For numerous reasons, few athletes walk away from their sport healthy, while at or near the top of their profession. Competitive sports and simply time, take a toll. The endless pain of aging often kicks in a bit earlier for athletes. But one such athlete who chose to leave on top, is our former #61 Kelli Stack. Kelli retired from pro hockey in 2018 after leading the CWHL in scoring, while playing for the Kunlun Red Star. Cetacean Nation caught up with Kelli recently, and one of the first things we asked about was her status as a player. Kelli informed us:
“I’m not playing currently (or ever professionally again). Yes, I do miss hockey and my teammates, and I know I could still make a team, but it was time to move on and essentially “grow up”. That might sound like a weird way to put it, but when I was playing professional hockey, I didn’t have many adult responsibilities. I didn’t feel like I was contributing to my family in a good way. I was having fun traveling around, making little money, and playing a sport. I got married in September of 2018 and at 30 years old, I wanted to find a stable career and eventually think about starting a family. I’m the type of person that when I do something, I’m ALL IN, 100% of me is devoted to that, and I didn’t want to continue playing/hope for a sustainable professional league, be a wife, and try to start a family all at the same time. I didn’t want to prolong starting a real career with benefits and a retirement plan (not that professional women’s hockey isn’t a real career but you know what I’m saying, you can’t do it for 30 years and retire with a nice chunk of change). Once my husband and I have kids, I wouldn’t want to be worried about leaving them to go play hockey all the time. I know it works for some people, but it wouldn’t be something I would be comfortable doing”
So we asked Kelli if maybe she was doing any coaching in the sport at this time, and her response revealed an unexpected but very cool turn in her career path. Kelli revealed:
“I am not coaching right now. I have spent the last six months at the police academy at the Ohio State Highway Patrol in Columbus, OH and am currently on track to graduate on January 30th. I will be a police officer for the village of Cuyahoga Heights, which is where I went to elementary, middle, and high school. I have given private lessons in the past, and plan to eventually get back on the ice in some coaching capacity when I can.”
All of Cetacean Nation thinks that is an awesome way for Kelli to give back to her community, and we wish her all the best! We do not know how many police officers get asked for autographs, but we do know that now there will be at least one: Officer Stack. We also asked Kelli if she found time for any other sports, and she said “I love football, its actually been my favorite sport since I was little, but my parents said no football if you are playing hockey, haha! . My favorite activity is working out / lifting weights to stay strong and fit” Fins Up to that!
We mentioned earlier, Kelli’s final season in the CWHL, where she was a teammate of future Whale Taylor Marchin and former Whale Zoe Hickel. Overall, she had a great career in the CWHL prior to and after her two years with the Whale. Kelli played sixty-seven games in the CWHL, scored 57 goals and registered 45 assist, was a league MVP and won the Clarkson Cup with some future Whale teammates in 2014. But her final season was really special in a lot of ways. She led Kunlun to the Clarkson Cup final (where she scored her final pro goal) and led the league in scoring with 49 points in 28 games. So Cetacean Nation asked Kelli to take us outside the numbers and tell us a little more about her experience in China, and her coach, the legendary Digit Murphy. Kelli told us:
"Playing in China was a really awesome experience. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I trusted Coach Digit Murphy, and I knew a few other North American players that were also going over to China to play. I enjoy traveling to different parts of the world and meeting new people, so I wanted to give it a shot. I had a really funyear and I have no regrets about playing for KRS. I loved working with the Chinese National Team players. Even though there was a language barrier we managed to accomplish things on the ice and help them become better players over the course of the season. I have some really great memories from that year which include playing in the Clarkson Cup, visiting Alaska with our entire team, trying new/crazy foods, walking the Great Wall, and bringing home a stray puppy (Scooter—we found his mom when she was an 8 week old puppy living at a construction site. She eventually had puppies of her own about 6 months later, and we cared for them from the moment they came out until we (several of my teammates also took a puppy home) took them home 5 months later. Not an easy process as there are so many documents needed in order to get a dog from China to Hong Kong to the United States—all worth it though!). I could honestly talk about my time in China for an entire article in itself because it was that much fun!
Kelli continued, “Digit is the best. She is so passionate about hockey and her players, and would do anything for anyone. She is a ball of energy, I honestly don’t know how she manages to do what she does with the enthusiasm she does it with, it’s amazing to witness haha. I loved playing for her because she understood me as a player. She trusted me and allowed me to play my game. She didn’t try to put me into a box and make me play a certain way. She was so easy to talk to and listened to all of her players. Easily one of my favorite coaches I’ve played for. She’s just a really good person and mentor on top of being a great coach too.”
We then took a step back to explore some of Kelli’s hockey roots. Kelli hails from the village of Brooklyn Heights near Cleveland, so we asked about the hockey culture in the Cleveland area, and how she got started in the sport. Kelli reminisced:
“There wasn’t much hockey in Cleveland when I was growing up, but we did have the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the professional IHL that played downtown at Gund Arena. There was a suburban city league that I played in until age 9. There were about 8-10 teams in that league in the greater Cleveland area, and there was high school hockey at some schools. From age 10 to 14 I played for the Cleveland Barons AAA Program and back then there wasn’t a girls program available, so I played with boys until high school. By then, there was a girls program called the Ohio Flames which I played for until I went to college. When I told people I played hockey, they were surprised because I was a girl and it just wasn’t a popular sport in the area yet, although it was growing. When you compare hockey in Cleveland with other cities like Chicago, Boston, Detroit or Pittsburgh..Cleveland doesn’t have the same number of kids playing the sport so it is hard to compete at that elite level. I will say though, Cleveland has produced some extremely talented male and female players over the years who have gone on to have outstanding college and professional careers.”
Kelli continued, explaining how her amazing career first hit the ice: “I got started in hockey because my older brother Kevin played. I was always at the rink because of him, but my mom did start us in roller skating like I mean in old school roller skates (not roller blades) at age 2. My older sister Kim was roller skating competitively already, and my brother learned on roller skates as well. I really wanted to be a goalie (my brother would shoot on me at home) and I was pretty good at it in Mite hockey, but my parents said it was too expensive that I had to play out, so I did.”
We reckon that decision could scarcely have worked out any better! Cetacean Nation knew that Kelli had played several other sports , and we asked her to discuss that. She offered:
“I played soccer from age 3 until sophomore year of high school. I was a really good forward and played for club teams but I had to make a choice between soccer and hockey and which sport I wanted to concentrate on. I couldn’t play club soccer and hockey because both club teams required a full-time/year round commitment. I obviously chose hockey and stopped playing club soccer in 7th grade, but I played one year of Varsity soccer my freshman year in high school. I played basketball for fun as a kid in rec leagues and then for my senior year of high school to be around my friends. It conflicted with hockey way too much to play seriously. I played baseball as a kid; I was a catcher and switched to softball full time in middle school. I played 4 years of Varsity softball in high school and I was a shortstop. I also started volleyball in middle school and played 3 years of Varsity in high school. I loved playing all sports, especially with my high school friends.”
Kelli has mentioned starting a family, and Cetacean Nation was interested to here Kelli’s take on multi sport participation for youngsters. She replied with conviction:
"Being a multi-sport athlete is the reason why I was a good hockey player. I developed overall athleticism at a very early age. My parents thought it was important to stay active and play any sport we could, so that’s what we did. Each sport I was currently playing helped me get ready for the next sport’s season I was about to start. I was a well-rounded athlete and person, and I had a lot of friends because of it too!"
Along the same lines, we asked Kelli about the grind of games, practices, travel, injuries and the stress of playing at high levels. It cause a lot of promising athletes to burn-out at an early age, before reaching anything near their potential. We wondered what advice she would give to a young player in terms of developing their playing skills, and also developing the mental toughness to deal with the grind? She said:
"My advice to young players would be to play other sports and don’t focus solely on hockey until well into high school. I loved having friends from all my different teams too. Having fun is the most important part of playing early on, and developing ways to handle stress are very important as you get older. As an athlete it’s crucial to have a short memory, not to dwell on mistakes, and always be positive.”
Kelli’s records, awards and stats are a matter of record, and include a remarkable career with Team USA, winning five World Championship Gold Medals, and two Olympic Silvers. At Boston College, she won everything from Hockey East Rookie of the Year to multiple all-star teams and as the first three time winner of the Hockey East Player of the Year. We have already noted some of her accomplishments in the CWHL, and will get to the Whale and the NWHL shortly. And with Kelli being a recognized star that other teams had to deal with, she was often marked, or shadowed by an opposing player who’s primary responsibility was to stay in her grill. Cetacean Nation wondered which opposing players did the best job of that. Kelli responded:
“Kelly Paton from UNH in college.. She was small but was all over me whenever we played them. At the National Team level, I would say Haley Irwin (Team Canada) was always a tough competitor. She was really good at getting slashes or hooks in, when the refs weren’t paying attention and she loved talking that smack, haha!"
Fun Fact: It is a small world, or as our former #4 Anya Packer says “ The smallest” . Kelly Paton was on the staff at Western Ontario while our #12 Kendra Broad played there!
Cetacean Nation also asked Kelli for rapid fire responses to identify her favorite moment or memory of the six segments that her career encompasses. Here are the six areas, and Kelli’s replies:
Cuyahoga Heights HS: "My high school didn’t have a hockey team, but I loved high school and I played every sport I could. One of my favorite memories was getting inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019."
Club Hockey: "Playing at Nationals against teams from all over the country"
Boston College: "Making it to the Frozen Four two times, and beating Harvard in 3OT in the Beanpot Semi-Finals in 2007"
Team USA: "Playing in two Olympics, both Olympic tours were filled with unforgettable memories"
CWHL: "Playing in China"
Whale: "My entire second season was really memorable, because we had a really fun team"
Kelli is an OW (Original Whale) and two time NWHL All-Star who played for the Pod in Season One and Season Two, and served as Captain for part of her second campaign. She holds the Whale season record for goals (12) and assists (14) and is secon on our all-time career list in points (as of January 2020), and sixth in PIM. Speaking about her career with the Whale, Kelli stated “I really enjoyed my time on the Whale and loved seeing their creative signs in the stands at our games. Their support at every game was noticed and appreciated!” And what about that historic first ever NWHL game, which she not only participated in, but earned 2nd Star, with a goal and two assists, points in all three periods. When asked what she remembered from that game Kelli modestly replied “I remember Chelsea Piers being absolutely packed with fans of all ages! It was an amazing atmosphere to play in and such a historical part of the inaugural season. I remember Jess Koizumi scoring the first goal in the history of the NWHL, so that was a very exiting moment to be a part of. It was a really fun game to play in and I enjoyed interacting with all of the fans in the autograph line after the game.”
Cetacean Nation thanks this original Amazing, our #61 Kelli Stack, for her insightful looks back and for bringing us up to date on where she’s skating in the rink of life. Kelli was a big part of who we were, the Gold Standard, and will always be part of who we will yet become. Fins Up Forever Kelli, Once a Whale, Always a Whale! Left to right, top to bottom. Photo credits Kelli with Boston College (Todd Hurley Smith) Team USA (Michelle Jay) Kunlun Red Star (Al Saniuk) & with the Whale (Connor Murphy)