By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
As a young hockey player growing up in Mukilteo, Molly Doner was good enough to get recruited by some of the nation’s top college programs.
But after receiving a scholarship offer from the University of Wisconsin, where her father Lexi once played, it was sort of like a breakaway goal into an empty net. No way would she pass up the chance to play at the same school, wear the same colors and even the same jersey number — No. 9 — as her dad did three decades before.
Imagine, then, the thrill for the entire Doner family when Molly took the ice for her first college home game in October.
“It was kind of a surreal moment,” said Molly, a 2012 graduate of Kamiak High School. “When I was putting my jersey on (before the game), and when I saw ‘Doner’ on the back and the No. 9, I got goose bumps. I went completely numb. I was thinking, ‘This is what my dad did several years ago, and now I’m doing exactly what he did.’”
It was much the same for Lexi Doner, sitting in the stands with his wife Jackie. Seeing his daughter in a red and white Wisconsin uniform, “it was sort of a dream come true,” he said.
“When your kids are young you think, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be neat for them to go back to the alma mater and play.’ And then when it actually becomes a reality, it’s a very happy moment.”
Lexi Doner took up hockey as a boy growing up in the Seattle area. As a teenager he lived in Edmonds and attended Meadowdale High School, but for his senior year he transferred to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., a school with a prestigious hockey program.
He played at Wisconsin from 1979-84 and helped the Badgers win two national championships. He later played two professional seasons in Germany before returning to the Pacific Northwest, where today he owns and operates the Kent Valley Ice Center, one of the region’s premier venues for adult and youth hockey.
The family has six children, all hockey players. Son Ryan, who is 20, plays for the Kindersley Klippers in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Molly, who has her 19th birthday today, has been joined in Wisconsin by her 17-year-old sister Melanie, a high school senior who plays for a top U19 team in Madison. Brothers Max (16), Ian (13) and Lexi Jr. (11) live with their parents in Mukilteo and are also avid players.
“When you’re growing up, you always aspire to be like your parents,” explained Molly, no doubt speaking for her brothers and sister. “You want to do something your parents did. (Playing hockey) was never forced, it was just something I wanted to do. Then it became something I loved.
“And at that point,” she said, “you really couldn’t keep me off the ice.”
“Being a player myself, I’ve always appreciated what hockey has to offer,” Lexi said. “The game did a lot for me, so when my kids were old enough to get on the ice it was second nature to provide them with skates and let them go if they wanted to.”
Molly played softball and ran cross country at Kamiak, but hockey was always her passion. So much so, in fact, that she spent much of her senior year — from late September to mid-March — at the North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, Vt. With an academic curriculum from Kamiak, she spent 51/2 months engaged in a rigorous hockey schedule of practices and games.
The Wisconsin scholarship offer came after a Vermont tournament in early September of 2011, “and it was one of the happiest days of my life,” she said. “They have a phenomenal program, so (playing hockey there) was always a dream.”
Her coach is Mark Johnson, one of the great names in American hockey. The son of longtime college and NHL coach Bob Johnson, Mark Johnson was the leading scorer on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that won the gold medal at Lake Placid, N.Y. He went on to play 11 seasons in the NHL, and in 2010 coached the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team at the Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C.
The chance to play for Johnson “was one of the big influencing factors for me (going to Wisconsin),” Molly said. “It’s an absolute honor to play for him. When you’re sitting in a room with a man who’s achieved so much, how can you not look at him with admiration and respect? … I can’t speak highly enough about him.”
Hockey is hugely popular in the upper Midwest, with Madison being no exception. This season the Badgers women’s team moved into the new LaBahn Arena, a 2,500-seat facility that is usually packed to overflowing on game nights.
For that first home game back in October, Molly said, “I remember stepping on the ice for warmups and it was already almost a full house 40 minutes before the game. I’d never played in front of more than 100 people before, and to see that much red I remember getting chills.”
She plays forward and has moved between the team’s second and fourth lines as she adjusts to the college game. The game is much quicker at the NCAA Division I level, she said, “and you just have to be that much stronger with the puck and that much stronger on your skates.”
Her immediate goal is to help Wisconsin win another national championship — under Johnson, the Badgers have won four of the last seven NCAA titles. But as she looks further in the future, she dreams of representing the United States at the Olympic Games.
“I can honestly say that (being an Olympian) would be the biggest honor,” she said. “You’re putting on a jersey to represent your country and that would be unbelievable. Words can’t even describe how much that would mean. It would be the pinnacle.”