March 8, 2020.
That was the last day of NWHL games before the pandemic encapsulated not only the hockey world but obviously the entire planet. On that day, one year ago, Allie Thunstrom scored what is arguably the biggest goal of her hockey career. Her overtime goal clinched a 1-0 win over the Metropolitan Riveters for the Minnesota Whitecaps – who were about to head back to the Isobel Cup Final to defend their title.
While she didn’t register a point in the four games her team recently played in Lake Placid in the NWHL’s first attempt at a 2021 season, Thunstrom has had so many victories during her year away from the game she loves so passionately that the mere fact that she was on the ice at all should be celebrated just as much as any of her many goals and well-earned accolades.
Family Illness. Heart surgery. Torn MCL. How would your body react after a year of trials and tribulations like none you’ve ever encountered before?
She was just coming off of a season for the ages. 24 games played, 24 goals scored, 36 points. Co-MVP of the league with Boston’s Jillian Dempsey.
“I think so,” replied Thunstrom when asked if the overtime goal against the Riveters was the biggest goal of her career. “I’ve scored some game-tying goals in college, and some in overtime but I don’t think they were ever in quite as big of a game like that.”
Let’s not forget that the game was 0-0 for over 66 minutes, too. If anyone was going to score that day, it was Thunstrom. Not only was she coming off of 24-goals in a 24-game stretch, but she also had seven shots on goal in the game. She was feeling it.
Thunstrom paused, and then finished her thought, “Season on the line. Ticket to the Isobel Cup Final. I don’t think other than high school that anything was quite to that extent of how big of a game or moment it was.”
“I have TimeHop on my phone and every day I’ll peek in and see what was going on last year or the year before. Over the past few weeks, it’s been the end of the season. We played Boston at the end of January and won a super-exciting game. That started the trickle effect that got us to that game in the semifinals.”
“It is really surreal just how different this year has been, which of course, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. It just reiterates how different life has been during the last 365 days. If you would have told me what the next 365 days would have held I would’ve said that you’re insane. This is straight out of a movie, and not a very good one.”
Zoom. Sanitizer. Masks. Three words that a year ago we had no idea how they would be related, but if you mention to someone the three of them together at any point after reading this they’d know exactly what you meant.
“I thought the little hand sanitizer bottles that you attached to your backpack were cute, at best,” Thunstrom said with a chuckle. “I was never a big hand sanitizer person, I’d rather just wash my hands with soap and water. But once covid started, I became the sanitation czar. Like the woman in that Frank’s Red Hot commercial – I put that sh*t on everything! That was me with Lysol.”
Thunstrom’s mother is asthmatic, which made her high risk for serious complications if she became infected. So she did all she could to help keep her family protected.
“I would go grocery shopping for my parents and then sanitize the groceries. I would wipe everything down in their garage before bringing it into their house,” she explained. “It was wild.” As we now know a year into this pandemic, you can try to be as safe as possible and somehow the virus still finds a way. In May, Thunstrom’s mom was confirmed covid-positive.
“She woke up with a fever of 102 and a pounding headache – the way she described it was like her head was going to pop off.” So she did what any loving daughter would do — all that she can to take care of her.
“My office at work was shut down since March so I was working from home. We have a wonderful friend who is a doctor and she was so helpful and able to guide me through the proper steps and ways to take care of her,” said Thunstrom. “She actually even did a home visit the next day.”
“For the next month of my life, I took care of her. I would put on some rainwear and triple-masked up every morning to check her temperature. She did not leave her bed, she did not eat, she barely drank for about 16 days straight. I would go through the same process to check her breathing about every four hours.”
After about three weeks, a 12-hour hospital visit was necessary because her mother had come down with pneumonia. Thankfully the doctors were able to treat that, and after a long May and part of June, she was finally starting to feel better.
“At one point I was super scared, I know I didn’t sleep for the first four days she had it because every doomsday scenario went through my mind,” Thunstrom revealed. “Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl Anthony-Towns’ mom had just passed away from covid. So that was all that I could think of. What do I do? How can I live without my mom? I was terrified the whole time she had it.”
Thunstrom and her father finally got covid tests at the end of May and thankfully tested negative, but in June when he went to donate blood he tested positive for the antibodies. They have no idea when or how he had it, but he never had any symptoms.
“My mom has had residual effects for months. She recovers early June, feels better for three weeks, and then in July, we ended up in the ER twice because all of her extremities blew up,” Thunstrom said. “So they found a heart murmur and she had to go through an entire cardiac workup. This is again, early in the process of understanding what covid does long-term regarding cardiac effects to people.”
“They find out it is attributed to covid and treated it. So now here we are in March 2021, almost a full year later, she’s feeling almost back to 100%. Almost.”
The Thunstroms are feeling fortunate that it wasn’t worse, and that their family wasn’t as brutally affected as so many families have been around the world during the past 365 days.
You Gotta Have Heart
Just as Thunstrom is learning of her mother’s heart condition and fighting to get better, she now started experiencing some pretty scary and gnarly episodes that warranted medical attention for herself as well.
“I’ve known about an arrhythmia issue with myself for a few years,” she explained. “There is a cluster of cells in my right ventricle that cause my heart to beat irregularly. Usually skipped beats or extra beats. I’ve had it tested several times and usually my symptoms leading up to those include extreme fatigue, feeling weird during workouts, thinking I was having an allergic reaction, hard to breathe; it almost feels like an anxiety attack.”
In mid-June, Thunstrom has to pull herself out of a softball game. She felt like she was going to pass out, granted it was a really hot day. So she took care of herself over the next seven days, treating what she thought was dehydration and the following weekend the same thing happens.
Remember, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, so it’s not like she can just drive to a doctor’s office to get this examined thoroughly like in normal years. Two weeks go by and now Thunstrom is doing a zoom call at home with the Minnesota Wild Leadership Summit and it did not go well.
“I could hardly focus on my screen, felt like I was going to pass out. I go to play in another softball tournament three days later; it’s early in the morning, the sun isn’t really at full force yet, and I started feeling it again in the middle of our first game of the day.”
She’s able to get to an urgent care facility finally, and the doctors hook her up to an EKG, ask a few questions and then leave the room for about 20 minutes. “I’m thinking they’re going to come back with some fluids or electrolytes,” explained Thunstrom. “When they come back 20 minutes later they say we just got off the phone with United Hospital and their cardiac clinic. We’re admitting you to the hospital. Do you wanna go by ambulance? Can you drive yourself?”
Her EKG was pretty messed up looking to put it in laymen’s terms. So she drives home where her mom picked her up and took her to the hospital, where she has never had to spend a night before.
“It was all just so bizarre.”
“I get admitted, get hooked up to all of these monitors, get another covid test. This was a Saturday evening and at this point, I still really don’t know what’s going on,” she recalls. “I know I’m in the hospital and they are concerned about my heart. The doctors come by ridiculously early in the morning and say we are keeping you overnight again, do some more tests Monday, and then an ablation surgery on Tuesday.”
“Hold up. What? We just went from zero to a million way too quickly here!”
She eventually calls the Whitecaps doctors from TRIA, puts them in contact with the doctors at the hospital, and by the end of Monday, Thunstrom is transferred to the team at TRIA.
“I got to leave the hospital, and the next day got some additional testing to make sure there were no other issues. About a week after that I had surgery for the heart ablation. That was quite the experience.”
Her symptoms were getting worse, more frequent. But the doctors assure her that it’s a common procedure and that the heart generally heals itself pretty fast. Most people can resume normal activities in 7-10 days. Early in August Thunstrom goes in for her surgery.
“The surgery was done and I thought this was going to be, like, a great day. I was finally going to feel better, so I had asked the nurse to take pictures and tell me what was going on so I would remember it. They showed me afterward how much of my right ventricle they had to ablate and it was a lot, a lot more than they had anticipated.”
Now in the recovery room, the doctors want her to get up and walk a bit. Her mother is in the room. They get her to sit up and she doesn’t feel well. But she just had surgery, this is normal, right?
They start walking down the hallway and she still isn’t feeling great, maybe even worse. So she’s asked if she wants to go to the bathroom to gather herself. Sounds like a great plan. Until.
“I remember looking forward and realizing it was only ten steps away to the bathroom,” recalls Thunstrom. “All of a sudden I felt like I was going to throw up, so I stopped and tried to regain my composure. The next thing I remember is all of these people surrounding me and hearing, ‘Call Doctor Schultz! Call Doctor Schultz!’”
“I hear someone sprinting down the hallway saying my name, Allie Allie Allie! Turns out that I passed out in that moment and my blood pressure was down to 48 over 30 or something crazy like that. I had no idea what was going on, but I was profusely sweating after passing out.”
“I hear my mom in the background tearing up, so I start asking if she’s okay. The doctor talks to her and I knew something wasn’t right. Apparently, I was laying on the floor of the hallway and they had to come and roll me onto a sheet and lift me into a bed before bringing me back to my room.”
She spends another night so they could monitor her heart. Every time she got comfortable and started to doze off the machine hooked up to her heart would start beeping, summoning the nurses to check on her. Every time Thunstrom starts to relax, her heart rate would drop and set off the alarm.
“I legitimately was asking myself if I was dying,” she told us. “The next day I went home and slept for I think ten hours and made my mom check on me every 20 minutes or so to make sure I was breathing because I was terrified, and exhausted. I could barely walk ten feet.”
Two, three days go by. She can walk maybe twenty steps without being physically wiped out.
“How am I ever going to play sports again? How am I ever going to do anything like that? They told me the medicine they put in my IV after I passed out can last for up to five days,” she recalled. “So I think okay, I just have to get through a week and I’ll feel better.”
A week goes by. She feels better, but not good. Two weeks go by and she tries to do a workout, but that ends when she feels like she’s about to pass out.
“At that point I didn’t think id ever play hockey again.”
She meets with the doctors again, they run a bunch of tests and everything looks fine. “They said to keep in mind when we say people can return to normal activities in 7-10 days, we mean like going to the grocery store, not high-level athletes. So give yourself some time.”
Basically, her body needs more time to figure out its rhythm after the procedure. So wait two-three months and see how you feel.
“So we’re now at the end of September, the season is supposed to be starting soon and I haven’t done anything other than jog for like five minutes,” she says. “How am I going to play hockey? This is wild.”
Thunstrom eventually wears a monitor for the next month. The first few weeks she is timid and cautious but starts to gain some confidence, finally. “We had some Whitecaps’ ice-times. Everyone involved with our team was incredibly supportive, made sure I was feeling comfortable. We were just having some scrimmages and I’d pop out there for maybe a ten-second shift. I come back to the bench and they’d ask if I’m okay and I say I dunno, I’m nervous.”
She can’t go full speed. Maybe a half-sprint, get a feel for the puck, and then book it back to the bench. “Like I said, everyone was super supportive and checking on me to make sure I felt okay.”
Mid-October the data comes back from the monitor and everything looks and seems copacetic. “When you get that information it does set your mind at ease, but you start to wonder if it is all in your mind because I don’t feel better, I feel worse,” said Thunstrom.
“My doctor did say that it could be anxiety and we have to consider that. I really had to work to convince myself that it was all going to be okay.”
Not What She Knee-ded
By the end of October, that mental block finally, finally started to go away. And then. “As soon as I started getting confident in that regard, I ended up tearing my MCL in my left knee.”
“We were off the ice because of the NWHL’s covid protocol due to exposure. I was just trying to stay in shape, I have a long driveway and was doing some sprints. There was some melted snow that turned to a very small patch of ice on my driveway, I landed on it at the end of a jump and my knee just buckled.”
Surprisingly, Thunstrom is able to finish the workout. “It felt bad, sounded bad, but maybe it is not that bad.” Well, the next day she wakes up and can’t walk. So she calls the Whitecaps trainer, who calms her down, and the next day she is back at TRIA for an MRI and it reveals her MCL is partially torn.
“Oh and this happened a week after I bought my new house! I love it, but not good homeownership on my part because I didn’t salt the driveway apparently!”
For the next two weeks, she wears a knee brace, and every two weeks after they re-evaluate it. “My first time back on the ice was December 10 or 12 I think and I’m looking at the calendar thinking I don’t have much time until Lake Placid. I’m trying to be patient. Thinking if I went through the heart thing I can go through this,” she says.
“I couldn’t skate at all. That was just the worst day. I went out there and it hurts, but maybe I can skate, maybe skating is different. I had high hopes.”
We get to the last part of December and now she is doing physical therapy three times a week, meeting with trainers, doing all that she could to be ready to play for her team.
“Christmas Eve we had a fun skate with the girls at (University of) Minnesota and that was the first day I thought that maybe I could come back,” reveals Thunstrom. “I was able to do crossovers, I was able to skate forward, it wasn’t by any stretch my normal stride but I could do it.”
“My goal was to not have to wear the brace after the first of the year. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite there. The second week of January I switched from the full brace under my equipment to taping it. That helped a bit but we were two weeks away from our first game of the season.”
Thunstrom gets in three weeks of full practice before playing in a game. “Quite the experience,” she said. “That was one of the biggest hurdles. Trying to not make things worse before Lake Placid while getting ready for Lake Placid. I basically focused on my skating and stride and ignored every other skill you need to be a good hockey player.”
Pointless in Placid
“From a personal level, I knew going into it that it probably wasn’t going to be like the year prior (for me) and I didn’t want to have those expectations of myself to need to do that. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated with myself that I wasn’t able to help the team out and that’s always what my goal is – to do whatever I can to help,” lamented Thunstrom.
She may not have registered a point in Lake Placid, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. She had 11 shots on goal, glorious chances in nearly every game and with a little puck luck, it could’ve been a different story in that regard.
Also, her team was dynamite. The Whitecaps won three of the four games that they played and showed just how deep their team really is.
“For the most part I was just super thrilled to see how well our team was doing, and that they didn’t need me. It was awesome to see our rookies like Haley Mack step up, and Nina Rodgers was playing great,” said Thunstrom. “Everyone was playing well and we were doing what we needed to win.”
“It turned out in Lake Placid that they didn’t need me to score goals, we had plenty of firepower everywhere else. So that did take a little of the pressure off. Our team is just fine without me on the scoresheet.”
“We have such talent and depth on our team, it was kind of cool to see how we battled as a group and got a lot of scoring from everywhere. I think our first seven goals in the first two games were scored by seven different people.”
“After our third game I seriously doubted if I was ever going to score a goal again,” Thunstrom added. “Our line had our opportunities and it would’ve been nice for some of them to fall but we were still getting wins so at that point it doesn’t matter what I was doing.”
NWHL 2021 Season 2.0
News broke this morning that the NWHL has rescheduled its playoff games that were postponed during the first week of February, and all three playoff games will be carried on NBCSN. Thunstrom and the Whitecaps will play the Connecticut Whale in Boston on March 26 with a berth in the Isobel Cup Final the next night on the line.
Win and Minnesota is back in the ICF for the third time in three years. Heck, they’re still the defending champions dating back to 2019. The team has already started skating and practicing for a week once they found out that the restart was a go.
So how ready is Allie Thunstrom and her body?
“I wish I could say I feel completely healed today, but it’s getting to the point where I’m not noticing it as much over the course of practice or while I’m skating,’ she told us. “I feel a throbbing pain for maybe an hour after skating and I’ll take that over feeling it while I’m playing.”
“I’m mostly looking forward to just being out there and seeing my teammates, having that small sense of normalcy back. I know when I transitioned to speed skating after college that was one of the biggest things that I missed beyond just the game of hockey – that camaraderie, my teammates,” Thunstrom said.
“We’re fortunate on the Whitecaps that a lot of us have grown up together and are really great friends. It’s great to be on the ice with everybody and that’s the biggest thing I look forward to when we resume.”
“We have a group, beyond just playing together and knowing each other – the history of the Whitecaps is that we’ve been around for two decades now and have really fought through a lot of different battles to get to where we are today. I think that is the mentality of this whole group and more than anything bodes well for how we play.”
“We never count ourselves out and there is always a chance as long as there is time on the clock. We have more than enough firepower on our team to make it happen. That is one of our biggest strengths, that we’ve been trying to grow this game for almost two decades. We’ve had our fair share of knockdowns but we always come back fighting.”
Over the past 365 days, Thunstrom has also had her fair share of knockdowns, but you better believe when she steps onto the ice on March 26 that she will fight to give her teammates everything she has left in the tank.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.