The Women of ASU Men's Ice Hockey
By MAIRANY GARCIA – Mairany Garcia is a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. She is working in the Public Relations Lab with the Sun Devil Athletics team and will graduate in the spring of 2023.
Behind the desk of Liane Blyn, the director of sports performance and olympic sports at Arizona State University, is the quote, "Don't forget where you came from but never forget where you're going." These words help guide this accomplished strength coach and the men's hockey team she directs as well.
"My job is developing athletes to maximize their athletic potential in their sport," Blyn says about her role. "I help them to become better athletes by increasing their strength, speed & power, improving movement patterns and mobility. It also goes way beyond hockey."
Blyn has been working directly with the hockey program since 2018. She has accomplished various accolades both within and outside of hockey during that time.
In 2022, she received the College Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year award from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) for her work. And although being an award-winning strength coach is an accomplishment in itself, Blyn has compiled a list of other big wins. For example, she has over 20 years of experience as a strength coach with stops at Appalachian State, Boston College and University of Nevada-Reno. An athlete herself, Blyn is a 14-time USA Powerlifting (USAPL) Drug free National Champion, four-time International Powerlifting Federation World Champion (IPF) and a world record holder in the bench, deadlift and total over her long history with the USAPL and IPF.
Yet, despite her multiple significant accomplishments, at one point, Blyn left college athletics briefly because there wasn't a space for women to grow in the strength and conditioning profession.
"When I first started in 1995, my vision and purpose was to become the first female strength coach in the NFL.'" Blyn said, adding that, like many things, that vision changed with time and became more of a matter of giving her all into her field no matter where or who she worked with.
"Most strength coaches in the profession thrive on wanting to only work with the best of the best. I look at it much differently, I don't care if you're the first one off the bench, last one off the bench or never off the bench. I will always put 100% into every athlete that gives 100% into developing as an individual and teammate.
And that's precisely what she's been doing with men's hockey, especially with the construction underway for ASU's new multi-purpose arena set to open in Fall 2022, which will become the team's home arena.
Blyn is excited for the positive impacts a new on-campus arena brings to the student-athletes, especially the state-of-the-art weight room and training room. The new facilities are an asset in the physical development of the players throughout their college careers and in preparation of post-collegiate hockey.
"The players of past and present will never forget Oceanside," she said. "It is the foundation of the program, where the blue collar mentality: grit, grind, sweat and hard work, all started. That mentality and those traditions will continue as they move forward to the new facility and take that step forward as a consistent top program in the country."
Also excited about the arena is Natalie Thackrah, another strong female force behind the hockey team, helping to realize the goal of making the hockey team better.
Before becoming the academic coach of hockey, beach volleyball, and men's and women's diving at ASU – a position where she builds close and trusting relationships with student-athletes and helps them with their efforts in school – she too was a student-athlete.
(Natalie Thackrah as a student-athlete in the diving program at Arizona State University)
As a Sun Devil diver, Thackrah recalls seeing her academic coach Michael McBride, who still works at ASU in the engineering department, attend practices and take an overall interest in what the team was doing.
His sincerity in his job ultimately led Thackrah to pursue the same career of guiding student-athletes through college when her time as a diver ended.
Thackrah decided to apply for an open position as an academic advisor because of her connection to people and helping them achieve their goals. "I loved working with people from different backgrounds. I loved watching people succeed."
Thackrah would meet daily with students from diverse and challenging backgrounds and guide them through a successful journey in school. Not knowing what her day was going to bring or what challenge she was going to tackle next made her enjoy going to work every day.
"Some days, I'd think, 'oh, I'm just gonna go in and run all the reports I need to run.'" Then I'd have somebody in my office crying, and it just totally did a 180 on my day. But I liked that. I liked that it was kind of adventurous in a way."
As a part of a long line of Sun Devils who were either athletes, graduates, or workers, Thackrah says it was an easy decision to make her move from a technical college to ASU. Since 2008, she's worked with various sports – swim and dive, water polo, and volleyball. However, it wasn't until 2015, when ASU men's hockey made its debut as an NCAA Division I program, that Thackrah could implement all her years of expertise.
"It was really exciting because you could just tell they were so happy to be here," she said, recalling her first meeting with the hockey players. "I remember sitting in [the room] and looking at the guys' faces, and they weren't falling asleep – they weren't. They were sitting up. They were paying attention, and they just were excited to be there."
Today, her relationship with hockey is a close one.
Thackrah describes the student-athletes as "goofballs" who are fun to work with and committed to their grades, and foster an environment that strengthens that goal.
She says that even when someone new joins the team, they are welcomed into a culture that cares. This culture eventually makes them achieve goals they never thought possible – such as graduating early, raising their GPA, or getting their masters.
With the opening of the arena, Thackrah says she's extremely happy for the team both as an academic advisor and as a fan, saying that academically it'll be beneficial having the arena close.
As far as being a fan, she says, it's amazing that hockey will finally have a place of its own.
"They've worked really hard to make that happen."
Also working behind the scenes in hockey is Paige Shacklett, the communications manager and sports information director (SID) for the team. Her role aims to tell the overarching story of the men's hockey program to fans and ASU stakeholders through various media platforms.
She typically spends her days running the team's social media, brainstorming and creating unique content, and balancing the role of traditional sports information and modern digital media.
Shacklett first started as the media relations student assistant in the office she now works for within Sun Devil Athletics. While attending the Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU, Shacklett knew she wanted to work in sports, but she never thought watching her mother play hockey while growing up would be so influential in her career path.
In 2015 when ASU's club hockey team was elevated into the newest NCAA Division I program and Mitch Terrell, the SID for men's hockey at the time, looked for help from anyone who knew anything about hockey amongst the interns in the media relations, Shacklett raised her hand.
"I was one of the only ones to raise my hand and say, 'Sure, I can help. I watched my mom play some rookie league hockey growing up.' And truly, the two levels couldn't be further from each other, but it's what got me started," Shacklett said.
After spending time with hockey, Shacklett knew she wanted to keep working in the sport.
"Hockey is an exciting and fun sport. You don't know what will happen on any given day," Shacklett says about her job today. "A lot of my first year has been getting to know the team more and more, learning about them off the ice, and trying to take what I learn to show who they are as both players and people."
(Paige Shacklett and Liane Blyn skate in Oceanside's rookie league)
As part of her job, too, she's worked on notable projects with hockey.
This past November, Sun Devil hockey debuted its first-ever military uniforms in honor of those who served with "PT-42" in honor of Pat Tillman, the former ASU football athlete who enlisted in the army and later died in friendly fire.
The team worked with the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson to create content in anticipation of the release. The release is one of the most engaged with content on the hockey team's various social media channels in the last year.
Shacklett said the release's success is a testament to the teamwork that happens behind the scenes.
"Being part of such an exciting release was a huge honor for me. I learned so much in the process, especially all that goes into it behind the scenes. Our equipment manager, Jon Laughner, created the uniform some two years in advance; we then brainstormed a story that would do the military uniform justice, planned and executed the content shoot, and then rolled out the content on release day. It's a full team effort," Shacklett said.
(Harrison Kelly, Jon Laughner, Jon Laughner, Paige Shacklett, Riley Trujillo at the military uniform shoot)
Another unique project with hockey is the current build of the multi-purpose arena because Shacklett can dive into the other side of her role in corporate communications.
"Just being a part of the construction process of a huge state-of-the-art arena like that is something that doesn't happen every day," she says.
According to ASU, the multi-purpose arena will not only address the needs of the men's hockey program and other regional and adult hockey clubs. It will also accommodate a wide range of community, entertainment, and intercollegiate athletics.
Growing in her career from an intern for the hockey program to now holding the role she dreamed of one day having, Shacklett feels excited and privileged to witness the development of the program.
"The program made its home and started its tradition at Oceanside, but it always deserved a barn to the scale we're creating on campus. Now 942 students can fill the student section - I can't wait to watch how we can keep growing the game in the desert."
And although they may not work together consistently, one thing in common among all these women is the love they have for the sport and their jobs.
As far as any advice they can give to any women pursuing a career in sports?
"The biggest advice I can give is if that's what your dream is, do what you can to make it happen," Thackrah says, hoping that anyone wanting to can find opportunities in which they will thrive.
Similarly, Blyn says don't take no as an end all be all.
"Take no as an opportunity to look for something else, and it probably wasn't right anyway," adding that she's been told no more times in her career than yes. "Once you're given that opportunity, and you are told yes. Embrace it and go with it," says Blyn.
Having built a close relationship with Blyn, Shacklett advises creating those connections.
"A huge piece of the puzzle of being a woman in sports is making those connections and finding those supportive outlets and building your network," says Shacklett, adding that Blyn's 20-year resume in the industry is excellent inspiration for any woman wanting to break into the field. "So just like Liane's breaking glass ceilings all over the place, there's still a lot that must be done for women in sports. So find those supportive outlets – people who are willing to give you that opportunity - and keep working hard."