College hockey’s best known Pioneers call the University of Denver home, and compete at the game’s highest level in the NCHC. There is another pioneer carving the ice far east of Denver, in a state largely absent from the nation’s hockey awareness.
Senior Midshipmen Allyson “Ally” Strachan is the captain of the women’s hockey team at the United States Naval Academy. The program began in 2011 and the team competes in Division II of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA). The Navy men’s program has long held a place in the upper echelon of the ACHA, where many of the teams have achieved “virtual varsity” status and could readily dispatch some NCAA squads in competition.
“When I first got here they had women’s hockey but it was very new. Since then the program has really taken off with more coaches and more trainers. I love to see hockey growing in Maryland. It’s amazing,” said Strachan.
The Mids’ defenseman attended Maine’s Hebron Academy in the south central portion of the state. She is a native of Vinalhaven, a town located on an island just off its coast and roughly 100 miles due east of Hebron. The Strachans made the decision to move to Hebron so that Ally could attend the school as a day, rather than boarding, student. “They made a lot of major sacrifices for me,” said Strachan.
Hebron, founded in 1804, is one of New England’s many older prep schools and is known for its academics and also for an outstanding prep hockey program. “I went there because the school is great academically and I wanted to play college hockey, so I knew that was a stepping stone for me,” said Strachan.
During her time at Hebron, there was turnover at the head coaching position in the girls’ program. It changed both Strachan’s visibility to college coaches and her own view of the role of hockey in her life. She decided to adjust her sights to potentially playing at the Division III level. To alleviate the financial strain of tuition on herself and her parents, she pursued ROTC scholarships.
“When I started to think, ‘What am I going to do if I’m not going to play college hockey?’ — feeling that’s all I always had envisioned for myself — I decided to apply for an ROTC scholarship,” said Strachan.
The ROTC application process entailed some of the same paperwork required of the nation’s military academies. As a result she applied, and was admitted, to both West Point and Annapolis. “I got into the Naval Academy and I met with the coach and was really just blown away by the discipline, the sense of community and the opportunity to be part of something greater than what I thought I was going to do,” said Strachan. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.'”
Strachan arrived in the fall of 2012. Since that time, the Navy hockey program has accelerated rapidly in quality and support. “We have more trainers, more coaches. We now have a men’s A team, a men’s B team, and a women’s team. Every year there are more people at the games,” she said. On the ice, the defenseman enjoys, “taking the puck away and shutting down an opponent.”
Navy’s hockey teams currently play at the John McMullen Hockey Arena, which opened its doors in 2007 and replaced the picturesque Dahlgren Hall. Dahlgren, built in 1903, had the dual distinction of being one of the nation’s most unique arenas while having one of college hockey’s most unpredictable ice surfaces
Despite not playing at a well-known program, Strachan said of her career with Navy, “Really it’s more than I ever thought that I would get out of hockey.”
She cites hockey, and her captaining, as having a major shaping impact on her life. “I’ve realized that hockey is just a means of becoming the person that you want to be, which is really what sports is all about,” she said. “My leadership skills, my people skills, my understanding of how an organization and culture develop in a positive way, comes from being on a team.”
Strachan noted that you “can’t play winning hockey with only half the team happy,” and cultivates a team environment emphasizing the quality of life for her teammates and an emphasis on her own responsibility of service to them as their captain. An uncommon sentiment from an uncommon athlete.
The senior is as remarkable away from the rink. Late last year she was named the Academy’s sixth recipient of the Mitchell Scholarship. The nationwide scholarship is awarded annually and provides for one year of postgraduate study in Ireland for a select few American students. It’s named after former U.S. Senator George Mitchell of Maine, who had an integral role in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland.
Strachan majors in Weapons & Systems Engineering at Annapolis, and is in the top 5% of her class. She’s spent part of the last two summers working at the nearby Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratories (APL). Strachan is working on a project to enhance 3-D printed prosthetic hands for children so they’re able to interact with touchscreens. Currently, most prosthetics can’t interact with touchscreens or more common household items that require the heat of a fingertip to activate.
As part of the APL program she has worked extensively with wounded veterans at Washington’s Walter Reed Hospital National Military Medical Center. She’s worked on projects that include phantom limb stimulations and neurologically controlled prosthetics.
“It’s hard to complain when you see what they work through without complaining,” said Strachan of her time at Walter Reed. Her words are uncannily similar to those of the greatest hockey defenseman of all-time, Bobby Orr, who quietly spends thousands of hours helping those who struggle with disabilities. “What right do I have to complain…when you see the problems so many have?” Orr said in a 2013 interview with the Boston Globe.
Strachan’s interest in prosthetics is in part a result of her own struggle with synesthesia, a rare neurological condition in which one sense is perceived and then overlapped by others. When, for example, she interacts with a person, their personality and movement lend them different visual hues. Strachan can also perceive compass directions by their color.
Following her time at Hopkins in 2014, Strachan climbed Turkey’s Mount Ararat (16,854 feet). She has spent a month in the Alaskan wilderness backpacking as part of another summer to learn survival skills. While in Ireland, she’ll pursue the completion of her masters in biomedical, audio and signal imaging processing at the Dublin Institute of Technology. After that, she will return to the States and attend the Navy’s flight training school to train to become a pilot.
The Mitchell Scholarship, sometimes dubbed the Irish Rhodes Scholarship, has a 4% acceptance rate and its stated goals include “fostering intellectual achievement, leadership, and a commitment to public service and community.”
In the Midshipmen’s captain on the ice, Mitchell’s legacy has found the ideal representative.