Why I Turned Down Team USA: Reagan Rust

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Reagan Rust in her sophmore year with the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers

It was the kind of text that makes your heart fall into your stomach the second you read it.

“Call me, we need to talk”

It was from a girl I had spent time coaching with. One I hadn’t heard from in a while. I had no idea what to think. But when you see a text like that, you automatically think the worst.

I called her. It wasn’t the worst. It was the opposite.

“How would you like to play for team USA?” she asked me.

My whole life, all I’ve ever wanted to do was play hockey. And specifically play hockey in a USA sweater. I didn’t know how to react, but I remember what I had been seeing in the news.

“Isn’t there some sort of strike going on, though?” I said.

“Uh, yeah sort of. But what do you think? You in?”

This wasn’t the way my team USA dream was supposed to come true. I had been chasing this for so long, and at times, it seemed like it may never happen. How could I say no?

***

People often ask me how I got to division 1 hockey from Mississippi.

They ask me, because there’s nobody else to ask.

I’m the only women’s Division 1 player to ever come from the state of Mississippi. And I’m not even from Jackson, either. I’m from Southaven. Google it.

Here’s what you’ll find.

It’s the home of John Grisham, and our Wikipedia page lists the construction of an outlet mall in 2015 as one of the most noteworthy things about the city.

It’s also the home of the Southern Professional Hockey League. The only league in the state that was running hockey camps for kids.

“There will be plenty of girls there.” That’s the kind of lie you tell a five-year-old girl to get her and her sister on the ice at one of those development camps. It’s a small, white lie. An exaggeration that doesn’t matter after the fact, but one that sounds a lot better than “How would you like to be one of three girls on the ice with 20 boys?”

(Photo by Whitley Reves)

Reagan Rust, 10, and Max McClelland, 9, pal around during the Jr. StreetKings youth roller hockey summer league at the Hernando Civic Center.

Hockey was a relatively new sport in Mississippi. The Nashville Predators were just three hours away, but they had only joined the NHL in 1998. When I was five, we got our first semi-pro team: the Memphis RiverKings moved to Southaven.

They changed their name to the Mississippi RiverKings. The team was exciting, but more than that, they were involved in their new community.

When I was growing up my mother created a magazine called DesotoKids. It never really turned into anything major, but it did run a few features on the RiverKings. In the team’s early years after the move drawing crowds was something of a challenge. They rarely filled more than half of the 8,000 plus seat arena.

People didn’t grow up playing the sport, let alone watching it. The RiverKings needed to start fresh. They needed to appeal to the community at the grassroots level. They needed to create a fanbase that would bring people to the games; they needed kids.

Enter my mother.

The RiverKings rec league ran every year, and every year we went. It didn’t matter that I was one of the only girls there. It didn’t matter that my sister was more interested in getting lunch after the practice than with the practice itself. I was five, and I was in love from the second I stepped on the ice.

***

Ask a 10-year-old girl what they want to be when they grow up.

Chances are you’ll hear the usual: doctor, teacher, artist, astronaut; you’ll probably run into a few singers, some dancers, maybe even a soccer player or two. Some, like me, might even combine a couple. I wanted to be a doctor, and I wanted to play hockey.

By the fifth grade I had made a ten-year plan:

Step one: get into a good high school, and join the hockey team there
Step two: get a scholarship to play Division 1 hockey at Harvard University
Step three: Study medicine and become a doctor

Even the best laid plans run into problems.

I went to five different high schools, in four different states. Ninth grade was at home, in Mississippi. There weren’t a lot of local teams in the state that played at a competitive level. Instead there were 12-hour car rides every other weekend with my best friend. Did you know that La Grange is actually a place? It’s right after Louisville on the I-71. The drive through Florence, Sparta and Lebanon in the same day would be truly incredible had they actually been those places. Instead they were passing blurs on the weekly trip to Pittsburgh (It was home to one of the best youth teams)

Reagan Rust playing in her senior year with the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Hockey team

Sophomore year meant a move to Lake Placid to spend some time at the National Sports Academy. It was an amazing experience, and I met some of the most talented people there; girls who had spent time with their respective national teams. Kali Flanagan is actually currently playing for Team USA at the World Championships.  Unforunately, the school ran into financial problems, quickly ending that. It was back to Pittsburgh to rejoin my old team, but if I was going to progress there was no way I could continue living nearly 800 miles away from my team.

So I moved.

The first billet family was a nerve-wracking experience. They were a nice family but it’s a strange feeling living away from home before you can even legally drive. By the second family it was same-old, same-old; just another stepping-stone on the way to D1. There was no way I was missing D1.

The summer before senior year things finally began falling into place. It was the final tournament of the summer and the drive from Mississippi to Boston was more stressful than normal. On top of packing all my gear, it was also moving day; back to Pittsburgh for my final season. Anyone who has ever moved knows there’s always something you forget. In this case it was my jersey. With a little tape, and creativity, a goalie’s jersey transformed from 31 to 81. Add a custom name plate, and I was ready to go.

I was in a makeshift jersey, playing out of position, at a game where there wasn’t even supposed to be scouts. I believe to get anywhere in life it takes a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck and being at the right place at the right time. That weekend, I got lucky. Right after the tournament I got an email, asking me for my phone number. Then I got a call, how would I like to play for the Rochester Institute of Technology? I thought the time would never come.

I was a Division 1 hockey player.

Reagan Rust in her sophmore year with the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers

***

10-year-old me might be a little upset that I’m not at Harvard, or that I chose to study exploration business instead of medicine. But I made it to Division 1, and it took a damn lot of hard work to get there.

So back to the phone call I got last week. How could I say no to an offer to play with team USA?

Easy.

I didn’t earn it.

They did. All those girls who spent hours away from their families chasing a dream that seems impossible. Spending hours on bus rides across the country, scraping by on salaries that are pennies compared to what they should be making. That jersey isn’t mine to wear.

I have my own ambitions, and if the day comes I wear a USA jersey I will have earned the right to wear it.

As you undoubtedly know, USA Hockey and the women came to a deal. It’s fantastic, and I couldn’t be happier for them, but this can’t be the end.

There is so much work still to be done, on the development side, that this can’t be where it ends. If we are going to grow our sport, if we are going to make women’s hockey equal, we need to start working towards actually developing women’s hockey.

There’s a petition going on right now, to try and keep an ice rink open year round in the gulf coast. As of writing this they have over 460 signatures. They need 1000 to even have the petition considered. I’ve already signed it. Together we can build that rink.

Somewhere there is another five-year-old girl, on her way to a rink, and maybe this time around, her mom won’t have to tell that small white lie. Maybe this time around she’ll fall in love with a girl’s game.

 

Reagan Rust
#18

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