McKynsay Vanderpan graduated from UND in the spring of 2002.
She moved to the Twin Cities and accepted a job at a swimsuit store in the Mall of America.
“I left Grand Forks and I wasn’t coming back,” she said.
That was the plan.
Three months later, she got a call from Jim Rudd, the head athletic trainer at UND. Rudd told her that a women’s hockey program was set to debut that fall and asked her if she wanted a graduate assistant job as the team’s trainer.
“I had 24 hours to decide,” she said. “I wasn’t doing anything job-related at the time. I said I’d call back in a little bit. I decided to come back to Grand Forks.
“I was surprised. My family was surprised.”
That’s how it all began.
Vanderpan started as a graduate assistant trainer for the women’s hockey team in Year 1 of the program. The position soon turned into a full-time job, and 13 years later, she’s still with the program.
She’s the only person to be associated with the UND women’s hockey program for each year of its existence.
Vanderpan now plays a multitude of roles for the program.
Her job title says “athletic trainer,” but those within the team say she’s much more than that: a strength and conditioning coach, a program historian, a second mother to the players and the glue that keeps the club together.
“She’s so valuable to our team with who she is as a person and how much she cares for the players,” UND coach Brian Idalski said. “We’re pretty blessed to have her.”
Through the years, Vanderpan has been on the bench for more than 450 home and road games. She’s only missed a few.
There was one in 2003 to watch her now-husband, Matt, play in the NCAA Division II national football championship game. She missed two for her sister’s wedding in 2008 and two more for Matt’s sister’s wedding in 2010. And she missed four in 2011 after her grandmother died.
Other than that, she’s been standing in her usual spot on the end of the bench, watching the games.
That’s what made this fall so strange.
Vanderpan gave birth to her son, Craig, in October, so she missed the first 12 regular-season games of the year. That was more games than she had missed in the previous decade combined.
“It was kind of weird,” UND senior Samantha Hanson said. “That was the first time since I’ve been here that she hasn’t been around. It was an adjustment.
“We had a male trainer come in. We usually kind of talk to Mack about anything, so we kind of had to tone that back a little bit.”
Idalski said he told Vanderpan to take her time and not be in any hurry to get back to the team.
“I think after the first month I called her and said, ‘I lied to you. You need to get back as soon as you can. That take-all-the-time-you-want stuff wasn’t true,’” Idalski said with a laugh. “You have to give a lot of credit to the rest of the training staff. They did a good job, but there’s no doubt that you have that familiarity with McKynsay and how she does things. I missed her.”
Idalski was a strong advocate for increasing Vanderpan’s role on the team when he came aboard as the head coach in 2007.
Instead of just being the athletic trainer, Vanderpan also started taking control of the strength and conditioning program for the team, too, mirroring what Mark Poolman did for the men’s team.
Idalski said it was “invaluable” to have a trainer with the ability to tailor strength-and-conditioning workouts for each player based on deficiencies or injuries. Olympian Jocelyne Lamoureux is now helping with that aspect.
Through the years, Vanderpan also has adjusted certain parts of the treatment program to better care for the athletes.
She now packs nearly everything in the training room to bring on the road. Vanderpan turns her hotel room into a training room, so she can treat players there on Thursday nights before weekend series, as well as after games.
“We didn’t have anything like that in my first 10 years,” she said. “That’s all changed in the last four, five, six years.”
A lot has changed since that first year.
Vanderpan, who had no previous experience with hockey and only attended three or four men’s games while in college, now knows plenty about the sport.
While the training room was always packed full those first few years, it has become much more manageable in recent times with stronger players.
While the sport of women’s hockey was relatively young and budding back in 2002, it is starting to gain its foothold now.
“The quality of play of women’s hockey is unbelievable from when we started until now,” Vanderpan said. “Not just us, all around us, too. It’s quicker. There’s more skill. That’s the biggest change.”
Vanderpan admits that she never thought she would wind up back in Grand Forks and never thought that she would be at this job this long.
For that, she thanked her husband — a former UND football player who played in two national title games and won three consecutive Nickel Trophies.
“I wouldn’t be here without the help of Matt,” she said. “I couldn’t do it. The hours of athletics are demanding with all of the weekends. He’s aware of that because he was part of it.
“He hasn’t missed many of our home games. You’ll see him up in Section 111 every game. Without him, I wouldn’t have been here this long.”