It did not take much to convince Alyson Niebur to play hockey. After all, she comes from a hockey family.
Her uncle is John Gruden, a former NHL defenseman who played for Boston, Ottawa and Washington and now is an assistant coach for the New York Islanders. Gruden’s son Jonathan, Niebur’s cousin, was drafted by Ottawa and currently plays in the Ontario Hockey League.
“Hockey’s in my background. It’s in my blood,” said Niebur, a Cambridge-Isanti grad who now is a sophomore on the University of Wisconsin-River Falls women’s hockey team.
But Niebur is quick to point out that she did not feel any pressure to play the game.
“It was my decision [to play hockey], and I fell in love with it,” she said. “The more I practiced and played, the better I got, and I realized I could play college hockey. To me, it was natural to play hockey.”
Niebur played in 22 games as a freshman for the Falcons last season and finished with seven goals and 15 points. But she said she entered this season aiming to have a bigger impact on the team.
“Scoring goals was a part of that, and I’ve scored more goals this season,” she said. “I’ve tried to become stronger in the weight room, stronger on the ice.”
And Niebur is having the desired impact: She ranks fourth on the team in goals with 11, including a pair of power-play goals, and is sixth in points with 20 in 28 games. She played a key role on a team that is 21-5-2 thanks to a 2-1 victory over Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title game on Saturday, March 7.
Niebur and her teammates hope that record and league championship are enough to secure a second straight NCAA Division III tournament bid.
“Our magic number is 20 wins,” she explained. “Since we don’t have enough teams in our conference to get [an NCAA tournament] bid, we have to earn an at-large bid. We feel that, if we get to 20 wins, we will have a good chance to get a bid.”
Neibur said she will never forget the excitement surrounding last year’s NCAA tournament.
“When we saw our name on the television screen, we started going crazy,” she said. “We were hugging and high-fiving. … The whole experience was super-awesome.”
Wisconsin-River Falls hopes to do more than just earn a berth in the tournament. The Falcons hope to improve on last year’s performance, which saw them lose to eventual national runner-up Hamline in the tournament’s opening round.
“We had a lot of freshmen, and I think we got too excited,” Niebur said. “Hopefully this year we’ll be more comfortable. We know what we need to do, and now we have the experience to do those things.”
Niebur is a sophomore with plans to graduate in the spring of 2022 with a degree in biomedicine with a minor in chemistry.
“My goal is to become a physician’s assistant,” she said. “I want to specialize in sports medicine. … After graduation I hope to enter grad school at Bethel or St. Scholastica, but I’m not opposed to traveling, especially if I go somewhere warm.
“At first I wanted to be a pharmacist, which is why I got my pharmacy technician’s license. So I did that last summer and, while it wasn’t bad, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I think now I want to be more involved with sports.”