At a young age, Alexis Poppleton fell in love with hockey. From her first time skating through the Blades and Avs hockey program with the Rec Center as a 5-year-old to her gap year after graduating from Thunder Basin, getting to play hockey at the collegiate level has been something she has been hunting for.
Thirteen years after she fist laced up her skates, Poppleton will fulfill her dream of playing Division I hockey. In the fall, she will play for Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.
Poppleton’s time in Gillette came before the local hockey association switched its name from the Wild to the Grizzlies. She started when she was a 7-year-old girl with limited skating experience. Poppleton spent time on the girls team before moving over to competing on the boys team. In her last few years of high school, the future Hawk competed for Team Colorado.
It was during her time at Team Colorado that Poppleton really began to get noticed by colleges. She had a few Division III offers to her name but was seeking the bigger fish. When she graduated high school at the age of 17, she used her extra year to make a push for a bigger school.
On the ice, Poppleton is a playmaker. She plays centre and wing and prefers to play centre. It allows her to control more of the game and set her teammates and herself up. Wing is fun as it provides more scoring opportunities.
“I like centre because you’re like the quarterback,” Poppleton said. “People rely on you. You have to win faceoffs.”
A few weeks after Poppleton lost to the Dallas Stars 19U team she tried out for the team. The family debated having her live in Dallas for the year, but decided to have her fly out to Dallas for tournaments and continue to live in Gillette. If it ever got to the point where she needed to be in Dallas to stay on the team, the Poppletons would send her there.
But in the meantime, Poppleton needed somewhere to train and practice. In came the NA3HL Gillette Wild and coach Ethan Hayes.
Practicing with boys is something Poppleton is used to. She did it through her high school career when she played for the local high school hockey club. So for her, there was never a doubt about how much effort she was going to put in, even against some of the bigger guys on the team.
“Their practices were pretty intense,” Poppleton said. “In the end it really helps. They’re skilled because they’re playing at a higher level. Having to go against 21-year-old boys pushing me every practice — they’re going to be faster and stronger, but I’m going to keep up with them for practice and it has really helped me gain speed and get harder shots.”
Sometimes, coach Hayes would tell her she didn’t have to do a sprint or part of the practice, but Poppleton always did it. If she were going to practice with the team then she was determined to do it all.
Whether it was with the boys on the high school team or the NA3HL team, they treated her like any other member of the team. They checked her as hard as they checked each other — and she checked them right back.
At a tournament with the Stars, she met with an assistant coach on the Saint Anselm team. Things moved quickly as the assistant coach relayed intel back to the head coach and shortly after offered a spot to Poppleton. The family hadn’t talked much about what Poppleton would do if she were to decide between the DI school and one of the DIII schools that she had talked to before. Poppleton made a snap decision in the car ride back from one of her tournaments.
“We were in two cars driving back and I called (Poppleton’s mother) and said, ‘You have a DI athlete,’” Poppleton said.
Her mother, Tammi, was surprised at first with how sudden everything came together, but more than anything was proud and supportive.
The commitment isn’t only notable within the city limits. Poppleton is one of a few girls from the state of Wyoming to make it to Division I. Team Colorado’s 19U AAA coach Hannah Westbrook — a native of Laramie — is another. Westbrook went on to play at the University of Vermont after finishing her high school career in Vermont. Other than Westbrook and Poppleton, the Gillette hockey association isn’t sure of another.
What they are sure on is that Poppleton is the first Gillette native to reach Division I for both boys and girls. Several boys have received Division I offers, but none have committed or played at the level.
Hockey as a sport is on the rise in the country. It’s mentioned as one of the “big four” professional leagues, but the league is dominated by athletes from outside of the United States.
Poppleton — and the hockey community, for that matter — hope that stories like hers inspires younger kids to explore the game. She wants local kids to see that it is possible to succeed in the sport, even if you’re starting as a mighty might in Gillette. You might have to work harder than some other athletes in the hockey capitals like Minnesota or Wisconsin, but it is possible.
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