people have been successful," added Pettet. "It's doable."
Brette Pettet and Lydia Passolt will both be on the ice this weekend as their teams look to lock up crucial points in the WCHA standings. The pair will continue to quietly prove that type 1 diabetics can live the healthy and successful life they want within a new normal.
"I just really want people to know that diabetes isn't scary," Passolt concluded. "That is it manageable and you can do whatever you want. You can play tennis, play soccer, do bowling, play hockey, whatever you want. You'll just live a life with a little challenge along the way, but you'll still live a healthy life."