Hayley Williams’ hockey career appeared to be over at this time last year.
Despite going more three years without playing competitive hockey, Williams returned to the ice this season with Robert Morris University of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, and she has made such an impact that USA Hockey selected her to represent Team USA at the upcoming Women’s World University Games.
With Williams serving as the Eagles’ offensive catalyst, piling up a team-leading 16 goals and 32 points, ranking third in the entire ACHA in scoring, the squad is off to an outstanding 12-4-0 start to the 2013-14 season.
Making the U.S. roster, which is comprised of players from across the ACHA (high-quality hockey not associated with the NCAA) and opens the tournament on Dec. 10 against Russia in Trentino, Italy, is almost difficult to comprehend for someone who was out of the game for so long.
“It’s amazing,” Williams said of her turn-around this year. “It’s always been a dream of mine, definitely since I started playing hockey, to put on that Team USA jersey. I’m totally excited about it, I’ve never been overseas at all, and what better way to go overseas than with Team USA?”
It’s somewhere she couldn’t have imagined going just a couple of years ago.
Back in 2009-10, Williams was playing NCAA Division I hockey at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, but she ran into some trouble with her schoolwork and was declared academically ineligible in March 2010.
“I just had a bad academic year,” she said. “I think I took it for granted. Just being a Division I athlete, I thought that it would just be handed to me or something. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was 18, 19 years old, and then once I realized it wasn’t going to just be handed to me, it was too late. I would have just been ineligible for a semester, but my coach just decided that it would be best if I didn’t come back.”
She remained at Bemidji State, without playing hockey, through the summer of 2012 before moving back to her hometown of Chicago, not far from the Robert Morris University campus.
That’s where a series of amazing coincidences led her on the path to Italy. In October 2012, Williams began volunteering to help out at junior hockey games for the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel.
While at the rink one day, the Robert Morris team took the ice to warm up and Williams spotted a former teammate from her teenage years playing on the squad. So she went over to say hello, and a half-joking “You think I could play with you guys?” comment ended up resulting in a tryout.
“It was actually really random and just a blessing, I guess,” Williams said of the casual conversation that changed her life. “I didn’t think it could really happen because I didn’t know eligibility rules or anything, and we went and talked to her coach and he said, ‘We’re actually having a recruit skate in a week, you should come out.’”
And although she felt considerably rusty, having not played an actual game in two and a half years, Williams impressed the coaching staff enough to be invited onto the squad.
“After the recruit skate, which was October 2012, I started practicing with them three times a week, knowing I wouldn’t be playing with them that season, but I just went and I used that practice time as my games and got back into it,” Williams said. “I skated on my own as much as possible, worked out every day.”
Williams officially enrolled at Robert Morris in February 2013 and finally began playing in games this fall. It’s been an incredible journey for someone who wasn’t ready yet to give up the game.
“Coming from NCAA to ACHA, there’s a lot of talk, ‘That’s just club hockey’ or whatever, but I was like, ‘I love hockey. I wasn’t ready for it to end, I don’t care if it’s club hockey or not, I want to play,’” Williams said. “And then when I did play, the competition is good. If an NCAA team wanted to play us, we’d definitely be competitive. And even then, I would never have gotten the chance to go to the World University Games if I wasn’t in the ACHA.”
In Italy, Williams is confident that Team USA, which finished fourth with a 2-5-0 record in the 2011 tournament, will be able to develop team chemistry quickly. It will have to do so amidst a hectic schedule, because after meeting on Tuesday, the squad flies over to Germany, buses immediately to Italy and then faces off against the Italian national team on Thursday (Dec. 5) in a tune-up game. Another exhibition game on Dec. 7 against the Austria should also help the process.
“I don’t know any of the other players on the team except the two girls from my team,” Williams said, referring to Robert Morris teammates Ramey Weaver and Jessica Merritt, who will join her on Team USA. “I think we just have one practice before we leave, so it should be interesting, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”
For Williams, coming home with a medal is just another dream she hopes to fulfill.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.