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UND women's hockey players from Winnipeg reeling but have 'no regrets'

UND's Ryleigh Houston (right) and teammate Vilma Tanskanen take a break from practice Thursday at Ralph Engelstad Arena. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 4
UND's Ryleigh Houston, 18, Winnipeg, says it's difficult to think about anything else these days after the shocking news her sport would be cut from UND. She said Thursday at a workout at Ralph Engelstad Arena that several schools had looked at recruiting her but she has no regrets she chose UND. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 4
UND's Ryleigh Houston (left) and Vilma Tanskanen practice lining up shots Thursday in Ralph Engelstad Arena. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 4
UND's Ryleigh Houston takes a shot during practice Thursday in Ralph Engelstad Arena. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 4

Some day, some how, Ryleigh Houston may look back at the end of her freshman season on the UND women's hockey team as a learning experience.

That doesn't seem possible now.

These days, the pain of losing her team makes it hard for the 18-year-old Winnipegger to think about anything besides the despair and disappointment she shares with her teammates and coaching staff at UND.

In a shocking move, the school's women's hockey team was axed in a budget cutting move on March 29. Houston's academic year won't be over for another month but it's been difficult to concentrate on her studies — she is majoring in clinical psychology.

But life goes on.

"This is where I want to be, and I want to put 110 percent into saving this program," said Houston before a gym workout Thursday afternoon in the stupendous training facilities in UND's Ralph Engelstad Arena. "But at the same time, I've got to have a backup plan. I did have a lot of schools looking at me, and I chose to come here, but I don't regret the decision one bit. If I had it all to do over just to play one year here, I would definitely do it again."

Plan B

Houston is a rising star forward on the national scene. She was a member of Canada's under-18 national team and made a bid for under-22 nationals last summer, falling just short. In her first season at UND, Houston finished second in team scoring with eight goals and 26 points in 36 games.

Her services will be in high demand. She was recruited by 30 of the 35 NCAA Division I programs and probably will have no trouble finding a new home, if she needs one. UND head coach Brian Idalski has asked other schools to give his players some time and space to adjust to their new reality, but Houston knows she will have to make a decision shortly.

Her dad, Curtis, has been fielding calls from other programs, but Houston plans to take a bigger role in the conversations by the weekend.

"You work so hard in your high school career to get somewhere you want to be and to have that all dissipate in the matter of an hour," Houston said. "It's really shocking, and honestly, the couple of days after we found out, it was almost like it wasn't actually happening. You wake up, you're still there, you're still in your apartment, you're still going to classes. It doesn't feel real. It set in the most when you had to find a Plan B if this all falls through. The hardest part is knowing you want to be here and your heart wants to be here but you might have to find somewhere else."

Houston, freshman goaltender Kristen Campbell of Brandon, Man., and goaltender Annie Chipman of Winnipeg and defenseman Halli Kryzaniak of Neepawa, Man., both seniors, combined to make up half of the Canadian contingent on the Fighting Hawks roster. Kryzaniak currently is playing for Canada at the women's world championship in Plymouth, Mich.

In a daze

Chipman has completed her eligibility but was equally devastated by last week's news.

"Walking into the locker room and seeing everybody with swollen eyes," recalled Chipman, whose dad is Winnipeg Jets co-owner and True North Sports & Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman. "The last time I was in the locker room, we had so much joy. It was just really hard to walk into that situation. It took a very long time for it to set in, and it still hasn't. It'll hit me at random times through the day, like driving past The Ralph thinking, we can't use this next year. There will be no games. It's just crazy."

Chipman, a double-major in marketing and communications, has developed a strong bond with the school.

"I still have another year of school to finish," Chipman said. "I've got two degrees, so there's quite a few extra credits you have to take on top of the requirements. I was planning on coming back and working in any capacity. Like I told (head coach) Brian (Idalski), anything you need me for, I'm going to be around. Whether it's media or helping out with the goalies, just to be around. To be in Grand Forks and not be part of the program was not something I've ever considered."

UND players are fighting for themselves, but also for the future of women's hockey. In Grand Forks, the women share a facility with the powerhouse UND men's team but very little of the glory. The men averaged 11,505 fans through 21 home games in 2016-17 while the women averaged 807 fans in 19 home dates.

"Everyone is committed to the fight here, and even if it's not possible, it's setting a precedent for other schools that you can't make a cut like that and get away with it without a lot of pushback from the team," Chipman said. "This is not only affecting us. There's 26 spots completely gone from Division I women's hockey. Now there's 26 girls who aren't going to get to play."