The women’s hockey team left AMSOIL Arena Sunday with mixed emotions. They were mourning the end of their season and the end of the seniors’ — and their coach’s — time at UMD. But they also felt relief. After a seven-hour liver transplant surgery Saturday, equipment manager Julianne Vasichek had their game on the radio in her recovery room at the Mayo Clinic. She was finally breathing on her own.
Vasichek, better know by her nickname “Montana” around UMD, has been a part of the UMD women’s hockey program on and off since her time as a player (2001-2005) serving as their equipment manager and strength and conditioning coach. She suffers from Ulcerative Colitis and a condition called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, which affects liver function.
Just a few weeks ago for the team’s series against Ohio State, UMD held an Organ Donation and PSC Awareness Night in honor of Vasichek.
At the time, she was doing well enough to stand at her usual spot behind the bench and watch the team roll through a pair of wins that would keep them at home for the first round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, Vasichek was not there to see it.
Things took a turn for the worse after the Ohio State games and Vasichek was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester on Thursday, Feb. 26. She was reported to be in critical condition and relying on a respirator as the Bulldogs began to prepare for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
Vasichek was in their thoughts as the Bulldogs faced off against Bemidji State University at AMSOIL Arena.
“They’re really worried about Montana,” Head coach Shannon Miller said. “There are a lot of tears, a lot of conversations going on. She’s fighting for her life and they know that. It’s hard on them and it’s hard on me.”
By Saturday morning, a donor had been found for Vasichek and the procedure was scheduled for later that day.
The Bulldogs dedicated the game on Saturday to her by wearing stickers with her number 49 on their helmets. By the time the second period began in game two, Vasichek was headed to surgery.
“We definitely tried to use it as motivation,” senior captain Zoe Hickel said. “We were just saying, ‘Think about how hard Montana’s working and fighting to stay with us.’ We can battle and dig a little deeper because we have something else to play for that’s so much bigger than all of us.”
Thanks to the rebounded play of UMD goaltender Kayla Black and a strong penalty kill in the third period, UMD was able to tie the series up after losing on Friday. The improved play and tenacity of the Bulldogs is something the team knows would make Vasichek proud.
“We know what she wants is for us to play well so we’re really happy with that,” said game-winning goal-scorer Ashleigh Brykaliuk.
Thanks to a successful surgery, by 11 p.m. Saturday night Vasichek had a functioning liver and was in recovery. She is still not completely out of the woods as her procedure leads to a higher than average risk of infection — 15-20 percent as opposed to the normal five-percent risk.
On Sunday Vasichek had the game on in her room at the Mayo Clinic according to her family. As the 'Dogs took the ice, she was on their minds once again for what would be their final game of the 2014-15 season.
Again the Bulldogs played a game they thought would make Vasichek proud but, as Miller put it, they couldn’t buy a bounce and lost in overtime. The loss of a few games, however, was nothing compared to the potential loss of their friend and coach.
They had won where it mattered.
“It gives us all perspective on life,” Hickel said. “It might sound cliché, but it’s true. We knew this could have been it and it’s just a huge blessing that she got a donor so quickly and that it was a good match. We’re so thankful that she’s doing well and responding.”
For updates on Vasichek’s condition, log on to http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/juliannevasichek.
BY NICOLE BRODZIK