Coleraine native Claire Vekich’s Division I hockey career is off to a strong start. The Grand-Rapids-Greenway star earned WCHA Rookie of the Week honors three times and Rookie of the Month once in the country’s toughest conference.
While so many young athletes these days are pressured to specialize early in one sport, Vekich credits much of her on-ice success to playing multiple sports from youth through high school graduation.
Vekich’s list of accomplishments are impressive too.
Volleyball: 2021 Ms. Volleyball finalist (best senior player in the state), six-time letter-winner, four-time all-conference, all-state first team, all-state tournament team. Versatile player who played every position and notched more than 1,600 digs in her career.
Softball: Six-time letter-winner, four-time all-conference, led Greenway to Section 7AA championship and state tournament appearance.
Hockey: 2021 Ms. Hockey finalist, five-time letter-winner, three-time all-conference, Iron Range Conference Player of the Year. Finished fourth in the state in goals (32) and fifth in points (62) as a senior.
Tennis: Oh, and when Covid-19 cut Minnesota’s volleyball season short, Vekich joined the tennis team and earned the No. 2 singles spot.
Although she starred in other sports, Vekich always had a favorite.
“Hockey was always my first love,” she said. “I’ve loved hockey since I was little.”
And that love for hockey is the exact reason she resisted specializing.
It’s Always Hockey Season
Several of Vekich’s high school teammates specialized, meaning they played hockey — and only hockey — year-round. She started to notice their dissipating passion.
“I’d catch my friends sometimes wanting to play other sports or just getting sick of hockey,” she says.
In fact, even though many of Vekich’s teammates had more annual ice time than her, she didn’t feel like they had an edge up. Her emotional readiness to play outweighed any short-term physical/skills benefit they may have gotten from playing all spring, summer and fall.
All hockey players need a break, even the pros. Mental burnout can take a huge toll.
“I just knew I never wanted to feel like that,” she recalled. “Every time winter came around I was so excited for hockey season. But when kids are doing it year-round, they never get that feeling — because it’s always hockey season.”
Pressured by Coaches, Supported by Parents
Vekich attributes at least part of her decision to be a tri-sport athlete to the example her parents set for her — both mom and dad were three-season high school athletes.
“They never pushed me to choose just one sport,” Vekich said.
But she also trusted her own instincts and resisted the pressure she received from coaches to specialize.
“I felt that pressure all the time from my coaches,” she added. “All the way through my years people pushed me to play more.”
Vekich did eventually play hockey a little more than the others, but she never quit volleyball and softball.
“I just never really cared what my coaches said. I knew that I wanted to continue playing other sports, too.”
There are several, well-documented benefits to diversifying athletics. For starters, it reduces overuse injuries and helps players stay motivated.
Vekich says the athletic skills from other sports sharpened her hockey skills.
“Especially with softball you use hand-eye coordination for hitting, and for hockey tipping and deflections are a big part of the game,” she added. “Softball definitely helped my hockey game.”
Vekich also emphasized the social and emotional benefits of playing multiple sports. Without her experiences in volleyball, hockey and softball, she wouldn’t have the same network of friends that she has now.
“I think one big thing is just the different atmospheres you get. My hockey team was all Grand Rapids girls, and my volleyball team was all from Greenway,” she said. “I just made so many different connections through these two sports.”
But really, playing three sports allowed her to keep her emotional intensity fresh for hockey.
“I just found a way to love all three games differently,” Vekich said. “I loved hockey the most, but I would never change playing volleyball and softball. They gave different things to me.”
You Don’t Have to Choose
Being a well-rounded, tri-sport athlete allowed Vekich to protect her love for the game of hockey. Following her instincts and resisting the pressure to specialize is a major part of her success story.
But as it turns out, on the Bemidji State women’s hockey team and beyond, Vekich isn’t all that unique — most of her current teammates played multiple sports in high school, too.
“Our coach really likes multi-sport athletes, so we do have quite a few teammates that played other sports besides hockey,” she said.
In addition to the physical, social and emotional benefits of diversifying, many Division I coaches actually prefer to recruit players who didn’t specialize early. Coaches want well-rounded athletes on their roster.
Just ask St. Cloud State men’s hockey head coach Brett Larson, who guided the Huskies to the NCAA national championship game last spring.
“Truthfully, the thing that concerns me the most is when we see players who are only playing hockey,” Larson said. “In my opinion it’s imperative that players are becoming athletes, not just hockey players. They should be hitting the ball, kicking the ball, shooting the ball, running, swimming, whatever it may be. It has to be more than hockey. Those are the players we want to get to the next level, and they are the players that generally will because they are well-rounded, avoided a burnout of one sport and have a dedication to being the best at whatever they try to.”
Regardless of the benefits, Vekich thinks that hockey players should continue to play other sports, simply for the love of it.
“Stick to your heart,” she said. “If you love playing other sports, there’s no reason why you should quit them.”
Does your child want to play year-round? Hear from TRIA Orthopedic’s Dr. Heather Bergeson about the health and safety concerns related to early specialization.