Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wendy McMillin - Hockey Wife and Sports Star

While I am on vacation (will return February 18) posting some of what I call "Best Of Allen Americans Blog" that maybe you missed when first posted or might enjoy rereading. This one was first posted January 20, 2013 and is the story about Wendy McMillin, the better half of Brian McMillin. It is one of the most popular stories I have ever written and has been been picked up all over the world. Of course since this story was written Wendy has experienced a championship here in Allen and also what it is like to play hockey in Europe while Brian was playing in England. She also played some hockey in England and was also on a volleyball team.

For quite a while I have been curious about what it is like to be the wife/girlfriend of an Allen Americans player living a long way from home in North Texas. Pro hockey is a vagabond existence for most hockey players and I was sure it presented some challenges for their significant others.   
Wendy McMillin played youth, high school & college hockey
Because they are from Minnesota like myself and I had met them a couple of times I asked Brian McMillin to run interference for me and ask his wife, Wendy, if she would sit down for an interview to answer a few questions. Wendy graciously agreed and it didn't take two questions for me to realize I had to tell her story and not just the story of being a hockey wife.

Wendy posing with the Stanley Cup
Wendy grew up in the small town of Hallock, Minnesota (population 973) which is in the very northwest corner of the state.  Hallock is   15 miles south of the Canadian border and 10 miles east of the North Dakota border. The 1996 film, Fargo, was partially filmed in Hallock. Wendy is the middle of three children of Heidi & Tracy Bergh.  Her dad is a third generation small grain farmer in Hallock. They have raised sunflowers, barley, canola, sugar beets, wheat, and soybeans over the years. He has a degree in civil engineering and does some substitute teaching in the winter. Her mom works for Digi-Key Corp in Thief River Falls which is over an hour away from Hallock. Her mom and dad met in college while attending North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND.  Wendy's older sister Jennifer did some figure skating when she was younger and her younger brother, Jeff, is playing Junior A hockey in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) for the Johnstown, PA Tomahawks.  Wendy started out figure skating but she yearned to play hockey. In third grade, the self professed tomboy asked her dad, who was the coach of the boys team in town, if she could play hockey. There was no girls team so as a third grader she started playing hockey with the boys. It was a little intimidating at first as the boys were bigger than her but it was also cool to be the only girl on the team. Because she had started out as a figure skater she always had good skating skills. An all-around athlete, Wendy also played basketball, volleyball, and softball. Hockey and basketball coincide so she actually played them at the same time. After seventh grade the hockey sanctioning body made a decision that disallowed Wendy from playing with the boys and she had to find a girls team. She ended up commuting to Roseau, which is 60 miles from Hallock, to continue her love of hockey. It was at this time, 8th grade, she gave up basketball as there just wasn't enough time to play both sports. However, she continued with volleyball and softball. So for the next two years (8th & 9th grades) she was playing hockey in Roseau and went to school and played the other sports in Hallock. As with many hockey players, the time and money commitment made by her parents was what allowed her to play.

Another big decision came as Wendy started high school (10th grade) because she could not play varsity hockey in Roseau without attending school in Roseau.  She and her family made the decision that she would move in with a host family (the goalie on her team's family) in Roseau as it would allow her to continue to play hockey and Roseau also had a great education system.

I want to take a moment to talk a little about hockey in northern Minnesota and Roseau in particular.  High school hockey in Minnesota is like football in Texas or basketball in Indiana. I found the following on the "Vintage Minnesota Hockey" web site:

-        To summarize Roseau hockey in one word: TRADITION
-        In the hockey-frenzied town of Roseau, Minn., 10 miles
-        south of the Canadian border, septuagenarian
-        grandmas can give you a 10-minute lecture on the
-        technique of a face-off in the defensive end. 
-        Roseau thrives on its image as the team of the north. How far north? So far that the huge, ice-sheathed Lake of the Woods, 20 miles away, is a certified remnant of the last glacial age of North America. It is what's left of the prehistoric Lake Agassiz that was created by the receding ice flow.
-        Sometime a little more recently in Roseau – something like 100 years ago – they discovered hockey. And the community of predominately second- and third-generation Scandinavians created its own history. Thirty one times it has advanced to the Minnesota state tournament, which among most hockey clans is regarded as the blue-ribbon event in American high school hockey. It has given to world hockey the brothers Neal, Aaron, and Paul Broten, all of whom played in the National Hockey League among nearly a dozen Roseau graduates who made it to the pros. Neal Broten starred on the "Miracle on Ice" American team that won the 1980 Olympics. 

Brian and Wendy circa 2006
     Roseau had its first indoor ice in the early 1940's and has three sheets of indoor ice all for a population of 2600. Kids always have ice time and it is free. One of the three rinks in town is called the north rink and it is primarily used as a place to skate & play hockey for fun. Wendy spent a lot of time skating at the north rink and as Wendy put it, Brian lived at the north rink. He ate there, did his homework there, & of course skated there constantly. She doesn't remember when they actually met but they became friends while skating at the north rink. They had plans to go to prom but hockey got in the way as Brian was trying out for a statewide select hockey team and the tryouts were on prom weekend. Soon after that they began dating.

      Wendy thrived in Roseau both athletically and scholastically. She made the varsity team in hockey, volleyball and softball her first year. By the time she completed high school she had been selected all conference in hockey and softball, she was captain of the hockey team as a Junior and Senior, was selected as an academic all American by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, won the Hobey Baker Character Award which is presented to a player on each high school hockey team in Minnesota that most exemplifies the values and traits of Hobey Baker himself. These values include character, commitment, teamwork, persistence, selflessness, academic excellence, and sportsmanship. She also won the Terrence Fogarty Hockey scholarship which is sponsored by Mr. Fogarty who is a world famous sports artist from Minnesota. It addition to the scholarship she received a limited edition print of one of his hockey paintings.  She is a member of the Roseau High School Hockey Hall of Fame.

      When it came time for college Wendy wanted to attend an Ivy League school and was looking at Cornell. Her hockey hero as a youngster was Angela  Ruggiero, a four time Olympic hockey player who won a gold medal in the 1998 Nagano Japan Olympics when she was still a senior in high school. Angela played college hockey at Harvard and that influenced Wendy to aspire to play at an Ivy league school. Cornell's hockey team was full so Wendy accepted an offer from Bemidji State Univeristy which is a division one program in the famed Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). She received both athletic and academic scholarships while at Bemidji State. It allowed Wendy to be play close to home as it was only two hours away. She was a year ahead of Brian in school so he was still back in Roseau as a senior.  Hockey in college was a full time job with practice, off ice training, tape review, and weekend travel. She rarely had time off during the season and if she did it was usually only one day so it was difficult to see her family in Hallock and Brian in Roseau. On the positive side she got to play the game she loved, played with and against people from all over the world including many Olympians.. Her team had players from Canada, Sweden and Germany. 

      When Brian graduated he accepted a scholarship to Colorado College which is in Colorado Springs. Wendy and Brian knew it was going to be difficult on their relationship being so far a part but they are goal driven and that helped them  understand each others situation and support each other. To make matters worse Colorado College was also in the WCHA so their respective schools were conference rivals. As a matter of fact, Brian's first collegiate goal proved to be the game-winner in a 5-3 triumph over Bemidji State the week after Christmas of his freshman year. 

      Both Wendy and Brian graduated from college in 2010. Wendy with a double major in mathematics and economics and a physics minor and Brian with a degree in Mathematical Economics. 

      After Brian finished his college season in 2010 he signed with the Kalamazoo Wings (ECHL). He played in three games for the Wings late in the 2010 season and then  signed a contract to play in Kalamazoo for the 2010-2011 season. So after the summer at home where Wendy managed the community pool (she had worked there every summer since 10th grade) and Brian worked for the county,  Brian headed to Kalamazoo for training camp. Wendy stayed in Hallock to help her dad with the fall harvest and then joined Brian in Kalamazoo. As soon as she arrived in Kalamazoo she started looking for a job but it took over a month to find one.

      This is the part of the story where being the wife/girlfriend of a pro hockey players starts. In November, 2010, the very day Wendy found a job in Kalamazoo and only fourteen games into the season Brian was released. Wendy describes this time as scary and saddening as they almost felt homeless. They didn't want to drive all the way back to northern Minnesota as they were hoping to get picked up be another team and figured that would happen quickly.  When nothing happened they ended up driving to Minneapolis and staying with Brian's family at a hotel for a few days as his little brother was in town playing in a hockey tournament. They were hoping to get a call while in Minneapolis but no call came. So they headed home to Roseau. A day after they got home Brain got a call from Dwight Mullins. The connection between Mullins and Brian was through one of his college coaches, Joe Bonnett.  Brian, an avid hunter, was in a deer stand when he got the call from the Mullins.
      Wendy's first thought when hearing they were coming to Allen was cowboy hats and cowboys boots but when she found out Allen was a Dallas suburb she was excited to get here. For those that are not aware, in the CHL lodging is provided for the players in the form of a furnished apartment. If you are single you share an apartment but if you are married you get your own apartment. Since Wendy and Brian were not married at the time they had a roommate. Mitch McColm and Scott Campbell were their roommates at various times.

     Wendy remembers being very impressed with the apartment (Fairways of Wilson Creek), the surrounding area, and the Allen Event Center. She was able to get a job very quickly and has continued to work at First National Bank Southwest in Frisco. She has been promoted several times and is currently working in business and commercial lending. Her current position is  "Business Specialist" and it is a trainee position to be a Business Banker Commercial Lender which is her long term goal.

      Wendy describes her role as a hockey wife as amazing. They are living a dream making a living at something they love so much. Wendy spends a lot of time with the other wives/girlfriends and they get along very well. With so many young children among this years team they do less going out but they hang out at each others apartments on the weekends. 
      A typical game day for a home game is very structured for Brian. He is very precise on when he does everything during the day, timing things almost to the minute. When Brian heads for the rink in the morning for the game day skate Wendy takes the opportunity to work out. When Brian comes home after the team lunch he takes a nap and as Wendy told me, "I try not to be a bum and take a nap but I usually end up taking a nap too." After Brian leaves for the rink for the game Wendy gets ready and likes to arrive so she can watch warm ups. Wendy usually sits in a suite on the second level of the Allen Event Center with the other wives/girlfriends but she also likes to sit close to the ice as she like seeing the game up close so on occasion she will watch the game from the lower level. Having played hockey most of her life she watches the game with more intensity than most and she really appreciates what they have and all that has gone into where Brian is today. As I saw tears well up in her eyes she said, "I do get emotional about it as it is a dream for him I know. To get paid to play something you love, to have all of the opportunities we have, to meet the people we have met, things like having Eddie Belfour's number in your cell phone, that's unbelievable so I will do anything for him right now so he can keep it up."

      Game day when the team is on the road is time for Wendy to do things for herself that she doesn't do when Brian is in town. She normally does not talk to him unless he texts her first. The wives/girlfriends have a group on Facebook that helps them coordinate get togethers. They will get together in someones apartment and watch the game or at least have the game on. Wendy admits it is tough to pay close attention to the game but the wives and girlfriends have a great time. 

e    Wendy typically attends the away games in Ft. Worth and has traveled to Tulsa as well. The ultimate hockey fan she often goes to the away games by herself.

      When I asked Wendy about what she likes to do when she isn't working  the overachieving athlete in her came out. After not playing hockey since college she has recently started playing hockey again on a women's team and will be playing in a tournament in Louisiana next month. She is training to do a marathon and hopes to compete in the White Rock marathon this year.

Brian and Wendy were married last June
      During the past off season Brain and Wendy were married back home in Roseau. They spent the summer in Allen because of Wendy's job. 

      I thought it would be interesting to ask Wendy some of the questions I usually ask the players when I do a player profile.
      Here are her answers:

     Hockey Hero: Angela Ruggiero

     Favorite Actress: Sandra Bullock

     Favorite Type Of Music: I listen to everything

     Favorite Group: Nickelback

     Something That Has Great Value to You But Little Value To Anyone Else: I have a hockey puck collection from everywhere I have played or visited. My mom has helped me put this together.

     What Chore Do You Hate Doing: Cleaning the apartment

     Something People Would be Surprised to learn About You: I can play six different instruments (trumpet, trombone, french horn, guitar, pipe organ with pedals (she played at church for many years) and the piano.

     Who Do You Admire As a Leader:  The two bosses I have had at work. They are mentors for me and I have learned a lot from them.

     If you Could Live in Another Country For Two Years Where Would You Live: Australia

     If You Could Do Something Other Than What You Do Now What Would it Be: Pilot

     Who Is The Funniest Wife or Girlfriend: Taylor Ludwig

     Favorite Childhood Toy: McDonald's Drive Thru Playset. My sister and I used to play with it constantly.

     Favorite TV Show: Sons of Anarchy

 Surfing in Hawaii last year and yes, Wendy is a better surfer

What a treat it was to get to know Wendy McMillin. If she is typical of most hockey wives our players have a great support system at home. Wendy and Brian are living the dream and enjoying the ride. And if you notice one of the wives in the family suite on second floor very focused on the game and watching with intensity that is probably Wendy. If you see her walking the corridors of the AEC make sure to stop her and introduce yourself as she can talk hockey with the best of them.

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