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 Cup 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.” 

Katelynn added  “ Also, always working towards going to college. Playing your best every game trying to get noticed and playing for your teammates so they also get noticed, just that kind of stuff. For Illinois, the high school hockey is not as serious as somewhere like Minnesota. So that was more of like just enjoying the game, you know take a step back. Not necessarily playing for a National Championship,but just having fun on the ice. Not to say that we didn’t do that at CYA, but but it was much more relaxed in high school games. Some of the people I played with had never played hockey before high school, so I got to help them learn how to play the game and I got to teach them everything I knew. And they’d be on my line and I’d be able to pass them the puck for their first goal, so that was really exciting too”

Katelynn also had a passion for another sport growing up, and we asked her about that sport: softball. She revealed

 “I played softball for the majority of my life too. I actually was a catcher for most of my career. Then I ended up getting a knee injury, so I transferred to being an outfielder for a little bit right after the injury. Then I played primarily as a third baseman after that. I had been a catcher for a long time. But after I strained something in my knee, I knew it was tough to squat all the time, and get up and down. So it was just going to be better in general if I couldeliminate having to squat at all, and just move to a different position. Katelynn added “When I was really young my parents signed me up for pretty much everything. I played soccer for a few years and basketball for a few years. But basically once I got to middle school I primarily focused on softball and hockey. And then my junior year of high school, I decided to just stop playing softball. I just managed the high school team, because I still wanted to be a part of it, I still had friends on the team. But I wanted to put pretty much all of my athletic focus into hockey, knowing that was a sport I wanted to continue with after high school. And it was just getting too hard to have to train for two very different sports. So ended up just focusing on hockey by my junior year in high school and eventually ended up at Union.”

So our next question to Katelynn was to ask her about the process and reasons that led her to continue her athletic and academic career at Union. She explained

 “Union contacted me in my sophomore year of high school. Back then I was like: I don’t know, that school is pretty expensive, so I’m going to look at other schools. Maybe I could potentially get a full ride somewhere, because Union can’t give athletic scholarships. I had a few other schools looking at me here and there, but there were some coaching changes or I didn’t feel it was best fit for me after I had visited. And so coming into my senior year of high school, Union contacted me again just asking where I was at the process. So I began putting a little more thought into Union. I looked more into the school and considered if it would be worth it to have that much money go towards college. I was looking at the engineering programs, and that’s what really piqued my interest. The degree I would be getting at the school and what it would mean. And it seemed engineering there would go a long way. So I ended up committing before I actually visited the school. So my official visit was after committing! it was my first time on campus, and I absolutely fell in love with the campus, so I had made the right decision.”

When Katelynn arrived at Union, their program had fallen on hard times. But remarkably the challenge of rebuilding the program’s culture was embraced by her group of incoming freshman. Katelynn revealed

 “When I first got here, Union was coming off a season in which they didn’t win a single game. Then my class came in along with new coaches. There were 11 of us in my class, and our whole thing was just trying to develop a culture. A culture of being a family, as being a team wanting to come to the rink and enjoying time with your teammates. Changing the mindset that other teams had about Union, Even if we didn’t win the game it wasn’t going to be easy one for them. They had to earn the win, they had to earn every goal they got. And I think over the four years of my class being here, we did a really good job of developing that culture.Developing it for ourselves and then sharing the culture for the new classes as they came in. Telling them: Hey, we’re going to be the hardest teams for anyone to play against in the ECAC or the NCAA. Teams are going to have to work really hard to beat us. And by the end of this last year here we were in games that four years ago we never would’ve been in. And I think that came a lot from our class taking it upon ourselves to make that culture of wanting to be a winning program, of wanting to be a hard-working program. You really did not notice that at Union, prior to us being here.” Leadership like that begets legacy, and Katelynn and her Class of 2020 are a true example of that.

Katelynn’s career stats on the ice as well as her work in the classroom, show that Union made the right decision as well. She was a three time ECAC All-Academic Team selection, and will earn her degree in Biomedical Engineering. And with the points we mentioned that she scored in her final game as a Bulldog, she finished her Union career fourth all-time in points with fifty-six, and third in goals with thirty-three. Katelynn is pursuing an interesting degree in the classroom, in the cutting edge field of Biomedical Engineering, and.we asked Katelynn to fill us in on how she got interested in it that. She explained

 “I’ve always been interested in engineering. I like to be hands-on with stuff and make things and innovate things. So I always knew that I wanted to be an engineer. Then seeing stuff like sled hockey in the Paralympics and prosthetics, kind of piqued my interest towards biomedical. It is the field of engineering that is involved in making those sorts of products, and looking into that I realized how big of field it was I I always get asked now what I want to go into as a biomedical engineer, And I always say there’s so many things to get into with biollogical engineering, I could get a job next month, and in five years be doing something completely different but still be a biomedical engineer. There is not really a definition of what I have to go into, You you can say for a lot of types of engineering as well but the bio side really piqued my interest Right now I’m looking into getting a job and then potentially in a few years from now, going back to school to get my Masters. I’m just trying to get out there and figure out what exactly it is that I want to hone in on in my career. And then, get my Masters specified in that area, rather than just going right away after school, just looking to get a little experience first before I go headfirst into a Masters Degree program. “

 We also asked Katelynn about her offseason training, and her plans for the future both on and off the ice. She replied:

“I am very interested in weightlifting and CrossFit and running and in Tough Mudder type races. I’m not a runner by any means. I just kind of signed up for one in my junior year of high school. I just saw something about it on TV, and as I said I’m very active and it was just something that I was like: Well, maybe I should give this a try. I ended up loving it, so I’ve done about 4 or 5 races now? I don’t do it in season because of the fear of maybe getting injured. So I normally do about one per summer. It’s just something to train for in the off-season and also keep me active and motivated and was fun, You get to show off your athletic ability doing these obstacle courses! So I am a very active person even outside of hockey. Basically my off-season training would be getting in the gym as much as possible, working on my speed and my power. And, trying to get on the ice at least once a week, depending on where I’m living and the ice that’s available. I talked to Coach Colten about the possibility of coming back next year, and right now it’s just depending on where I end up with a job. I may get a job up in the Boston area, and then depending on what area of Massachusetts I’m living in will determine my travel situation. And working things out about practices traveling for games. We had a good talk about it. It’s just kind of taking it day by day. I’m working on getting a job first and then going from there.”

Well, all of the fans in Cetacean Nation certainly will hope that the “going from there” part winds up to mean going back to the Pod. Only Kelli Stack and Kelly Babstock with four points, have more Whale play-off points than Katelynn and Emma Vlasic who had three apiece already. We thank our amazing rookie #17 Katelynn Russ, for her engaging content and for riding that whirlwind from Union to the Pod, and becoming a part of our culture this year. Fins Up!

Katelynn Russ #23, ready for Season Six!