The ground beneath Amy Menke’s skates has been slippery and unstable ever since she graduated from Shakopee High School and kept chasing hockey dreams.
She racked up 108 points in four years at North Dakota and had just finished her senior season as a captain in 2017, when that school abruptly cut women’s hockey.
She latched on with the Minnesota Whitecaps and played a key role last winter, scoring in the championship game as they won an NWHL title as an expansion team.
Then, just when the excitement for women’s pro hockey peaked in the Twin Cities, Menke was among the more than 200 players who announced they were boycotting the NWHL next season in search of better pay and health care benefits.
Those players since have formed a new union, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.
Menke, 24, a strong advocate for the growth of women’s hockey, can feel the ground shifting again, but she insists this is different.
“UND’s decision to cut the women’s hockey program did nothing but hurt the sport of women’s hockey,” Menke said, via e-mail. “I know that what we are doing now with women’s hockey is for the better.”
The NWHL is moving forward with plans for next season, saying it is definitely “open for business.” Two weeks ago, the Whitecaps announced they have re-signed former Boston College standout Allie Thunstrom, who raved about the team’s role in providing professional hockey opportunities for women.
Natalie Darwitz can relate to the whole situation. The three-time Olympic medalist and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer went through the ups and downs that included just trying to find a place to play and prepare for international events when not with Team USA. She would supplement her income by giving private lessons and holding hockey camps.
“It was just going out and getting creative,” said Darwitz, 35, who retired as a player in 2010 and now coaches Hamline’s women’s team.
That creativity meant playing in three-on-three men’s leagues, sometimes at odd hours such as 11 p.m. on Sundays. And she had to be careful, too, seeking a balance between competition and consideration.
“Trying to find opportunities that would challenge me to make me better,” she said. “I had to find the right mix of guys who were respectful, who weren’t trying to slash me in the ankles or run me over into the boards.”
Menke became creative to keep playing, too. She’d participate in men’s pickup leagues, and in 2018, she joined the Whitecaps, who were an independent team at the time. Menke also coached Shakopee’s girls’ high school team.
“I got to be on the ice about three days a week,” she said. “I’d jump in drills every now and then and some days I’d even dress full gear so I could compete with the girls harder.”
After the 2018 prep season, she jetted to Sweden to join a pro team in its playoff push.
North Dakota’s decision to eliminate women’s hockey was difficult for her to take, and she wrote a heartfelt article for The Players’ Tribune titled, “The Death, and Life, of a Hockey Program.”
“One of the toughest parts was seeing my younger teammates deal with the challenge of finding new schools to play for and having to leave their friends and teammates at UND,” Menke said.
Darwitz empathizes with the players’ desire for a league with financial stability, though she sees progress as incremental.
“I do feel that everything needs to be taken in the right direction, and you can’t jump from a small hill to a mountain,” Darwitz said. “I don’t think that’s what they’re asking for.”
The NHL has been noncommittal about starting a women’s professional league, in part because the NWHL is still operating. Darwitz sees ways the top men’s pro league can help.
“How can we use the NHL’s resources without saying, ‘You need to give us money’?” Darwitz said. “I think the girls just want a place where they can train and play and getting paid some money that allows them to train at the highest level.”
Besides playing hockey, Menke works as an account manager for Protolabs in Maple Plain. For her and others holding out for a better financial situation, the future and stability of the sport is their focus.
“I’ve seen multiple times where my teammates have had to choose between work and hockey,” she said, “and more often than not, work wins because it is what financially supports them.’’