When I first ‘met’ Allie LaCombe we were teammates briefly at The Hockey Writers almost six years ago. Fast forward to this past Jan. 25 and we finally met in person in New Jersey following an NWHL game. LaCombe had just played her first game for the Connecticut Whale and helped them defeat the Metropolitan Riveters 2-1 in a shootout.
She played that game on a PTO (Professional Try Out) and would eventually sign with the Whale for the remainder of the season. In five regular-season games and two playoff games, the 26-year-old had 14 shots on goal, registered two points (1g-1a), and won 36 of the 58 face-offs she took.
Not only did she not look like a player that hadn’t played in a competitive league for over a year (more on that later), LaCombe looked like a difference-maker and her skill set – along with some other key late-season additions – balanced out the Whale’s lineup. LaCombe scored the insurance goal as Connecticut won a playoff game for the first time in four years, winning 5-3 in Buffalo.
So where in the world was Allie LaCombe between then and now? Lots of places. Lots and lots of different places. I spoke with the Eden Prairie, Minnesota native by phone last week to get the 4-1-1 on where she’s been and what she’s done.
“I studied sports management in school and really took a liking to public relations, writing has always been a strong asset of mine. I took the writing role with The Hockey Writers with the hope of covering the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the next summer I was interning with them on the media relations side,” explained LaCombe.
“That was happening while I was still playing hockey collegiately for Syracuse University. Once I graduated I went overseas and played in Vienna, Austria and then I moved to Nashville. Then I took a part-time job in Kazakstan, where I would fly out for two weeks at a time and play professionally. Then I would come back home to coach,” she said.
“Currently I run an ice rink in Nashville in addition to coaching two travel teams from the Nashville Jr. Predators. So yeah, it’s been a crazy journey of a lot of flying, a lot of coaching, and a lot of playing hockey the past four years,” she said with a smile that could be heard through the phone.
It’s her passion. Her love for the game is oozing out of her pores and is noticeable in everything she does with such enthusiasm.
The connection to the NWHL and specifically the Whale came from Kaycie Anderson, whom LaCombe knew from playing on teams together back home in Minnesota. Anderson had been recruiting LaCombe for a while and in January it paid off.
“She put me in touch with (head coach) Colton Orr and (GM) Bray Ketchum Peel and they had me come out for a tryout. I had a great tryout and they signed me,” she said laughing. “Yeah going from writing in college to playing professional hockey in 5-6 years has been quite the journey, but it’s been a lot of fun.”
Since it had been a while, I quizzed LaCombe on what she had written about for THW all those years ago. She wrote a total of five articles, all Penguins-related and after some brief thinking, she nearly recalled every single one. Some of us can’t recall what we did yesterday or a few hours ago, so to me that was quite impressive!
“I think I wrote about Olli Maata,” she replied immediately and nailed it. That was the first article she penned for THW. “If I had to guess I would also say Flower, I’m a big fan of Marc-Andre Fleury,” continued LaCombe as she recalled another.
“And probably Sidney Crosby. Was it when he had the mumps?” she asked with a laugh. That’s 3-for-3 for LaCombe now! Unreal. “It’s been a long time since I thought about those articles,” she added. The other two didn’t immediately come to mind but she wrote about Pascal Dupuis’ battle with a blood clot and three young Penguins – Bryan Rust, Derrick Pouliot, and Brian Dumoulin making their NHL debuts.
Growing up in Minnesota as a fan of the Wild, writing the Dupuis article was especially neat for her because she had that connection to a former player there.
Marching with the Penguins
“For every NHL team I’ve worked for or worked with, in my experiences, the Penguins are the most professional by far. Everything is very detail-oriented, not that the other teams aren’t, but the vibe is just professionalism at the highest grade,” said LaCombe of her time in the Pittsburgh organization.
She stressed that no two teams run things the same way, and despite the different environment in Nashville, it is still an enjoyable and professional experience that she’s encountered. In her mind, both team’s cultures represent the diversity of the two cities in which the teams are based.
“It’s interesting to see how things are run and operate behind the scenes of these NHL franchises,” LaCombe said.
While at college in Syracuse she interned with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, which its where she really got her start in media relations. It was very convenient, with campus a few miles from the Crunch’s home rink, and they allowed her to experience a variety of different roles behind the scenes of a professional team.
That internship was the point in her life where she started feeling like she was on the path to something that would be fulfilling as well as enjoyable, being around the game she loves.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
Back in the summer of 2016 LaCombe and I almost crossed paths in Buffalo. I was in town to take in the NHL Draft and she was there with a group of other players at a tryout for NWHL teams. The league had just finished it’s first season and was looking to replenish its rosters. I attended one of the tryouts and remembered seeing a lanky player with orange and blue Syracuse gloves dangling away during drills and shootout attempts.
I recognized her name on the list of attendees but didn’t get the chance to interview her that afternoon. Four years later we were able to finally link up in person as her journey brought her to the NWHL.
“I always say everything happens for a reason and that was the way that my journey was supposed to be,” LaCombe replied when I asked her about the tryout. “I was offered a practice player position with the Buffalo Beauts and with my financial situation the way it was at the time it just wasn’t a good enough option for me.”
“I think I could have worked my way onto the team in Buffalo, but I decided to take a spot on a team in Vienna instead,” she continued. “Had I not done that I wouldn’t have been able to basically travel the entire world! I’ve been to 22 countries, I know four languages (English, German, French, Russian), I moved to Nashville and really helped kickstart girls hockey programs down here.”
She admitted it was a bummer to not be offered a regular role with Buffalo or any of the teams. But she swallowed her pride and eventually made her way back to the NWHL. “I wanted to play there because it’s a league I hadn’t played in,” LaCombe added. “It was a true testament to myself and my true character.”
“I want to do everything I can. I know I’m not going to make an Olympic team, but I want to compete at the highest level possible. I really loved playing for the Connecticut Whale for those seven games,” she said, smiling through the phone again. “It was an unreal journey that I would never do differently.”
When it was suggested that she didn’t look out of place at all, she laughed and joked that her heart rate would disagree with me. But the more games she played, the more of her talent and smarts started to show up consistently.
“I had to adjust to that pace of play and find my confidence on the ice. It was a bummer when it ended because I felt like we were really hitting our groove and our team really started to gel,” said LaCombe. “Such a great experience.”
As mentioned at the top, LaCombe’s lone goal in the NWHL (to date) came in the playoff win over the Beauts and kids when you have one goal to your credit, you want it to be as pretty and silky smooth as hers was. If the NHL Network or ESPN ever showed any women’s hockey highlights they would have replayed the crap out of her goal.
“The dangle?” she replied with a chuckle. “It’s funny because the rink I run is a small ice training facility, a 3-on-3 sized sheet of ice. So I’m on small ice 25-30 hours a week coaching, training, and playing. So I’m used to that small area game. When you can win a quick battle and get to the net quick – that’s all we work on. So a lot of credit on that goal goes to all of my training on the smaller ice.”
LaCombe’s presence, along with other late signings Katelynn Russ and Janine Weber, really made the Whale a formidable group and they were in a tight semifinal game with 10 minutes left in Boston before eventually falling 4-1 to end their season. So what are the chances that we see her back with the Whale or in the NWHL again this upcoming season?
“I would love to play in the league again, but I live in Nashville, Tennessee. I have to fly to play so it would be something that I would have to work out somehow because I’m still a full-time coach and GM here. My want versus ability is two different things,” she said leaving the door open. “If it works out I would love that. We’ll see.”
Memo to NWHL GMs: give her a call!
She added that if the NWHL expanded a little further south or even to Nashville that would be ideal, and she wasn’t a huge fan of my suggestion to name the team the Nashville LaCombe’s unfortunately. How about not was basically her answer.
Currently, LaCombe will continue her duties growing the game in Music City as coach and GM, but we all hope that she’ll be a part of the NWHL again sooner rather than later.
“My whole career I’ve been an athlete but there is a different sense of accomplishment being a coach,” she told me. “When you get to see people improving and have kids look up to you, it’s just such a great feeling. To have such a large impact is something I never thought I’d do and I don’t do it alone. I have tons of help. It takes a village and I’m just a small part of it. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
Whatever the next phase is for LaCombe you can be sure that she will give it everything she has and do it with every ounce of enthusiasm in her body.