Pucks & Pups

With The Dog Days Of College Behind Her, Annie Pankowski Embarks On New Career While Staying Focused On Unfinished Business On The Ice
Greg Bates

As Mark Johnson prepares to cue up video from a recent game, the longtime University of Wisconsin women's hockey coach scans the room.

Johnson's players offer their undivided attention, including Annie Pankowski-a three-time Patty Kazmaier Award finalist, which is given to the top female player in college hockey-who sits eager to learn. Next to her is an obedient Labrador retriever. The dog is Pankowski's sidekick.

"Normally you don't have animals come in and watch video sessions, but I love dogs," Johnson says. "I had no problem with her bringing them in. It's amazing that over the time that she brought them in, not one thing ever happened as far as a peep. They just sit there and watch video. I'm not sure what their hockey knowledge is, but they're very polite and have great manners." 

It became a common sight on the Madison campus that wherever Pankowski went, a dog wasn't far behind. It was a little odd if man's best friend-or in this case a woman's best friend-wasn't accompanying the hockey star.

During the tail end of her freshman year, Pankowski started volunteering for the Madison-based OccuPaws Guide Dog Association. The nonprofit organization places fully-trained guide dogs with visually-impaired residents in Wisconsin.

It has been Pankowski's role to help raise and train the dogs for four to five months before the canine moves onto the next stage of its development and is eventually placed in a home. Pankowski, who figures she's worked with about a dozen dogs over the past four years of volunteering with OccuPaws, has the dogs live with her and engage in her everyday activities. Exposure to campus life, being downtown and living in an apartment are important for the dogs to get prepared for their clients.

"I didn't truly know this is something I wanted to do until my sophomore year in college," Pankowski admits. "That's when I said, 'This is what I really want to do. I can make a big difference.'"

The Laguna Hills, Calif., native grew up around animals. Her parents, Richard and Diane, are both veterinarians. It was only natural for Pankowski to follow in their footsteps. 

"She's good at looking at a dog and understanding what it needs," says Barb Schultze, president of the OccuPaws Guide Dog Association. 

Schultze knows the dogs that Pankowski trains benefit from her active life and getting them into the locker room is good for stimulation.

"If there's a dog that's afraid of noise, [it's the] perfect place for her because it's noisy and people wear funny hats and things," Schultze says. 

After intimately working with a dog for nearly half of a year, Pankowski has a hard time saying goodbye when the animal is ready for its next step.

"I cry all the time, but I don't think the job would be as rewarding if you didn't cry or you didn't feel a little something," Pankowski says. "It shows you how special those dogs really are."

During the last four years, Pankowski has logged in excess of 2,000 volunteer hours at OccuPaws.

"It was never a chore or never work for me," she says. "I never thought of it that way."

What's surprising is Pankowski, who graduated from Wisconsin on May 11 with a zoology degree, didn't take much of a step off from raising dogs during hockey season. During a typical week, Pankowski would have her dog on weekdays and then OccuPaws would line up a puppysitter on the weekends when Pankowski had games.

Competing in a sport such as hockey can be stressful. Pankowski uses her dog training as a relaxation method.  

"It just gives me an avenue to kind of just be a normal person and enjoy the little things-not get caught up in training or how a game went," she says. "It's just another part of my life that adds balance."

It was an intense senior season for Pankowski but her most rewarding. She was able to check off one extremely monumental goal.

In a matter of three weeks, Pankowski helped the Badgers capture the NCAA Division I national championship on March 24 and then helped Team USA win its fifth straight IIHF Women's World Championship in April. 

"You work your whole career for something like that and for it to pay off is incredible," Pankowski says. "You take a step back and you look that I'm the only player in women's hockey that was a national champion and a world champion, so that's something special to me as well."

Winning a national title with Wisconsin was a dream that nearly escaped Pankowski. In her first three seasons, she skated in the Frozen Four, but the Badgers couldn't win the big game. 

"I think we saw full circle this year as we were wrapping up the season, her one void was a national championship," Johnson recalls. "She's been close a couple times and that always stings you. It was fun to watch her win it this year and that smile and the way they grabbed that trophy and the way they celebrated."

Now that her college career is over, Pankowski has one more goal left on her hockey bucket list: compete in the Olympics.

As a teenager, Pankowski was a final cut for the 2014 Olympics. Three years later, she had another shot. During the 2017-18 season, Pankowski took a redshirt season at Wisconsin to play on the U.S. Women's National Team. She thought she had made the team to compete in the 2018 Games but just weeks before heading to PyeongChang, she was cut. The move left her devasted. 

Now, Pankowski's sights are set on a run at the 2022 Beijing Games. What adds a little twist to the equation is Pankowski will be a little tied up with school at the same time as she pursues a doctorate degree at Wisconsin as a veterinarian. She starts classes in the fall.

Pankowski, 24, plans on training hard on the ice this summer. If she keeps making Team USA squads, she'll continue her quest for the Olympics. 

"I think she has a great chance," Johnson says. "She's been close twice but I think with more opportunities you get to showcase yourself. Certainly, this last spring when she went over to the World Championships in Finland, she played a big part in their success. Now it's going to be her ability to manage the conditioning and the skating and keeping her skills at a high level and also going to vet school. But if there's anyone who can do it, she can."

Pankowski has been told by people that she's crazy to try and juggle competing at a high level in hockey while going after a doctorate degree.

"Both these things are really important to me and I've been doing this basically my whole life like prepping for school and doing extracurriculars and volunteering and also playing hockey," she says. "Moving forward, it is a big task, but I'm certainly up for the challenge." 



Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wis.




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