The following story appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal. Photos courtesy of Zoe Hickel, the NWHL and Andre Ringuette/USA Hockey
By Chris Cocoles
SO WHAT DEFINES a girl’s early years growing up Alaskan with parents who were ski racers, plus a hockey coach mom and the family’s collective love of the outdoors?
Let’s ask budding hockey star and Anchorage native Zoe Hickel’s mother, Cristy, for perspective.
“A backpack, file drawer for naps, ski hill or penalty box is where they grew up,” Cristy Hickel says of 23-year-old hockey forward Zoe and her younger sister, Tori, also a standout hockey player.
“While I was training for hockey trying to make the 1998 Women’s Olympic team, I would leave the girls in the (ice rink) penalty box with a blanket, Tupperware (container) of Cheerios and a box of apple juice. I would come to check on them and they would be batting at the Cheerios like hockey pucks and they filled all the holes with apple juice. Never a welcome cleanup.”
Being around a game that’s a big deal in consistently frozen Alaska made it a no-brainer for Zoe not only playing but eventually excelling at the highest levels. In the past year, she finished her distinguished college career at NCAA Division I school Minnesota Duluth, won a gold medal with Team USA at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Sweden, and began a professional career in the first year of the National Women’s Hockey League.
Through it all, she’s never forgotten her Alaska roots and her love for just about anything else that involves being outside.
“I think that growing up in Alaska, there’s so much that we’re exposed to such a young age, in terms of the climate and learning how to be comfortable,” ZoeHickel says from the East Coast, where she plays for the NWHL’s Boston Pride. “The way I was raised, I was definitely put in situations where I was really happy that I had things available at such a young age. I grew up enjoying things like skiing, hiking, camping, fishing, biking, hunting – all the kind of stuff that we’re are lucky to have in Alaska.”
AS WE GET older, it’s difficult to recall that we were, at one time or another, rascals as little kids. Zoe Hickel was downright fearless.
Her mom and biological dad, Lex Patten, were both scholarship athletes on the University of Alaska Anchorage ski team, so it’s not surprising that young Zoewas donning skis herself at 2 years old. A year later she was riding the lifts at Hilltop Ski Area in Anchorage by herself.
So she was a bit of a daredevil, huh?
“When she was around 3 years old, we were at a birthday party at the Service High swimming pool. I was sitting there and watching the kids, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Zoe sprinting to the high dive,” Cristy Hickel says.
Mom assumed her daughter was being a little defiant and “testing me,” so Cristy was subtle in seeing how far the kid was willing to take the dare. Pretending to ignore but watching her little girl like a hawk, Cristy Hickel was floored when Zoe, who already knew how to swim, raced up the ladder toward the top of the 3-meter (almost 10-foot) diving board.
“She will see the end and turn around so I should go help her,” Cristy thought.
Mom be damned, little Zoe kept climbing, plunged off the high board into the pool below, and before the shock of seeing a 3-yard-old submerged in the deep end of the pool, she surfaced, smiled and dogpaddled back to the edge.
“Typical Zoe,” Cristy says.
Zoe and Tori, now a senior defense-
man for the Northeastern University Huskies women’s hockey team, got exposed to the playground surrounding their Anchorage home fairly quickly. Cristy eventually married Vern Hickel, who became Zoe’s legal father through adoption when she was 8 (but she would later reconnect with Patten and hunted moose with him in September). Fishing and hunting were regular pastimes, though skiing was just as important.
“One of the favorite things I remember getting to do with my mom: we lived so close to Flattop (Mountain), since I was unable even to walk she was bringing me up on her backpack. We’d go off and have picnics with our dogs and friends and families,” Zoe says. “Honestly, I grew up on that mountain.”
Zoe’s first encounter with a king salmon on the Kenai came at age 8.
“The fish was bigger than I was,” Zoe recalls.
It weighed around 50 pounds and she cried while reeling, her arms burning during the fight. But this was one determined young angler. As Cristy says, “It was her fish.”
“She was hooked on bringing home the meat after that.”
THE ALASKAN WAY of do-it-yourself fascinated young Zoe Hickel. Vern took her on a hunt for big game (caribou) when she was 12.
“It was pretty cool. We flew out to my dad’s place, which is up in the Talkeetna area with a nice little camp set up. And we spotted the (caribou) and hunted the thing down 3 miles up the mountain. And it was a double shovel,” she says. “We weren’t able to get everything down because it was too much for all of us to do. So we hid the head and the antlers and the bears got to it. They buried it somewhere. We couldn’t even find it. I was so bummed because it was my first big game kill.”
Fishing and hunting became the new normal for young Zoe because “it was a product of my surroundings,” she says.
It helped that hers and Tori’s mom was as gung-ho about staying active as the kids. Mama Hickel is a tireless worker and has coached junior hockey teams in Alaska for years.
”We loved to hike, and one of our favorites was to take a quick road trip late at night to Seward, sleep in the Suburban, climb Mount Marathon, eat an ice cream and drive back to town singing songs with the dogs,” Cristy Hickel says. “When Zoe was 8 she insisted she could run the (Mount Marathon Race) and, well, since she’s a boss, she did – and continued to race it 10 more years. She won her age group one year and was part of the ‘goat girl’ junior team that won it six years in a row with her sister.”
And remember that “product of your surroundings” thing that Zoe grew up in? Look no further than Mom, who made sure her kids were going to stay active.
“I was raised a traveling outdoor kid and I wanted to be sure my daughters grew up confident, strong and able to cope with the ups and downs of life,” Cristy Hickel says. “Zoe has an easy confident manner that comes from years of ‘being a boss,’ as I call it.”
AT SOME POINT, Zoe was going to have to make a decision: skiing or hockey? Did she aspire to be the next Cammi Granato, a Hockey Hall of Famer and captain of the U.S. team that won the gold medal in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, the first year women’s hockey was a medal sport? Or perhaps Picabo Street, who captured alpine skiing gold in the super-G during the same games?
“I was on skis before I ever started playing hockey. I loved ski racing growing up too and I was pretty competitive with that until a certain age, when I was about 13,” she says. “I grew up on skis and had both parents who were good ski racers. I was lucky to have parents who coached in that field, and then introduced me to hockey. I just fell in love with it.”
Hickel was clearly skilled in both sports, and given Alaska’s small population and growing up with fewer girls who played the sport than do now, she regularly skated with boys. While she looked up to iconic U.S. women’s hockey players like Granato, Angela Ruggiero, Julie Chu and Jenny Schmidgall-Potter, Hickel was particularly enthralled with a National Hockey League star, Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk.
“I can’t say I can handle a hockey stick like he can! I wish. He’s amazing, so I just really like his style of play and his ability – just a lot of things I like about him,” Hickel says.
When she wasn’t helping Cristy coach various teams in Alaska, Zoe was excelling enough on hockey rinks in and around Alaska to get the chance to head east as a teenager and attend the prestigious North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, Vt.
A scholarship to play for the Minnesota Duluth (UMD) Bulldogs followed, where Hickel eventually became team co-captain and scored 46 career goals. She got her first taste of Team USA competition on the Under-18 teams in 2010, and she made the cut for the 2015 World Championships and has a great chance to be a member of the USA Hockey squad at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“It was amazing to just be part of that group and be in this player pool with these girls who are so dedicated and of course having the same stuff I’ve been striving for, for a long time. When I finally got my chance, I guess you can say I made the most of my opportunity that I had,” Hickel says.
“It’s fun that you’ve looked up to these girls and then get to play with them. And a lot of these girls I’ve played against or played with in the past, and women’s hockey is a smaller circle. Most of the time, at some point we’ve crossed paths. So you get at that level and it’s such a dynamic atmosphere to be involved with girls at that level.”
Zoe was such a rink rat Cristy recruited her to help her coaching duties. Considering she was jumping off the high dive at 3, teaching little sis Tori to ski at 4 and started coaching with Cristy at 9, what took her so long to start coaching herself?
“We’ve butted heads here and there, and I know it’s really hard to have a parent as a coach,” Zoe says of her mom, who’s become nationally respected as a teacher of the game. “But I have a lot of respect for her and we were able to have that kind of relationship where I was able to learn so much from her and what she was able to pass onto me.”
The influence was reflected during her senior year at UMD, when Hickel was a finalist for the NCAA’s Hockey Humanitarian Award, which honored the five men’s or women’s players vying to win the college game’s “finest citizen” award. Hickel’s nomination was due to various charitable endeavors – including coaching Alaska’s All-Star Girls Hockey teams, volunteering in Anchorage’s SPYDER (Sports Programs for Youth Development, Education and Recreation) nonprofit organization and running the SHARK (Strong, Healthy, Active, Responsible Kids) program in Duluth, Minn., to promote youngsters staying active.
“Despite the material shiny things,” Cristy says, “I would like to think of Zoe as a successful young lady who is a contributor to our youth and community.”
HICKEL’S HOCKEY CAREER is just getting started playing in Boston – one of four teams in the new league – with American stars such as Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker, plus another Anchorage resident, Jordan Smelker (who played with Hickel on Team USA’s Four Nations Cup championship team last month). She is also on staff as a volunteer assistant coach for the Merrimack College (North Andover, Mass.) women’s hockey team.
“Zoe is so much fun to watch – she’s as dynamic and skilled as they come, as well as a stand-up teammate,” Pride general manager Haley Moore said.
Adds Cristy Hickel, “She skates with a natural grace and athleticism that is more like most boys than what I normally observe (from female players). Zoehas journeyed along the way coaching and being coached, and as such has become a student of her sport.”
But hockey is only part of what defines her. Her hectic 2015 also included a summer back home fishing and hunting in Alaska, where her busy childhood as a ski bunny, puck head and dedicated outdoors junkie was molded.
Cristy Hickel calls her oldest daughter “an ambassador for Alaska because she loves the land and the people who make up our community.”
“It’s huge for kids to understand all of those skills (I learned) when they’re young, especially living in Alaska,” Zoe says. “I think that’s great.” ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Zoe Hickel, follow her on Twitter (@ZoeHickel) and go to nwhl.co/teams/boston-pride.