Growing up, the dream was to play college hockey.

Her dream, it turned out, was only the beginning.

Oak Grove native and St. Francis High School graduate Haylea Schmid achieved her dream playing hockey at St. Cloud State University.

Now, she’s living out a new reality as a professional hockey player, part of the groundbreaking Minnesota Whitecaps franchise that is set to start a third season in the National Women’s Hockey League this month. The Whitecaps won the NWHL’s Isobel Cup two years ago and reached the finals in a pandemic-shortened season last winter.

It has been a lifelong journey on the ice for Schmid, whose start in skating was barely preceded by her time walking. Following in the footsteps, or skates, of her family, her father signed her up for hockey when she was 5. Any chance available, she and her brother Nick, two and a half years older than her, would find a place to play hockey with friends.

“My brother did it so I did it,” Schmid said. “My dad played growing up, so it was something he just wanted us kids to try. I started skating when I was 3, then I started playing organized hockey when I was 5.

“One of the biggest reasons I excelled playing hockey growing up was the fact that I always wanted to try to keep up with my brother and his buddies. We would be outside playing pond hockey, any free time we had we’d be out on the rink. I think a big part of me excelling in hockey was just me trying to keep up with the boys and my brother and his friends.”

Schmid’s early years in hockey weren’t without adversity. Since there was no developed girls program for her age at the time, she began playing on the boys team. After a few years, she wanted to quit.

An alternative was reached when Schmid, age 9, and no 10U team to play for, moved up to the 12U roster. A newfound spark was lit.

“I had a blast,” Schmid said. “I loved it. I actually did pretty well at that level. I think coming from playing with the boys, I was a little more advanced skill-wise. I ended up having a blast and it just took off from there.”

The success only got bigger.

The potential of one day being a strong high school player was becoming apparent. Soon, the dream of playing after graduation at the college level set in.

“I think it was a year by year thing where it grew,” Schmid said. “When I switched over to girls, I had been thinking about quitting, and I found a new love for the game. I remember every year we would go to a Gopher women’s hockey game to go watch them – Krissy Wendell was playing at the time – and I think that’s when I started thinking, ‘Hey, this is really fun, I really like this, I’m doing good at it.’ I think as year by year went on I started getting more involved with training camps and development and tryouts for different things, it just started to take off for me. Once I realized, ‘Hey, you can do this in college, and there are scholarships and opportunities out there,’ that was really cool for me around junior high thinking what I want to do with my future. My parents put it in my ear, you’ve got to work really hard on the ice and in school if you want to get a scholarship. Probably seventh grade or so that was my goal, something I started thinking about.

“But there was no pro team on my mind. It would be the Olympics – that was it. You can go to college and you can be an Olympian if you’re fortunate enough.”

After high school, the time to live out her goal of playing college hockey had arrived. She found a perfect fit not far north at St. Cloud State.

“It was my goal to play Division I hockey,” Schmid said. “It was just a matter of finding which school was the best fit and what scholarship offers were like. I had a couple of schools on my radar, but I think St. Cloud just ended up being an easy choice because it was only an hour away and my parents were always pretty involved with me growing up playing sports and playing hockey, and I knew they’d really enjoy being able to come and watch me from time to time. So that was a factor. And then also I had a couple of girls from my summer team that I played with, they were already recruited to St. Cloud, so that was also just another easy choice – familiar faces I know and that helped make an easy transition too.

“My high school coaches were big advocates for me too. They helped push me in my career to keep moving forward.”

Schmid’s first year at the college level was a huge success, as her debut season came alongside some of the best players in St. Cloud State history, as the Huskies enjoyed one of their top seasons ever.

“My first year was a lot of fun,” Schmid said. “I didn’t play a lot my first year – I’d suit up for every game – but we were really good my freshman year,” Schmid said. “We ended up third in the WCHA for the regular season. Our seniors were just outstanding. We had six or seven seniors my freshman year, and we just did super well.”

The Huskies went through a youth wave over the seasons that followed, with several new faces replacing the team’s senior core. Nonetheless, the time at St. Cloud was an unforgettable experience.

“It was just really fun to be a part of a team and be competitive,” Schmid said. “In college they treat you like you’re an all-star. You get the best of everything, so it was just really fun to be in that atmosphere and be a part of something bigger than you just studying and going to school.”

Her collegiate career over and her main childhood goal fulfilled, Schmid still felt a desire to stay on the ice.

She found that chance half a world away, joining a professional team in Ingolstadt, Germany. After a season overseas, she came back home, unsure if her hockey career had reached its end.

“I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and if I wanted to join the real world,” Schmid said. “That was a really fun experience. It was the best of both worlds. That was kind of my gap year after college.

“I got a job after that when I came back working here in Minnesota and I kind of just took the year off. I think I was a little burnt out. College is really intense. You’re usually at the rink six days a week, and then when I was in Germany, it wasn’t as intense, a little more laid back, but it was still competitive.”

After a year away from hockey, Schmid was ready to return. She just needed an opportunity.

“I think when I got back, I just didn’t really know what to do with myself,” Schmid said. “You kind of think, ‘Well, now what?’ I think a lot of athletes in general have that happen once their sport is over and it’s not something as competitive as they’re used to, they don’t know quite what to do with themselves, and I think that’s where I was at. I was kind of at a standstill and didn’t know what to do. So I didn’t do anything. It was a weird year.

“I finally remembered, and a friend reminded me, ‘Hey, the Whitecaps are still out there, you should go play for them!’ And I was like, I don’t even know what to do. I knew a couple of the girls on the team, so I ended up emailing the coach, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, just show up for practice!’ So I did! It was funny because it was so laid back before the NWHL – this was before we were in an established league.”

The Minnesota Whitecaps began in 2004 and spent their early years as a women’s professional hockey team in a Canadian league before becoming unaffiliated later on. Still competing, yet not in the NWHL, the team would play exhibition games against Division I teams across the state, yet players wouldn’t be under a contract.

“We played the U of M, we went up to Duluth, we played St. Cloud, Mankato,” Schmid said. “I did that for two years; that’s when our head coach and GM Jack Brodt decided to join the NWHL.”

Upon joining the NWHL, the commitment to the Whitecaps became more intense. Quickly, the team thrived.

“The first year with the NWHL, I ended up signing a contract,” Schmid said. “It’s just so interesting how it’s transformed. It used to be pretty laid back; it basically was, before we had a league, ‘Hey, come to practice when you can, let us know if you can make the game and Coach will make a roster.’ Everybody had other commitments because hockey wasn’t our No. 1 all the time. That’s what we wanted to do, but a lot of us had other commitments, we’re coaching or have other jobs that might interfere.

“Once the NWHL started, Coach said, ‘If you’re going to sign this contract, you’re going to be committed to the team, to making all the practices, you’re committed to a full season, a full game schedule.’ There was a little more commitment involved once we joined the NWHL.”

In 2018-19, the Whitecaps had a debut season to remember. Taking the league by storm, Minnesota finished with the NWHL’s top regular season record before proceeding to win the Isobel Cup in the playoffs.

“It’s been a lot of fun since joining the NWHL,” Schmid said. “For one, we’ve been able to travel more so that’s been a lot of fun, things we did in college. We traveled a little bit with the Whitecaps before we were in the league, but it’s been really fun to build that team camaraderie when you’re on road trips and playing more often than we did before. So it’s been a lot of fun.

“The other part is a lot more limelight. That’s been really fun. It’s been growing so much already. When we won the NWHL, won the Isobel Cup a year ago, it was so much fun how much publicity we got. The Wild invited us out to a game, the Twins invited us out, just so many different opportunities to get out in the limelight from different professional teams was just really fun, things we’ve never experienced before. We were on the news and people would say, ‘Hey, we saw your team, that’s so great!’ And then also to hear some people say, ‘I don’t think you guys got enough publicity.’ So it was just really interesting to hear people’s opinions of that, how much attention we got in the first year. I think that’s just really helped grow the game exponentially. By us winning in the first year, people were like, ‘I had no idea we had a professional team.’ It’s like, ‘Well, we’ve been here a long time since 2004.’ We’ve been flying under the radar. It was a cool experience to see all of that transform over our first year in the league.”

The Whitecaps were poised for a repeat title bid in 2019-20, having once again reached the Isobel Cup finals, but an abrupt halt to the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted the team’s chances.

“That was the Cinderella story that we didn’t get to have,” Schmid said. “We were so excited, so ambitious and eager to play in that championship game to try and win back-to-back championships. It’s just such a bummer that we weren’t able to play that and have that opportunity to see and figure out who truly was the winner of the season and champion, because of how good it was for the state of Minnesota in hockey for growing the sport for young girls, and so it was just kind of a huge bummer.”

The Whitecaps are set to return in 2021, however, once again with one of the top rosters in the league. Schmid returns as well, as the league itself continues to thrive and grow.

“It’s exciting,” Schmid said. “It was five teams in the NWHL, and this year they added a sixth team in Toronto. It’s really cool to see how far the league has grown in the three years our team has been in the league. That’s pretty incredible – I’m blown away by some of the fans that are out there.

“Last year at one of our home games, I ended up meeting a little girl from Oak Grove. She had no idea I was from St. Francis or Oak Grove. I was like, ‘Wait, why are you guys here?” because I just randomly asked her dad, ‘Oh, where are you guys from?’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, just a small town,’ and I was like, ‘What is it?’ and they said ‘Oak Grove,’ and I was like, ‘What! That’s my hometown!’ It was just such a cool experience, I was shocked, so happy to hear that. And she didn’t even play hockey, that was one of the coolest points of it all. Her dad just wanted her to get involved and to cheer for female athletes doing cool things. I just thought that was so cool.”

Young athletes across the state have had similar stories as they come out to support the team, including the St. Francis U12 team getting to sit on the bench during warmups at a game a year ago.

Now, young hockey players have a chance to watch a championship team take the ice, as current stars pave the way for the next generation that can visualize a future professional league they can dream of joining, a dream beyond college.

“It was really cool seeing my hometown team come out and support and be excited about it and have female athletes to look up to other than college teams,” Schmid said. “It’s just crazy to think about how far women’s hockey has gone even from when I was a senior in college in 2013. Looking back then, yeah, we had some role models, some younger girls who would come to our games, but they were more like local teams.

“But now I feel like almost every youth hockey girl knows who the Whitecaps are and it’s just really fun to be a part of that and a part of the bigger picture here trying to help grow the league, help younger girls look up to something and know they do have something they can strive for beyond college. So it’s just really fun to be a part of and it’s a humbling experience.”

As she did growing up, Schmid will continue to take her own hockey career a year at a time.

This season, she and the Whitecaps will seek a repeat title, even if it is a year delayed, while also relishing a chance to simply get back on the ice.

“I think the biggest struggle is just the balance,” Schmid said. “We are professional athletes and we do get paid, but we do have a professional career or job of our own that we have to balance. ... I think I would like to play as long as I can, as long as I’m competitive, as long as I’m still deserving to be on the team. It’s such a fun experience to be a part of, something bigger than you. We have three mothers on our team … it shows you can do anything you want. It’s just cool to see that. We’re in different places in our lives, but we’re all still here playing and capable and making a difference.

“I don’t have an exact timeline, but it’s just really fun to be a part of and I’m happy I can still be playing competitively.”

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