When Stefanie McKeough returned the phone call, she was sitting in the Dane County Regional Airport with a one-way ticket home in her hand.
She was headed from Madison to the Ottawa suburb of Carlsbad Springs, Ontario. One of the best players in the history of the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey program, McKeough wasn’t sure when she would return.
“I’m going home to have some family time,” she said in a voice that was wistfully and weary. “It’s been a long year.”
If only we knew the half of it.
One season after being voted Defensive Player of the Year in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and scoring a goal in the NCAA championship game, McKeough didn’t skate a single shift for the Badgers and it must be considered that she may never again.
The effects of two concussions, suffered in games roughly two months apart during her junior year, were so debilitating that her entire world as a student-athlete changed.
McKeough, 22, experienced migraine headaches, vertigo, ringing in her ears and was sensitive to noise. Those symptoms not only kept her out of uniform, they forced her to back off her pursuit of a double major — retail and environmental studies — and prevented her from taking a full-time course load during the fall semester.
A three-time selection to the WCHA all-academic team, McKeough said she’ll need another full year of credits to graduate. She intends to get her degree — she lauded the support she received from professors and tutors this past school year— but it remains to be seen if hockey will be part of the equation.
“I’d like it to be,” McKeough said. “I don’t know that answer right now.”
An elite game manager and puck mover with Olympic-level skill, McKeough suffered her first concussion on Jan. 7, 2012, at Minnesota when she said she had her skates taken out and she fell backward on the ice. She missed seven games before a March 2 collision along the boards vs. Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA playoffs triggered another.
McKeough sat out an NCAA quarterfinal win over Mercyhurst, but appeared in both games of the 2012 Frozen Four, including a loss to Minnesota in the title match.
Mark Johnson, the UW coach whose personal history with concussions dates back to his days at Madison Memorial High School and continued to the NHL, said McKeough was constantly monitored and passed all the medical protocols prior to returning to the lineup. He said “she seemed to be OK” on March 18, 2012, when the Badgers played in their sixth national championship game.
Several months later, Johnson was startled to learn in a conversation with athletic trainer Denny Helwig that McKeough was having issues, which would continue throughout last season.
“There’s so much unknown about these things and each case is different,” Johnson said. “You don’t know when you’re going to start feeling better.”
McKeough said she felt fine heading into the Frozen Four, but things steadily regressed after that. She became a semi-recluse last season, sometimes avoiding the pregame dressing room because the music was loud or skipping social functions because of the din.
“Had I have known then how I would have felt after, it might have been different,” McKeough said of skating in the title game. “But that’s something I learned about the whole process; that I can wake up feeling really good one day and the next day not feel very good.”
Johnson remains hopeful that McKeough will return to the lineup someday. He said junior winger Brittany Ammerman, who also missed last season with a concussion, has made critical strides and appears on pace to return in 2013-14.
What has to happen for McKeough to buy another one-way ticket and use her final year of eligibility with the Badgers?
“It’s about me feeling better, feeling normal again,” she said. “I’m very competitive, so it’s hard for me not to push my limits. That’s been a lesson for me.”