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Samoskevich honors hometown Sandy Hook victims

by Tal Pinchevsky

Preparing for one of the biggest games of her career, Melissa Samoskevich heard the news that will, in many ways, shape the rest of her life.

Samoskevich, 15 years old, was on a bus with her hockey teammates from the Shattuck-St. Mary's School varsity girls team on Dec. 14, 2012, settling in for the long bus ride from campus in Fairbault, Minn., to face a powerful Chicago Mission team, considered to be one of the best in the country.

The game for Shattuck would be a measuring stick against one of the toughest opponents on the schedule. The tough task ahead consumed the thoughts of Samoskevich as the bus ate up the miles toward the Windy City. When Samoskevich wasn't thinking about the game, and the role she hoped to play in it, she was thinking of an upcoming trip home to visit family during the holiday break.

But a phone call during that bus ride would send the sophomore's world off its axis. Samoskevich's mother, Patty, called that afternoon, the bearer of bad news about the family's hometown of Sandy Hook, Conn.

"My mom called me and [said] there was a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary," Samoskevich said. "Are you kidding? In Sandy Hook? I was dumbfounded. I remember getting on my laptop and putting the news on my laptop. When we finally got to the hotel, I found out how many lives were lost. I couldn't believe it."

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School shocked the nation. In a horrifying chain of events, Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old from neighboring Newtown, Conn., murdered 26 people, including 20 children at the school. Lanza, who shot his mother before making his way to the school, took his own life as police responded.

Suddenly, the small elementary school where Melissa Samoskevich had spent five happy years as a student, was in the national news, the site of one of the deadliest school shootings in the history of the country. Suddenly, the small town of Sandy Hook, which held nothing but happy memories for Samoskevich and her family, was filled with mourners. Everywhere anyone looked, there were memorial ribbons. Vigils were held throughout the town in the days that followed. Then came the funerals and the grieving and numbness.

Everyone wanted to help Samoskevich's hometown. The NHL's Boston Bruins even visited in a good-will gesture designed to bring some happiness and relief to the shell-shocked populace.

A year later, Sandy Hook and the entire nation are still dealing with the aftermath of the second-deadliest mass shooting in American history.

Samoskevich left Sandy Hook a little more than a year before her village would change forever, packing her hockey bag and heading for Shattuck-St. Mary's, a school that has earned a well-deserved reputation for producing world-class hockey players. Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild went there before making it in the NHL.

Shattuck-St. Mary's, though, is just as adept at producing elite female players. Amanda Kessel, a member of the United States women's national team and the University of Minnesota women's team, (and the younger sister of NHL player Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs), went to the school. Brianna Decker, who plays for the national team and the University of Wisconsin, is a Shattuck product, as are the Lamoureux twins, Monique and Jocelyn. The sisters were members of the United States team which won the silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

One of the best players in her area, regardless of gender, for several years, Samoskevich was interested in that type of hockey challenge.

In eighth grade, Samoskevich was already playing shinny with seniors on the high school boys varsity team, which was the most recent manifestation of her talent. As a Peewee, she was a standout on the travel team, and the only girl on the squad.

Even the idea of checking never fazed Samoskevich, according to Marvin Minkler, who coached Samoskevich from Mites through her first season of Bantam hockey.

"She initiated [contact]," he said. "Guys wouldn't go to her side of the ice. Or they tried at the beginning of the game and realized that was a bad idea and would go to the other side. She didn't come to the rink without a smile on her face. Her smile is infectious. It's funny; she can play pretty tough and she still has that smile on her face. It's pretty great."

Samoskevich was born into a hockey-loving family.

Her father, Fred, is particularly passionate about the sport, having played through high school. Though many families look to stay warm through unforgiving New England winters, Fred wasted little time getting his family on his backyard rink.

"I'm the crazy guy in the neighborhood. Everyone else is complaining about their oil bill, I'm waiting for the temperature to go down below 32," Fred Samoskevich said. "When [Melissa] was 2, I put her on the ice. As soon as she could play hockey, she was there every weekend. She was having a blast and we were having a blast. She never was the kind of kid that was going to play dates here and there. She was always around older people."

Amanda Kessel is another elite female player produced by Shattuck-St. Mary's. (Photo: Getty Images)

That time with older people was generally spent on the ice. And being surrounded by older players, in most cases male, didn't just accelerate Samoskevich's hockey development. It also forced her to become more mature. It drove her to be tough and learn to battle through challenges against heightened competition. These were skills that would prove valuable as she got older.

Dominant as she was playing against older boys, there were things Melissa couldn't control. Most notably, the growth spurts the males were starting to experience.

"She started her Bantam-Minor year and the boys were giving it to her. She had been giving it to them for years," Fred Samoskevich said. "That summer, one of the kids came back and he must have grown a foot. I was just amazed. I knew I didn't want her to get injured. I knew she had a shot for all the national teams. It was pretty tough for her. That's basically why we sent her to Shattuck. We thought if she had to move on in girls hockey you wanted her to be with the best girls around."

Shattuck had firmly established itself as a top hockey program. When Amanda Kessel was awarded the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as the best player in Division I women's hockey, it marked the second straight year a Shattuck had won the award, with Decker honored the year before.

It wasn't long before Samoskevich staked her claim as being a contender to continue the Shattuck legacy of producing world-class players. Coach Gordon Stafford was immediately impressed.

"She reminds me a little bit of Zach Parise," said Stafford, the father of Buffalo Sabres forward Drew Stafford. "Doggedly determined on the puck; her compete level is off the charts. Very few have the compete level that she has. We've had Brianna Decker here at Shattuck, she won the Patty Kazmaier. We had Phil Kessel's sister, Amanda. We had the Lamoureux twins. They were all complete players but they're offensively wired. I would put Melissa in the same conversation as them."

Placed on a varsity team which included Crosby's sister, Taylor, in goal, Samoskevich was quickly thrown into a program generally considered among the best in the country. But it was in her sophomore season Samoskevich came into her own when Stafford made the somewhat unorthodox decision to move the all-star defenseman to forward. Despite playing defense her entire life, Samoskevich embraced the opportunity.

A move to the top line placed her alongside Cornell University commit Morgan McKim and Bayley Wellhausen, who this summer verbally committed to the University of Wisconsin. Wellhausen is the niece of former NHL player and Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato and Cammi Granato, who is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The youngest player on the squad, Samoskevich finished fourth on the team with 36 points in 49 games. She helped lead a run that would take the team all the way to the semifinals of the Tier I girls tournament at the USA Hockey High School National Championships.

"Last season we were going through a bit of a slump. That's when I moved Melissa for good up to forward and put her with Baylee and Morgan McKim," Stafford said. "That just sparked our whole team from that time on. We weren't as deep last year as we had been in other years and they just carried us through to the semifinals of the national tournament."

"It's a small, really quiet town. It's home. There's not really a place like it. Every time I go somewhere and people ask me for an address, they kind of take a step back. It's just a different feel. It's still Sandy Hook. It hasn't changed. It's always going to be there, it's just brought us closer." -- Melissa Samoskevich

When the news started to develop from Sandy Hook, hockey was the furthest thing from Samoskevich's mind. Her first thoughts were of her siblings, 11-year-old twins, Mackie, her brother, and Madison, her sister. The pair were students at Sandy Hook Elementary two years earlier, and as those initial moments of dread numbed Samoskevich, she momentarily feared the worst.

As it turned out, the twins were in lockdown at the local middle school which, like most of the other schools in the area, had secured its doors and kept its students close. Samoskevich eventually learned the twins and her parents were OK.

Once the safety of her loved ones was confirmed, Samoskevich faced the tough decision of whether she would play hockey against the Chicago Mission.

"We gave her the option. She wanted to play. I don't think it crossed her mind not to play," Stafford said. "Our school counselor called me. The way it is with social media; the girls have their phones on the bus. So we knew eventually that was going to come through to her. She was basically with 35 sisters on the bus. She took it with the same shock and dismay as anybody would. But the support of her teammates was big in that."

It dawned on Samoskevich she was no longer playing for only herself or for Shattuck-St. Mary's.

"Honestly, it was kind of a motivation thing. I was playing for Sandy Hook, playing for all the kids, for the families," Samoskevich said. "It was a big rivalry game and we ended up winning. The game went well. They ended up beating us the whole rest of the season. But it was a good game."

Samoskevich didn't necessarily make any game-changing plays in that hard-fought victory. But the day has stayed with her and it continues to drive her as she establishes herself as one of the top teenage girls players in the world.

While Melissa was on a bus heading to Chicago trying to find out what was happening in her hometown, her father was in the middle of history unfolding, standing outside Sandy Hook Elementary trying to help direct traffic as local and state police descended on the school, which is one-quarter mile from the Samoskevich home.

"My wife and I were having breakfast at the Blue Colony Diner. We were having breakfast right at the window out front and we saw Newtown PD go by. He had to be going 90 mph. I'll never forget this, my wife looked at me and said, 'He's driving way too fast,'" Fred Samoskevich said. "After that, there were multiple troopers and ambulances throughout the town coming from every direction. I was just directing traffic. I just pulled in there [Sandy Hook Elementary] and it was chaos. Troopers were flying in there."

Among the 26 dead was Anne Marie Murphy, who taught Melissa in second grade. Madison Samoskevich remembered another victim, Victoria Soto, as her favorite teacher.

Five days afterward, Melissa returned home for the holidays. After a semester in which she played some of her best hockey for one of the country's foremost hockey programs, she was happy to be with her family. In the wake of the shooting, she found strength in returning to a community that was coming together in the face of tragedy.

"It's a small, really quiet town. It's home. There's not really a place like it," said Samoskevich, who admits the headlines of the past year have altered the way the world views her quaint hometown. "Every time I go somewhere and people ask me for an address, they kind of take a step back. It's just a different feel. It's still Sandy Hook. It hasn't changed. It's always going to be there, it's just brought us closer."

The support from around the country that poured in following the shooting was appreciated by the local citizens, but soon people in the area were focused on coming together as a community again.

"I don't want to say we didn't care about each other before things happened. But after it happened, it sunk in how delicate life is," Fred Samoskevich said. "You can see the change around town a little bit."

After the holiday break, Melissa's success picked up when she returned to Shattuck-St. Mary's, continuing a series of sporting highlights that started in the summer when the United States national team came calling.

Samoskevich was invited to be a part of the United States' preliminary roster for the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Under-18 Championship. She was one of two 15-year-olds on the team and was the second-youngest player invited to the camp, behind defenseman Jincy Dunne.

After receiving the invitation from USA Hockey, Samoskevich competed in a three-game series against Canada in Lake Placid, N.Y. She hoped that invite might provide the impetus for her to make the national team. But Samoskevich experienced a rare hockey disappointment.

She returned to Shattuck-St. Mary's and roughly a week later was on the bus when she heard about the tragedy in her hometown. Not making the U.S. Under-18 team was difficult, but it ultimately allowed her to spend an extra two-and-a-half weeks at home with her family instead of in Finland had she made the final cut. Considering how important that time with her family was, getting cut may well have been a blessing in disguise.

"I got home and our whole downtown was covered with everything, pictures, ribbons, stuffed animals. It was crazy," Samoskevich said. "It was sad but it kind of really showed how much support we had. Our town was really close after that. It just kind of showed how much it really meant to us."

Representing her country was an eye-opening experience.

"You can't explain it. When that anthem is going, you're shaking. It's so hard to explain. It's unbelievable," she said. "You're shaking, you feel like you're going to drop all your equipment because you're squeezing it so hard. When I first put on the jersey, even just sitting in the stall, it's surreal. Honestly, is this even happening right now? I'm wearing a USA jersey."

"You can't explain it. When that anthem is going, you're shaking. It's so hard to explain. It's unbelievable. You're shaking, you feel like you're going to drop all your equipment because you're squeezing it so hard. When I first put on the jersey, even just sitting in the stall, it's surreal. Honestly, is this even happening right now? I'm wearing a USA jersey." -- Melissa Samoskevich

When Samoskevich returned to Shattuck for the spring semester, she immediately began wearing a sticker on her helmet honoring the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. With the decal on her helmet and her play on the ice, Samoskevich was representing her grieving town with grace, dignity and a maturity she's demonstrated since she first started playing with those older boys in Sandy Hook.

During the recent Thanksgiving break, Samoskevich again returned to her hometown, this time finding the sign outside Sandy Hook Elementary School removed and the school in the process of being demolished. The town remains covered with ribbons and memorials to the lives lost on Dec. 14, 2012. A year after those tragic events, she cherishes every moment she gets to spend in Sandy Hook, maybe now more than ever.

"I love going back. Family is really big in my life. We're very close. To see them, it's amazing. To go home to Sandy Hook just ties it all together. It's one big family," she said. "You see the ribbons around light posts and stuff. It's kind of back to normal, I guess. It's quiet. But the ribbons just remind us of what happened. It still gives you the shivers just looking at [the school]. Oh my God. It's such a tragedy."

Soon after Thanksgiving, Samoskevich was informed by USA Hockey she earned an opportunity to compete for a spot on the national U-18 team at the upcoming World Championship in Budapest, Hungary. If she earns one, she plans on wearing the Sandy Hook decal on her helmet.

"If she makes that team, I'm going to ask the staff if I can buy stickers that say 'We support Sandy Hook' for their helmets or something like that," her father said.

Melissa Samoskevich wasn't able to go home for the one-year anniversary of the events that suddenly put her town in the news. She was back in Chicago competing against the Chicago Mission and wearing a Sandy Hook sticker on her helmet.

The odds appear to be in her favor to go to Hungary with the experience she has gained since the first camp. When she received her jersey for the most recent camp, she said she was assigned No. 26, the number of Sandy Hook Elementary staff and students who died. Melissa Samoskevich didn't ask for the number, but she's happy to honor her hometown in any number of ways in Budapest and throughout her hockey career.

Just the thought of doing so brought her proud father to tears.

"That means a lot. It really does. More than ever," Fred Samoskevich said of the opportunity for his daughter to play for the United States. "It would be amazing. It would be really great."


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