It was a December day in Boston, and Lexi Bender was supposed to have the evening off.
Bender, an all-star defenseman with the National Women’s Hockey League’s Boston Pride and a Snohomish native, was in the midst of final exams at the Northeastern University School of Law. Pride coach Paul Mara told Bender to skip practice so she could devote her time to studying.
Yet when Mara arrived for practice, there was Bender, decked out in her skates and pads as always.
“She showed up and I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Mara recalled with a laugh.
“That was a week of delirium,” Bender explained. “I was in the library, I’d been there for 10 hours, I started thinking about the girls at practice and I didn’t want to miss it. I figured I’d get more done if I spent an hour or two with my friends having fun.”
This has been Bender’s life the past year-and-a-half. But balancing professional hockey and law school hasn’t stopped Bender from performing at an all-star level.
Bender is headed to Nashville this weekend to take part in the 2019 NWHL All-Star Weekend at Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators. Bender, a member of Team Szabados, was one of 32 players selected to take part in the Skills Competition, which takes place Saturday evening, and the All-Star Game, which is Sunday afternoon.
And she’s proving one doesn’t need to choose between sport and education.
Bender, 25, is in her third season in the NWHL. This season she has five assists in 13 games for the Pride, who are 9-4 and tied for second place in the five-team league, just two points behind the first-place Minnesota Whitecaps. With just three games remaining in the regular season the Pride have championship aspirations, and Bender has played a big role in the team’s success.
“She’s been fantastic for us,” Mara said. “She’s a veteran presence who plays against teams’ top lines, she’s great offensively, great defensively. I can’t say enough good words about what she’s done.”
Indeed, when the NWHL announced its all-star teams over Twitter, it did so in the form of a draft, with team captains Shannon Szabados of the Buffalo Beauts and Lee Stecklein of the Whitecaps alternating picks. The players found out about their selection at the same time as the public, and Bender didn’t have to wait long to learn her fate as she was the second player selected by Szabados.
Let's move onto D! Excited about this pick. I’m taking the smooth-skating, big-shot-taking @bendy0 of the Boston Pride. #TeamSzabados is counting on you in Nashville, Lexi! -SS pic.twitter.com/TFqySthbmn
— NWHL (@NWHL) December 5, 2018
“I don’t know how (the selection process) works, but part of me says they did it in alphabetical order,” Bender said wryly. “But if you want to say I was picked second, I’ll go with that, too.”
The all-star nod came with Bender in her second year of law school, and she said she’s reached a better balance between school and hockey this season.
“What I was doing changed,” Bender said. “My first year I was working a nine-to-five job and it was easy to balance it with hockey. Then last year was my first year at law school and it was a tough balance. I felt I struggled last season and the team clearly struggled. This year I feel there’s been a nice balance, I’ve just gotten more comfortable with time management. I’m telling myself I don’t have to do three things at once, I just have to concentrate on doing one thing well.”
At school Bender is alternating quarters between the classroom and in judges’ chambers. This quarter she’s clerking for Marianne Bowler, a U.S. District Court judge for the District of Massachusetts, who happens to be a big hockey fan.
Bender has one year of law school remaining, and she’s interested in pursuing corporate law — with one eye toward the Seattle NHL team set to come online in 2021. She said she’s appreciating the law-school experience.
“I enjoy it as much as one can enjoy law school,” Bender said. “I’m excited to move into the profession and pass the bar, it was definitely the right decision for me. And I don’t think I’d be doing as well if I didn’t have hockey grounding me. Hockey has been consistent through my whole education — if I didn’t get my homework done then my mom would nix practice. So balancing school, hockey and seeing friends is something I’m comfortable with.”
As for the All-Star Game, this is Bender’s second straight selection. Last year she participated in All-Star Weekend when it was held in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She took part in the hardest shot competition in the Skills Competition, finishing second with a 76-mph blast. In the All-Star Game she was a member of Team Leveile, which lost to Team Orr 8-6. The game has a monetary incentive for the winners, meaning that while the players are showing off their skills, they’re also playing to win.
Therefore, Bender knows what to expect this weekend.
“I had no expectations last year,” Bender said. “There was a lot of excitement. There were a lot of people there, the rink was packed for the skills competition and the game. We did an outdoor skate with local youth teams, and it was a really good opportunity to see what the market was like and also give back a little while celebrating the NWHL.”
Bender said she hasn’t been told yet which event she’ll be participating in for the skills competition, though she said she’d be happy to take part in the trick-shot competition. Bender said the league likes to surprise the players that way.
But as someone who’s mastered the art of balancing pro hockey and law school, Bender isn’t one to get rattled by surprises.