There were no distractions. KC McGinley had just entered an airplane that she would have no escape from for six hours, as it hurdled through the air across the country. Six hours alone with her thoughts. Cramped with people but nobody to talk to.
On this early January day, it was her duty to think. She had a week to consider her options. As she stepped onto the jetliner at Logan International Airport, McGinley wasn’t in a good headspace. After a year and half of majoring in hockey and minoring in school at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, McGinley was about to get her priorities straight.
McGinley took the moments of isolation to put her thoughts on paper. Everything that went right the first year. Everything that had gone wrong in her second. She at first tried to escape her thoughts. But there were none. Just a book to read and her own imagination.
Anyone who has flown knows the feeling: completely detached from the world, left to themselves until the plane finally descends on the other side the country. Now imagine that with the biggest decision of your life looming when until you deplane.
When she returned to Boston a week later, would it be to pack her bags or commit the final two years of her college career to her teammates and coaches there?
“I was more overwhelmed than I had been in my entire life,” McGinley said on a cloud-free Tempe September day, now almost nine months removed from that flight.
The trip wasn’t her choosing. Her coach at UMass-Boston, Colleen Harris, had sent her home after the two had a heated meeting. McGinley was drawing penalties left and right. Harris was benching her consistently. McGinley was left 3,000 miles away from her family, and for what? To pay her own tuition at a school she attended “100 percent” for hockey and not play hockey?
On paper, the decision looks simple. McGinley was hoping for the same when she laid it out on her flight home. But leaving Boston meant leaving hockey behind. It meant moving forward in life for the first time since she was 7 years old without the sport — her sport — in her life.
It wasn’t love at first sight when McGinley entered an ice rink. As the youngest of two siblings, KC was exposed to hockey through her brother, Kenny.
“I hated hockey. I really did,” McGinley said.
It was at the urging of their father, Mark, that both children be exposed to everything. He didn’t care what either kid did, as long as it was something. Neither would be stuck inside, sitting around.
For McGinley, it was softball, dance and gymnastics.
Mark didn’t have much of a rooting interest in hockey. Kenny already played. And travel hockey was (and still is) expensive.
“I was kind of hoping we’d have something different to do,” Mark said with a laugh.
On each of McGinley's birthdays, Mark took her to a Coyotes game in a limousine from their Scottsdale residence. These were yet another culprit of McGinley's overexposure to hockey as a child.
“I hated the Coyotes games,” she said, before she’d actually taken a step onto the ice. Once she did, there was no looking back.
Her constant time at an arena may have fueled her initial disdain for the sport, but it was also that time near the ice that allowed for her to step onto it. Having spent so much time around Kenny’s teams, McGinley bonded with other siblings. When one those siblings took after her older brother, McGinley followed in that girls tracks and did so, too.
At first, hockey acted as an outlet for McGinley. It still does. “Every single year, I gave a kid a black eye until I started hockey,” she said. Those black eyes quickly turned into penalty minutes.
“She’s very familiar with where the penalty box is,” Mark said. “One time I suggested she keep her homework in there.”
As McGinley’s seemingly endless flight comes to an end and she sees her father again. She made her decision.
Mark, the man, isn’t in the same shape as Mark, the boy, who played every sport growing up. Mentally and emotionally, he’s never been better. But multiple hip, knee and neck surgeries forced him to give up the Coyotes season tickets he’d held KC’s entire life.
After a recent divorce, he relied on his children even more. When McGinley arrived home, Kenny had recently moved out, too. Although Kenny is “more of a nurse” than McGinley is, their father said McGinley needed something to push her toward leaving Boston, and this was it.
“I’m getting benched so much, and my dad’s at home with his health issues,” McGinley told Harris. “So if I’m not playing, I don’t want to be here because I could be at home taking care of him.”
The final straw had come only days before. As McGinley left for winter break, she was pondering the idea of leaving. After the first stretch of games that season, her playing time had taken a serious hit. Eight players wouldn’t suit up for each game because of the size of the roster, and after dressing for most of her games freshman year, McGinley began to see her name on that list more and more.
But that was fixable. Cut down the penalties, see more time on the ice. Dealing with benching is a part of being a team player. What wasn’t repairable was the apparent communication issues between McGinley and the coaching staff. Many nights, the coaches would post lineups without speaking to the players. And what McGinley deemed unforgivable was not even dressing her for the games that her dad traveled coast-to-coast to see.
McGinley returned to Boston with an answer: She was going home to her dad.
McGinley found herself on another flight. This time it’s Super Bowl Sunday, and McGinley is attempting to travel from New England to Arizona. But she’s made her decision to transfer to ASU.
Just weeks removed from a flight that was unbearable, McGinley feels a weight lifted off her shoulders.
It didn’t take long for her to come to terms with never playing hockey again.
“Just ending on that bad note, having that bad experience,” McGinley said. “It took me a long time to even want to play hockey again.”
She planned on finishing her communications degree at ASU and lead a normal post-hockey life. She had no qualms about it. She was ready to move on and help people in her career.
In the meantime, McGinley stayed in touch with the friends she’d made throughout her hockey career. In one particular group message, the girls, who were now spread across the country pursuing college hockey, joked about starting a women’s hockey team in Tempe. This was nothing new — a recurring joke. Girls of the desert were forced to move away to play higher level hockey, and they were no exception.
But it was only a joke because nobody thought it was possible. And at the bottom of the best jokes are a sliver of authenticity. On the receiving end of this one? Lindsey Ellis.
Mere months earlier, ASU had announced that its men’s club hockey team was making the jump to the NCAA level. Not long after, Ellis began arranging plans to be the first women’s hockey head coach in ASU history.
"I was thinking, 'Wow, my hockey career is almost over,'" Ellis said, "How awesome would it be for so many West Coast girls to get this opportunity."
Long before the team announced it would begin play in 2016, Ellis had her first recruit under her belt. McGinley wasn’t the first recruit by accident. The two played youth hockey together — Ellis is only two years older — and they quickly became close friends.
Whereas McGinley was the uncontrollable ball of energy who was born with hockey in her blood, Ellis was always the disciplined leader of their teams, despite having only started playing as a teenager. She was a natural, though. Mark would constantly declare her as the most-improved on the team. After picking the game up so quickly, Ellis moved on to college hockey at Miami (Ohio), where she captained the team for two years and won an ACHA title.
But because of her commitment to hockey, Ellis never got a chance to take advantage of Miami (Ohio)’s outpost in Luxembourg. While McGinley is using her off-year to focus on school, Ellis is using her’s to study abroad.
“Before she left,” McGinley said, “We were like, ‘Last day of friendship!’ and skated the day before she left.”
When she returns, their relationship will be all business. It has to be for the team to accomplish what it’s here for.
By the time she turned 16, McGinley had outgrown Arizona youth hockey. Many girls do. The best continue a pipeline into a system in Colorado. When McGinley’s U-14 team became the first from Arizona to make nationals, it was all but guaranteed she’d be gone sooner rather than later.
McGinley was one of the last of her teammates to leave. Many left for the Centennial State right after their appearance at nationals. As soon as girls youth hockey began to gain momentum in Arizona, those who helped bring that momentum left soon thereafter and it collapsed.
"Every girl in Arizona has talked about making a team at ASU," Ellis said. "And now it's happening."
McGinley and Ellis said they feel it’s their responsibility to bring back the culture that was lost when they left. The first reaction McGinley had when Ellis called her about the new club program was how it could help the youth programs.
The biggest hurdle that has to be overcome is the labeling of hockey as a boy’s sport. Growing up, McGinley didn’t have any hockey players to look up to. Ask any boy’s youth player who their idol is and a quick response with an Arizona Coyote is all but guaranteed. Ask a girl’s youth player and that answer is far less predictable.
“It’s a lot harder for a little girl to be growing up and being like, ‘Oh, I want to be like Shane Doan,’ ” McGinley said.
The ASU club team hopes to hold youth camps and partner with leagues to increase participation, but there are some factors that they’re not able to control.
In high school, because she played hockey, McGinley was called a lesbian on multiple occasions. Even one of her best friends spread a rumor saying such.
Sadly, that’s hardly an uncommon occurrence for women athletes. Now, she said she’d just brush it off. But as an impressionable, emotional teenager, any kind of bullying can be too much.
McGinley loved the sport too much to quit. But it’s that kind of generalization and bigotry that push many women out of sports before they even get a chance.
“A lot of girly girls aren’t going to want to go play hockey and then be called manly throughout their high school career,” she said.
McGinley is now champing at the bit. She’s just over a month into her first semester at ASU, and noticing the differences between attending a campus with 15,000 students and one with 70,000.
With the struggles, though, come the overwhelming benefits. Each Sunday, she makes it back to Scottsdale to barbecue with her dad. On the docket for this conversation: How’s the transition back to school going? Make any new friends?
Befriending people comes natural to McGinley and her dad. They’re cut from the same cloth, two outgoing people who can find humor in anything.
“I look at her like she’s a female version of me when I was young,” Mark said. “We can pick any topic and just have fun with it.”
Their relationship is a product of thousands of miles traveled together. When McGinley played in Colorado, Mark drove her there and back every time. Travel hockey is as the name indicates: equal parts travel and hockey.
It was when those miles started being traveled alone did hockey sour on both of them. Mark traveled to Colorado at least once a month. But once KC graduated high school and left for Boston, an hour-long flight turned into six and a manageable day trip turned into a lengthy road trip.
Now, there’s less than 30 minutes separating the two. No longer does she have to rely on phone calls and texts to send good news. It can be done in person. And starting with the women’s club program at ASU, she expects there to be a lot more good news.
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