This story has a very happy ending. Well, actually, we won't know how it truly ends until the hockey season ends. But we know how it began. With a broken neck.
Laura Slominski was excited as winter and her sixth season as head coach of the Edina High School girls team neared. The Hornets are one of the state's top programs, with four Class 2A state tournament appearances since 2009 and state runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011.
Everything changed, however, when Slominski played in a women's fall hockey league game on Sept. 29. She and another player were racing for the puck, they collided, and Slominski flew back-first into the boards. She knows she was lucky. There are plenty of what ifs; for example, what if she had gone in head-first and suffered a spinal injury?
Her spine was OK, but her neck was broken in three places on the C5 vertebrae. She underwent surgery, spent a week in the hospital, has been wearing a neck brace since then and is unable to skate or do any on-ice coaching this season. But again, she knows she was lucky.
"It gives you a new appreciation for people who have gone through similar situations but with much worse results," she said. "The first time being able to get up and walk, it was a whole new level of appreciation for me."
She will return to teaching math at Edina later this week, which will be a big step in getting back to normal. The neck brace should come off for good sometime in January, when the only physical sign of what Slominski has endured will be a great big scar on the back of her neck.
Slominski (pictured here with her players) was injured on a Sunday evening, and one of the first things she thought about in the hospital was finding a substitute teacher for her classes the next day. That was taken care of, but finding a substitute head hockey coach for the upcoming season was another matter. After the job was posted and interviews were held, former Wayzata boys hockey coach Dean Williamson was hired as interim head coach for the season. Slominski holds the interim title of assistant coach.
Williamson coached most of the Hornets varsity players when they were younger, and his daughter Taylor is a junior forward on the team.
"I knew all the kids, I tied most of their skates when they were five years old," Williamson said. "So from that standpoint I was happy to step in, as tough as it was to lose Laura. I'm just glad that she's back on track."
Senior captain Riley Anderson said, "I think it made it easier since Dean coached a lot of us growing up. That made the transition easier, but it is different."
Slominski attends the Hornets games (with the exception of a road trip to Warroad and Roseau in November), watches from behind the glass or the bleachers, consults with Williamson (they are pictured here) and talks to the team in the locker room between periods and afterwards. There's clearly a tight bond between the 33-year-old coach and her players.
"She came to school after her surgery," said senior captain Emily Eide. "All the hockey girls were called down to the athletic office and we didn't know what was happening. Then she walked in and it was a big shock. There were tears instantly."
Slominski said, "There has been so much support from everybody, and you know your family and closest friends will be there for you. The hockey kids are part of my family, too, and we talk about being a family.
"It's a lot easier for me right now because they're in good hands and they're having a good experience. It's hard for both sides to be used to something and have it change so quickly and so close to the start of the season."
The Hornets are off to an outstanding start. They have 10 wins, no losses and one tie and are ranked No. 4 in Class 2A. A big test will come Saturday when they meet top-ranked Minnetonka.
"No matter what's going on, Edina never changes its expectations," Slominski said. "We have expectations that we'll be at the top at the end of the season, and they're playing great hockey right now. Emotionally, I think they're in a very, very good place and they're being well-coached. They're responding very well to what's happening. It's a very strong team, and a lot of it comes down to the chemistry and the character that's there."
Since her injury, Slominski has used a CaringBridge website to keep family and friends updated on her progress. Some of the posts were short updates on her surgery and rehabilitation, but Slominski wrote some longer messages. On Oct. 27, the day before girls hockey practice began around the state, she wrote about the lessons she learned from the coaches she has played for, and offered advice to high school players. Some excerpts ...
--"I was so blessed to have incredible coaches my whole life. Yes, we always wanted to win, but I knew they cared so much about me as a person. It was just as important for them to help me and my teammates to develop as people as it was for us to win games. These life lessons that I was taught and the mental toughness I gained through being an athlete has given me the strength I have needed to be so positive in my journey."
--"Girls, as you go through tryouts, be confident, give all that you have to give so that you can walk away with no regrets, and make the most of every moment this season. We always talk about how you want to give your best because you don't know what is going to happen in life. This is another reminder for me as 4 weeks ago from this very moment, I was getting ready to put the kids to bed and then headed off to my hockey game, just as I have done many times. ... I can't control what happened to me, only how I react to it. I am glad that I have given my all to coaching for the past 5 years at Edina so that when I have to sit this one out it is with no regrets. ... Remember to focus on what you can control, and give your all in everything you do, so that when all is said and done you can walk away with no regrets and you can be proud of all that you and your teammates have accomplished together."
Slominski's doctors have told her to stay off skates for at least six months. That's a long stretch without hockey for someone who grew up with the game. Slominski graduated from Burnsville High School in 1998, where she was her school's Athena Award winner and was named Minnesota's Ms. Hockey. She played hockey and was a team captain at the University of Minnesota, worked as an assistant coach at St. Olaf College, head coach at Bloomington Kennedy, assistant at St. Cloud State and assistant at Minnesota before taking over as Edina's head coach in 2008.
"I was hoping to get back (on the ice) during the second half of the season," she said. "It's kind of like jumping back on the horse. But you never know what can happen in practice; sometimes a player will slide into you and knock you off your feet. It's probably good for me that the doctor said at least six months, because it will force me to be 100 percent fully recovered."
In the meantime, the season will continue and the Hornets will keep playing ... for themselves, their school and their coach.
"It's a great group of kids," Dean Williamson said. "I just want to make it a special year for the seniors and I'm just holding the car keys until Laura's ready to roll. We're excited to have her come to these games and she looks fantastic. Her spirit is a big part of our team this year."
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 236
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 5,986
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
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