On February 22nd, the Whale were part of a historic twin bill at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, CT. The NWHL game featuring the Connecticut Whale vs the Boston Pride, was followed by the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers game vs the Hershey Bears. While that amazing doubleheader was being contested, Union College was battling #1 ranked Cornell, 250 miles away, up in Ithaca, NY. Union rallied, but Cornell prevailed that day, For Union, it was the final college game for one of their forwards, #23 Katelynn Russ, and she went out in style. Katelynn scored a goal and had an assist as the Bulldogs, living up to their tenacious moniker, fell just short of overcoming a four goal deficit. It had to be a whirlwind of emotions after a game like that against possibly the best team in the country. A great way to end a hockey career. Except, as we all now know, it didn’t. Just two days later, Katelynn traded in her Union garnet sweater for one of Whale green. Here’s what Katelynn told us about how that all unfolded:
“It was like a whirlwind! Monday is when I got the call from our GM Bray, asking me if I would be interested in joining the Whale. And, I had until 3:00 that afternoon to sign the contract. So I signed, and the next day I was out in Connecticut for practice. So It was just Monday, it was just one day of being in contact and that was all it took It was kind of just full force after that. So then I was in Minnesota the next weekend,, a week after my last college game. It was so exciting! I mean after that Saturday, my last college game, I kind of thought that was it, I’m retired now, like no more hockey, and then all of a sudden, three days later, there I am on the ice again.It was super exciting. I love the entire experience it was crazy but totally worth it.”
Katelynn hit the ice like a whirlwind in Minnesota, quickly grabbing the attention of the fans, as she seemed to fit in seamlessly. Now wearing #17 for the Pod, she joined another recent signee, Allie LaCombe and All-Star Emma Vlasic as the right wing on the Whale’s top line. Katelynn revealed
“I thought Coach Colton did a really good job of figuring out which players I would work the best. with And as it ended up, I actually knew Emma Vlasic from back home in all-star star game in Chicago, we had played for the same organization. So her and I never played on the same team there but but we knew each other and played on a team in the summer together. And we have a similar type of game so as I said, Coach did really good job to figure out who I’d work best with really quickly. The system here at Union was very different from the ones we’re running with the Whale, so that was a bit of an adjustment. But I think my coaches and my line mates did a really good job of helping me out when I had questions. It was a system that I used to run a few years ago, but it’s just hard getting out of that mindset that I have been running just a week ago and for a whole year and switching to a new system. But as I said, my team did a really good job of helping me out.”
In that first series against the Whitecaps, Katelynn did not get in the scoring column, but did record nine shots on goal over the weekend. And of course, the whirlwind intensified when Katelynn and the Pod headed back East to Buffalo. In the dramatic play-in round of the Isobel Cuo Championships, she earned the second star of the game, scoring her first two NWHL goals, and adding an assist. Her line was involved in four of the Whale’s five goals in their 5-3 victory. We wondered if Katelynn recognized any of her NWHL opponents from her previous playing days. She replied
“Honestly, it all happened so fast it was hard to recognize certain people The Pride goalie (Lovisa Selander) I had played against here at Union when she was the RPI goalie. The same with (Léa-Kristine Demers of the Beauts), with Merrimack, so was more recognizing some people from college that I had played against. But again, it was awesome, fast, so much is happening every day, that it was hard to kind of take a step back and say: Oh, who am I playing against? It was was more just focus upon win this game."
Katelynn hails from Crystal Lake, Illinois, about fifty miles from Chicago. Not too far from where a couple other Whale, Jordan Brickner and Nicole Stock come from as well. We asked her about hoe she got her start playing hockey there, and she told us:
“I’m the first person in my family to play ice hockey. When we were really young, we had two neighbors who played hockey. Two boys a little bit older than me. I saw them playing, and once they took me to an AHL game, the Chicago Wolves, when I was three years old. And apparently, as my Mom has told me, I asked: Why are there no girls on the ice? And my Mom was like: Oh, girls don’t play. There’s no professional league for girls. And I said: Well, I’m gonna be the first woman to play in the pro league.” So the following fall my parents signed me up for skating. I hadn’t even learned how to skate at that point so, I was in learn to skate. But by the next year I was on a team, and from there it just kind of went on. I played boys hockey for about four years, and I played check hockey for a while. Then my season going into eighth grade, I switched over to CYA (Chicago Young Americans) and played there for five years It was a great time. I always had a lot of fun there I made a lot of lifelong friends with that team. It was it was a really good environment and a lot of us have gone on to do great things from there. Between us and the Chicago Mission program, it was a good pool of talent, and a good rivalry! It helped us a lot building those players, by having that rivalry in competition.” And while playing with CYA, Katelynn and her teammates captured the National Championship in 2013.
Cetacean Nation knew that Katelynn had also played high school hockey as well as club hockey with CYA. But there was a twist. She did not play for the school she attended, Crystal Lake South High School. It is an interesting but complicated story, but Katelynn sorted it out for us.
“It is kind of confusing:) I was the only female hockey player in my high school, and I’m not sure if there’s any more there right now. So for my whole four years, I was the only female hockey player there. And there were a bunch of high schools in my county, that also had only a couple of female hockey players in their school. So we combined separate schools so that we could all play for a team. And, that’s why it’s called Upper Fox Valley, since that’s the region we’re from. We named it after after our region rather than a school. So if you look at the roster, there’s only a couple of girls from each school.on the ream. We were very good, there’s a lot of talent in that area. We all just happened to go to different high schools.we definitely took the league by storm when we made the team, which was I think two years prior to me being in high school. We were always one of the top teams in the league.”
And Katelynn was one of the top players in the league, and in fact, eventually the best in the entire state. In her senior year, she put up video game-like stars, scoring 88 points on 57 goals and 31 assists over the course of a 23 game season. That resulted in her being selected as the Illinois Girls Hockey Player of the Year, by the Amateur Hockey Associationof Illinois (AHAI). We asked Katelynn what her fondest memories were from her playing days in high school and at the club level, and she replied:
“I guess just the camaraderie you build with your teammates. Especially back then when every weekend you’re on the road with your team, getting to build a relationship with your teammates. Looking back, I don’t necessarily remember games or scores, minus the big ones like winning the National Championship or like certain state games or rivalry games. But for the most part, all I remember is traveling with the team or being at the hotel, and the fun things we would do in our time off betwwen games.”