Updated: May 21, 2020
I am often asked about what Division 1 hockey was like but I always feel that putting my 4-years of experience into a simple, short-winded summary does not to the experience justice. The countless answers I’ve given in the past have covered only the tip of the iceberg. So, in light of being asked hundreds of times “what it’s like,” I decided to write an a raw and brutally truthful answer to this question and present it to you as A-Day-In-The-Life. In other words, I’m about to give you the rest of the iceberg that lies underneath the waters’ surface.
This journal can serve as a roadmap for aspiring young athletes who have dreams of being a collegiate athlete; Parents seeking an informational blueprint for their child’s future in the NCAA; or for anyone remotely interested in the lifestyle of being an elite student athlete- the mental, physical and emotional sacrifice and unwavering dedication to the sport of Women’s Ice Hockey. Ever since I was old enough to tie my own skates, being a “hockey player” was the ultimate dream. In fact, throughout my years of elementary school, and even high school, when people would ask “what I wanted to be when I grew up,” my answer was always the same: A Professional Women’s Hockey Player.
After discovering that playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL was not a legitimate career, my aspirations changed to playing Division 1 NCAA Hockey. And so that is what I did. At 14 years old, I moved away from home to attend a Private Boarding school in Toronto. From Junior hockey, the Canadian U18 Selection camps, representing both Team Ontario Red and Blue, playing Division 1 NCAA hockey, and my current status as a Professional Hockey Player in Germany, I’ve had plenty of experience in my short 22-years of life. It goes without saying that I have dedicated my life to this sport and by no means has it been easy, but I can assure you it’s been worthwhile.
A Day in the Life:
I want to you to think about the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Division 1 Woman’s Ice Hockey? Autographs, press conferences, unlimited massages, special teacher-student privileges, super-fans, constant media attention, free equipment, celebrity status? Maybe you envision a game winning goal worthy of TSN’s weekly highlights, playing in front of sold out crowds, or perhaps competing for a National Championship? Before playing 4-years at Northeastern University, a top 10 NCAA program located in Boston, I thought most of these things above to be true. Some do hold partial truth, but most are a glorified exaggeration of reality, and a fairy-tale-like depiction of what really goes on.
So, let’s dive in and see what a day in the life of a Division 1 Woman’s Hockey Player looks like:
5:30am: Wake Up
Practice started at 6:30am sharp, which meant you needed a full breakfast, enough time to walk to the arena, do an off ice warmup, get your gear on, and be waiting for the Zamboni doors to close. There was no such thing as a “I slept past my alarm,” or “I was too tired,” excuse, and being late often warranted a seat in the stands the following game.
When you stepped on the ice, it was 90 minutes of focus, fast pace, high energy drills and systems that were designed to prepare you for the weekend of competition ahead. And if the previous game was a disaster, usually a bag skate would occupy the last 15 minutes of ice time.
The team trainer would run you through a focused and specific workout. Each one varied from heavy weightlifting, cardiovascular-specific training, or recovery lifting if the session neared a game.
10:00-4pm: Class, Study Hall, Lunch, Video, Athletic/Body Maintenance
This block of time was designated to your academic schedule. Everyone has a different schedule based on their major(s)/ minor(s) but in this window was an opportunity to attend the minimum of four classes per semester, all of which you achieved a GPA above a 2.0 in order to maintain eligibility with the NCAA.
If you had a break in your schedule, you would go see the PT with any nagging pains, injuries etc.
Or, you could go see the sports psychologist to discuss mental performance in preparation for upcoming games.
You could schedule an appointment with the coaching staff to go over video clips or watch game footage etc.
You could log hours in the designated study hall area, or the library.
Use the facilities available (Ice tubs, massages, and performance recovery sessions) all available by appointment.
4:00-8:00pm- Dinner, Study Hall, Homework
This was a period in which you had some free time to: - Cook/ eat dinner or use the dining hall facilities
-Hangout with friends, roommates, etc.
- Log homework hours in the designated study hall area, the library or your apartment.
-Meet with a tutor
Getting a quality night sleep was absolutely essential if you wanted to maximize recovery and not burn yourself out. Especially with morning practice and a busy schedule, putting sleep at the top of your priority list was always a good idea. (Editors note: we have an entire article on the importance of sleep for hockey players here).
When you commit to being an elite athlete of this nature, this is simply the lifestyle that comes along with it. This doesn’t begin to capture the whole picture- road trips, flights, away games etc. but the most important thing to recognize here is that being a Division 1 athlete is a full time job. For the 9 months that you are on campus representing the logo on your jersey, (ballpark 50+ games, 200+ workouts, 200+ practices) you are following this routine and structure. It takes work to be successful, and being able to function at a high level, with a busy schedule and strict demands is all part of the experience.
You are expected to be in outstanding shape. You are expected to eat healthy. You are expected to follow ALL team rules. You are expected to show up to every class, practice, PT and training session. You are expected to maintain a 2.0+ GPA. You are expected to give 110% at every practice and game (playing or not). You are expected to be a good teammate. You are expected to represent the university in a positive way. You are expected to balance your athletic, academic and social life. You are expected to treat the opportunity of being a Division 1 Women’s Ice Hockey Player with the upmost respect.
The list of expectations goes on and on, and all of these things are required, with little to no exception, or room for error. It is 6 days a week, 24-hours a day, for 9 months. Of course, you get 7-10 days at Christmas, maybe a day at Thanksgiving, Easter, or Halloween if the schedule permits it. Hockey at this level is a structured, high functioning, full time lifestyle. You are receiving an education, an opportunity to play at the highest level of women’s hockey, and with that comes a full-time devotion to the sport. Life as a D1 athlete requires an all-in effort, and giving yourself entirely to the team in which you represent.
Lifestyle Mastery: The 3 Focuses of a Successful NCAA Hockey Player
Fitness, Nutrition, and Mental Health are the three most important categories in which you need(ed) to master in order to thrive in this environment.
Like you saw above in a typical day, fitness is a key component of being a Division 1 Athlete. The workload is rigorous. The testing is difficult, and frequent. More true than ever, FAILING TO PREPARE, IS PREPARING TO FAIL. There’s no such thing as an “off day,” and everything you do has a purpose. Each workout, each practice, each PT session is preparing you for MAXIMUM PERFORMANCE, MAXIMUM RESULTS, AND MAXIMUM OUTPUT. You are surrounded by incredible strength and conditioning coaches, top notch physical therapists, massage therapists, technical coaches, nutritionists, doctors, mentors and sports psychologists. The environment is designed for you to thrive, and with all of the resources around you, it’s a place with unlimited opportunities for success.
If you don’t already see the value in eating healthy, balanced and nutritious meals, you need to place nutrition at the top of your priority list. FOOD IS FUEL. You cannot expect to be a competitive Division 1 athlete and survive the physical output if you are not fueling your body accordingly. This means following a meal plan that is going to allow you to perform at your best, and above all, recover quickly. Due to the intense and unwavering fitness schedule, refueling your muscles and body is essential if you wish to thrive in this environment. This means consuming high quality proteins (chicken, steak, fish, eggs, protein powders and bars etc), complex carbohydrates (whole grain pasta, fruit, steal cut oatmeal etc.) and essential fats (nuts, seeds, coconut oils etc.). The nutritional staff at any D1 program will help guide you if aren’t already programmed to do so.
Above being in shape, and eating well, there’s a component that is often overlooked- your mental health. Because it does not matter how hard you train, or how balanced your diet is, if you are mentally unfocused, confused, foggy or unable to balance your priorities, you will be unable to perform at your best. Without sugar coating it, you need to be an absolute brick wall upstairs, and this is by no means easy. Because as a Division 1 Athlete your life is moving a million miles a minute, and if you don’t stop once in a while to make sure you are level headed and mentally healthy, things begin to break down very quickly.
From an athletic standpoint, you need to accept criticism when the coach tells you you’re not fast enough, or when he reads the lineup and your name isn’t called. If you were a 40-goal scorer in Junior hockey, your role may be a 4th line power forward and you must accept that without question. You need to be able to handle adversity with a grain of salt, and bounce back immediately when you’re told you’re not strong enough, you’re shot isn’t hard enough, or you are not producing enough because I guarantee the kid sitting next to you in the locker room is preparing for their opportunity.
Having a sports psychologist to strategize when adversity of this nature comes your way is key. On an academic level, you need to be proactive and stay on top of your workload. You need to be in constant communication with your professors, tutors etc. This balance requires you to be in a position of mental stability and being able to maintain your emotions while keeping a positive attitude is one of the most difficult, but important things you’ll learn at this level. I cannot stress the importance of checking in with yourself regularly, and seeking help or guidance if you are struggling with athletics, academics or even personal issues.
Now, take a step back and try and process all that I just threw at you. A little overwhelming, right? Sugarcoating the reality will do you nor I any good. The amount of time, work, dedication and sacrifice it took to play at this level is unfathomable to most. Being a Division 1 Hockey player taught me the value of time management, balance in all aspects of life, work ethic, sacrifice, and allowed me compete against some of the best of the best; All of while receiving an incredible education. I am equipped to enter the real world with skills, lessons and experience that cannot be reproduced in any other manner, and I am beyond grateful that I pursued my dreams of being a hockey player.
I wish someone would have given me a truthful and raw answer about what it was really like. But, like I’ve done so many times before this, you give the $5 answer, pick out a few highlights, a few challenges and hopefully satisfy the request. I wish I could tell you that it was all sunshine and rainbows, but the reality is, it wasn’t. It was heartbreak and tears when you were healthy scratched and your family flew in for the weekend. It was hitting rock bottom on the confidence scale, and having one bad practice dictate your playing status the following weekend. It was missed parties, Saturday nights on bus trips, all-nighters to catch up on homework followed by early morning practices, bruises and injuries, and meals on the go. It was no-puck practices because you lost to a team you shouldn’t have. It was bag skates, biking with garbage cans beside you and days you thought might actually kill you.
But, it was also beating the #1 team in the country as an underdog, and seeing your best friends on the jumbo-tron cheering your name. It was scoring goals and random people congratulating you the next day. It was seeing your personal banner hung near the campus coffee shop, and having an incredibly embarrassing post-game interview. It was showing up to class and finding out you were wearing the same new team apparel as your line-mate. It was watching the men’s game on your only off Saturday night instead of going out, or seeing another team in the same bar as you and knowing the next game would be war. It was celebrating at practice, dancing in the locker room and my god, it was making the best friends of your entire life and having teammates become family.
It was the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging 4-years of my life; but it was also the best years of my life, and I wouldn’t trade in my time as a Division 1 Athlete for anything in the world. So no, it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
Hayley is a former NCAA Division 1 Hockey Player who played 4 years at Northeastern University, graduating with a BA in Journalism.
She is currently playing professional hockey for EC Bergkamen in the German Professional Women's League.