From Cap and Gown to Skates and Sticks, Once More
Former Wisconsin blue-liner Mellissa Channell, who graduates this Sunday, is looking to the ever-expanding world of professional women's hockey to once again play the game she loves
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Former Wisconsin blue-liner Mellissa Channell, who graduates this Sunday, is looking to the ever-expanding world of professional women's hockey to once again play the game she loves

By Bill Brophy, Special to WCHA.com

MADISON, Wis. – The last time college hockey fans heard about Mellissa Channell was in March, when she scored the only goal in a NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game, coming with less than 20 seconds to play and giving Wisconsin a heart-pumping 1-0 victory over Boston College in suburban St. Louis.

The next day Channell's collegiate career came to an end when the Badgers lost to Clarkson 3-0 in the national championship game.

After the disappointment of losing in the Frozen Four went away, Channell was faced with the reality: Life in college hockey was over. It is a life that is fairly regimented in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) as student-athletes must learn time management and balance school with studies. Most of their life is centered around the classroom, the rink and the locker room.

"When it is over, it is different," said Channell. "When you are playing, you go to class, go to practice and have training table …and then it ends."

So, what is there to do when the "real world" calls?

For Channell, it meant taking classes for another semester. She will graduate Sunday at the University of Wisconsin, walking across the stage at the Kohl Center to accept a degree in communications.

Then she has more decisions, including choices that female hockey players generally did not have five, or certainly 10 years ago.

"If a player wants to keep playing, they have options now," said Channell's coach, Mark Johnson. "There are chances to play. Jackie (Crum, UW's assistant coach) was able to do that and played in the Czech Republic. She has great memories, great pictures of friends she made and places she saw while playing hockey.

"Today's player can play pro hockey in Canada, in Europe and more places than ever."

That is the decision Channell faces. She got a taste of the working world this semester, handling a part-time job with the Community Living Alliance, a local nonprofit organization which serves people of all ages with disabilities or chronic conditions. Channell also had two internships, including one with UW women's hockey athletic communications director AJ Harrison, where she did research and helped with social media.

"It is very different this semester," said Channell. "I feel I don't have a set schedule. I have one class a week that I go to on Fridays, so I have a job I go to, but it is different than when you are playing. I miss going to the locker room atmosphere where you have all your friends in one area and one time.

"I have learned that I still want to play."

So, like most college graduates, Channell wonders: what is next? She would prefer to delay life in the 9 to 5 world for a career in hockey. A few weeks ago, she was thinking of joining the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL). Now, after a few emails and texts from friends and coaches overseas, she is thinking about playing abroad.

"There are more opportunities for women because the game has more visibility," said Johnson, who ended his professional career in Europe after 12 years in the National Hockey League (NHL).

Johnson has five former players playing pro hockey in the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) on the East Coast and one in the CWHL, which has teams in Canada, Boston and two new franchises in China. He just heard from a former player, Natalie Berg. She tried life in the working world for a year after college and missed hockey, he said. Berg is playing in Germany now. There are 16 former WCHA players competing in the Swedish Women's Hockey League (SDHL), including Lara Stalder, a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award while at Minnesota Duluth. She leads the league in scoring, just ahead of former North Dakota star Michelle Karvinen.

"Depending on the sport, there are opportunities for women to play in Europe after college in soccer, basketball and hockey," said Johnson, whose daughter Mikayla, Channell's classmate at UW, was thinking of playing in Sweden. "If women want to play, it is a great way to see the world."

Channell is a hockey person. She started playing when she was three, played boys hockey until she was 12 and won the U-19 state championship when she was playing for Little Caesars in Detroit as a freshman in high school. She played in Hockey Canada's program for four years as well, winning a gold medal at the 2016 Nations Cup. Her dad, Craig, is a veteran scout for the Minnesota Wild, based out of Plymouth, Mich. Mellissa's sister, Kayla, works for the Detroit Red Wings, where part of her duties includes giving tours of their new arena.

Mellissa wants to keep playing the game she loves. She has received emails from a coach in Sweden about possible opportunities there. She also has heard about the chance of playing in the CWHL next year for one of their two expansion teams in China.

Decisions. Decisions.

"I have friends who say, 'You should play in China. You should play in China.' But I don't know what to expect," said Channell. "The language, the food, the culture are all much different. I hear it has been Americanized. We'll see."

Whatever she does, Channell knows she will have to work on conditioning after her trip away from hockey led into the working world. She skated sporadically on fall mornings with some ex-teammates at LaBahn Arena, but can't practice with the Badgers because her eligibility has elapsed. "The girls on the team right now call me grandma because I am still around. Heck, I am going to be 23 soon," she says.

Channell had a solid career at Wisconsin. Her team made the NCAA Frozen Four each of her four seasons. She scored 11 goals and 64 points (11th best all-time for a defenseman at UW) in her 146-game career, and was an eye-opening plus-32 her senior year. Channell's most famous goal came against BC in the final 16 seconds of the NCAA semifinal last year.

But that wasn't her most memorable college moment.

"My most memorable game was probably my last game at LaBahn," said Channell. "We played Robert Morris (in the NCAA quarterfinals) with so many people here. It was so loud. As seniors we got together and we went out the way we wanted to."

What about the game-winner against Boston College?

"In the moment it was probably the best (memory) because we had never made it to the final game in my four years, but it is kind of hard to say it was my favorite because of the outcome the next day," said Channell. "It was a fun week. It was very exciting and emotional, but then it was bittersweet because we didn't win the championship so it's hard to say it is my favorite moment."

Channell isn't reflecting much these days. Her dad and mom, Lori, are planning to attend graduation this weekend. Then she plans to leave Madison and is unsure what is next.

"I missed playing, so now I will find out what is out there," said Channell. "I have heard from Michela Cava, who played at Duluth, and other players I know about chances to play and I know there are coaches out there who know that I want to play. I am just learning how this works. I know a bunch of girls that are playing in the CWHL and know others that are playing in Italy, Germany and all over Europe. I didn't know about all the players that are playing after college until recently."

Exploring her post-college hockey chances was one last lesson Channell learned in college.

"I think the game is growing," said the soon-to-be college graduate. "Having the options overseas for players will definitely help that growth."