One of Olivia Mucha’s earliest hockey memories is of her two older brothers, Evan and Geoff, strapping her into the net in their driveway and shooting pucks at her, sometimes without pads on.
When she ran inside crying, her parents would say to her, "c’mon, toughen up."
Throughout her life, Mucha has come to embody this sentiment. Despite her brothers’ bullying, a shoulder injury, and a rare heart disease, nothing could keep her from playing hockey.
Off the ice, she is a self-described "generally shy person" who avoids being noticed. During our Skype interview she was soft-spoken, apologizing in advance for mumbling, and chose her words thoughtfully and carefully. She loves working with children of all ages and does so in both her hockey life and professional life.
Currently, she works as an applied behavior analysis (ABA) counselor at Melmark Pennsylvania, a licensed private school which provides educational programs for more than one thousand children and adults "with intellectual disabilities, autism, brain injuries and genetic diagnoses," according to their website. Additionally, she coaches the Philadelphia Jr. Flyers’ girls’ team in her hometown.
Her true spirit shines through when she’s on the ice, playing with a tenacity that has helped her fight through every setback.
"I get very vicious and angry," Mucha said with a laugh. "My coaches always joke that I'd forget where the boards are and I'd skate through the boards if it means getting the puck."
She started skating at age three, and by three and a half she was playing for the Wilmington Ice Breakers, an atom team in Wilmington, Del. Watching her brothers play and spending so much time at the rink made her comfortable with the environment.
"I had to do what they did," she explained.
Mucha, age 4, playing for the Wilmington Ice Breakers. Photo Credit: Olivia Mucha.
Hockey opportunities for girls were limited in her hometown of West Chester, Penn. — up until age 10, Mucha played for the Quakers boys’ teams, then tried out for a girls’ team. She and a friend were placed on the 19U girls’ team.
"That’s all there was for girls," she said. The following year, she added a third team, the Montgomery Blue Devils in Maryland, to her already packed schedule.
Even at a young age, she knew that staying in Pennsylvania would not help further her hockey career.
"Not many college coaches, even ones I was talking to, wanted to travel down here to watch only a few people, so I decided to go to Hotchkiss for boarding school," Mucha said.
Located in Salisbury, Conn., the Hotchkiss School is a four hour drive from West Chester. At first, being away from home was difficult.
"The night before I went I got so nervous, I thought I made the wrong decision," she confessed.
As she had before and as she continues to do, however, she found solace in sports.
On a recommendation from the assistant ice hockey coach, Mucha joined the girls’ field hockey team even though she had never played before.
"It was nice playing with girls that were so passionate about it and it was not just something they did, but something they were really focused on," she said of her teammates.
Despite her initial nervousness, and the added responsibility of doing her own chores and managing her time for homework, Mucha came to realize she made the right decision.
"The biggest thing was just noticing how passionate everyone was," she said.
Mucha, in blue, playing for the Hotchkiss School girls' hockey team. Photo Credit: Olivia Mucha.
While attending Hotchkiss, she not only played for the school team all four years, but was also a member of the Mid-Fairfield Stars, formerly the Connecticut Stars, a club travel team.
Mucha’s parents, John and Doris, traveled to watch most of their daughter’s games and all of her tournaments. Despite her comparatively small size - Mucha is 5’5" tall - her parents were always supportive of her choice to play hockey.
"Until senior year of college I thought I was much taller and bigger than I was, but then I realized that's not very true," Mucha said. "There were a few girls who definitely targeted me in college, and a few times where I absolutely got wrecked due to my size."
Her decision to attend Hotchkiss impacted her choice in college as well. One of her teammates a year ahead of her chose to attend Princeton, and Mucha followed her.
"The number one thing I knew I needed to be successful, academically, and especially with hockey, was liking the coach," she said.
She had met Princeton’s women’s hockey coach, Jeff Kampersal, at camps and showcases in the past, and felt comfortable with his personable and straightforward personality.
"He was very upfront with me with what he thought about me, where exactly he thought I would fit, and I just felt a really good connection."
Princeton also boasts a small, walkable, and beautiful campus, which were all factors Mucha was looking for in her ideal school.
Mucha scored her first collegiate goal against Boston University at Walter Brown Arena, a moment she cherishes as one of her best hockey memories.
"I got a one-on-one with Tara Watchorn and I was able to get by her and score," she recalled. "I was super pumped to get my first goal and being able to go cheer with my teammates. I shouldn’t base everything off goals, but obviously they’re special."
While skating for the Tigers, Mucha made some painful memories as well. She suffered two injuries, the first a much more typical hockey injury than the second.
During high school she suffered a torn labrum in her shoulder, which required surgery.
"I shot the puck, it rebounded front, I wasn't close enough to skate to it, so I dove and shot it," she explained, which resulted in the tear.
At the beginning of her sophomore season at Princeton, Mucha began having shoulder pain again, and both she and her trainer knew that it was the labrum again.
"We came up with a deal where I was gonna continue to play, I would wear my brace, I would do rehab, but play in all the games and go until I literally couldn't function," Mucha said. "So it came December when I couldn't even put on a shirt, so I had to have surgery then."
For the first time in years, she had to sit and watch from the stands while her teammates competed on the ice. She played in 12 games before the injury ended her season, tallying four goals and six assists, including two game-winning goals.
Mucha overcame the shoulder injury with relative ease and skated in 23 games during her junior year, scoring six goals and providing seven assists.
During Mucha's senior season, the team's motto was, "Play hard. Take chances. Give everything. Have no regrets." The words were printed on t-shirts and displayed on the walls of the locker room. Little did they know how much meaning those words would come to have.
Mucha started off strong, scoring seven goals and three assists in just 13 games, and was on pace to have her best college season.
During one of the first practices following winter break, Mucha took to the ice as usual.
Suddenly, she felt out of breath and exhausted. She thought maybe she had just gotten out of shape during vacation, even though she only had a week off.
She continued skating.
Her vision began to fade to black, her head was spinning.
Mucha could barely breathe when she motioned to her coach and ran off the ice to the training room.
In the following weeks, she traveled all over Pennsylvania and the surrounding region to be tested in an attempt to figure out what was wrong. It wasn’t until mid-February that Mucha was finally diagnosed with non-compaction cardiomyopathy at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.
Non-compaction cardiomyopathy is a rare heart disease which occurs during the development of the heart. As the heart muscle develops, it transforms from being sponge-like to being smooth through a process called compaction. With this disease, compaction does not occur and as a result, the heart does not pump blood as efficiently as it should.
"To me the funniest part is that it's congenital, so I've had it my entire life, but it can kind of peak at some points," Mucha said. "I’ve always thought it was normal when you do conditioning that things kind of go black."
Once again, she had to spend the majority of the season watching from the stands, but this time she couldn’t even train or exercise.
But giving up was never an option Mucha even considered.
Mucha, right, shoots past Emily Pfalzer of Boston College during her senior year. Photo Credit: Olivia Mucha.
"I didn’t ever wanna give up on hockey. Around February we had our senior game against Yale and I bothered my trainer, Kampersal, and the assistants until they finally let me dress for it and take the face off and the first shift," she said with a smile. "I’ve never been more excited for anything."
From her diagnosis in February 2014 until she was fully cleared to play competitively in April 2015, she relied on the support of those around her to keep her outlook positive.
Mucha made the trip home from New York by herself the day of her diagnosis.
"I kind of lost it and immediately texted Denna, because she was my roommate," she said. "As soon as I got back, I definitely broke down. She just came into my room, put her arm around me. She’s one of those friends where she didn't need to talk, I just needed someone there."
When Mucha learned of Laing’s injury during the Women’s Outdoor Classic this past December, she sat down with her 16U team and told them what had happened. Mucha crafted a big card with a tiger’s paw on the front and had each of her players write a message and sign the back page. The two pages inside contained letters from both Mucha and her boyfriend.
"In my letter I wrote that I hope I can be there for her as much as she was there for me," she said.
Mucha made the trip up to Boston to visit Laing this past February, and they were reunited once again at their Princeton class reunion in May.
The two were linemates all four years at Princeton and roommates during their senior year. Laing, along with the rest of the team, acted as Mucha’s primary support system during her recovery.
Every time she traveled to New York for an appointment with her cardiologist, she was accompanied by either a teammate or one of her parents. She also noted the support of Lee-J Mirasolo, who was Princeton’s assistant coach at the time, as well that of her boyfriend of two years, Thomas Krulikowski.
They met while working at the rink in their hometown during the summer and other school breaks. During the winter break before her injury, Mucha was helping out with the Learn to Play Learn to Skate program and reconnected with him.
"When I got to school, he visited multiple times during our games when I was in the stands," she said. They began dating in early February, just before Mucha found out the nature of her heart condition.
Despite the fact that they didn’t really know each other very well, Krulikowski helped her through her appointments and used the time to get to know her.
"Easily, as a stranger, you could be like, ‘uhh…okay,’ but he stuck by me through that," Mucha said.
The recovery itself consisted of fairly simple steps enacted over the course of a year. Mucha was advised by three doctors, at first in January 2014, to keep her heart rate under 120 beats per minute. In March, her doctor in New York City said she could do light exercise, as long as she stayed under 120 bpm. At first, she struggled to maintain her heart rate even while doing daily activities like going upstairs.
In late spring of 2014, she was allowed to begin exercising and skating casually. The key to her recovery, her doctors told her, was to listen to her body and find the boundaries of how hard she could push herself without getting dizzy.
"My recovery after the first few months really just consisted of being monitored with appointments and tests at those, finding my limits, and seeing how the medications would help," Mucha wrote in an e-mail. "I honestly still don't know how I got to where I am now. I never thought I'd be able to play again or even workout without feeling dizzy or lightheaded."
She takes two medications along with baby Aspirin, which has kept the condition in check and prevented any flare-ups.
"The toughest part I think…was learning how to still be a teammate and a leader while not participating," Mucha said.
She found a way to contribute to the team in another way by providing advice to her teammates. In between periods, she went to the locker room and acted as a player-coach.
"I really enjoyed that. It was cool seeing my teammates listening to me," she said.
It was this experience that inspired her to coach the Jr. Flyers, a role she will reprise in the fall in addition to working her day job and maintaining her own training schedule. The Jr. Flyers teams travel to compete in Canada, New York, New England, and locally in the Atlantic district.
Although hockey is growing in the West Chester area, Mucha says that "the caliber of competition is still lacking, so the teams need to travel in order to create a competitive schedule and provide the girls with challenges." This past season, Mucha acted as head coach for the 14U team and helped out with practices and skill sessions for the 16U team. The program recently expanded to include 12U and 17U teams.
During the summer, Mucha was enrolled in a two-part anatomy and physiology course which was held on the same nights as practices, preventing her from coaching.
"I have officially decided that I won’t be the head coach this upcoming season," she explained via e-mail. Instead, she has accepted the role of head skills coach, a role which will work much better with her new schedule.
Why did she take a summer class if she’s already graduated? On top of everything else, Mucha plans to eventually return to school for a Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy.
Ideally, that will be after or in conjunction with her return to playing competitive hockey.
Mucha declared for NWHL Free Agency earlier this year, but was not invited to one of the free agent camps this summer. After all that she has fought through, a comparatively small setback like this has not deterred Mucha’s determination to remain involved in hockey.
"I enjoy kind of the whole training thing and being in the best hockey shape I can be, so I won't stop that routine, especially if any other opportunity popped up," she said.
Mucha prefers not to stray too far from home and does not consider herself a city girl, thus she has not given any serious thought to joining the CWHL. Depending on where she chooses to attend grad school, she plans on exploring nearby hockey opportunities but has not thought that far ahead yet.
In the meantime, Mucha will continue training independently and coaching the Jr. Flyers. The main reason she decided to begin coaching in the first place was to stay involved with hockey no matter what.
"If I couldn't play, I wanted to be able to help out kids who could," she explained. "And hopefully help them the way that my coaches have helped me."
Coaching young girls helped Mucha keep her mind off the fact that she herself was unable to play and allowed her to share her passion with the next generation of women’s hockey players.
"For example, I really love stick handling. It’s my favorite part of the game," she said. At the same time, it allowed her to, she said, "see the game through their eyes" and helped her gain a new appreciation for her own coaches.
"The biggest thing I've learned is how many details go into coaching…I've had some times in game when I was like, ‘oh crap, do I pull the goalie, do I not? This line isn't working well, what can I do?’" she said, laughing.
"I've kind of learned how to work with people better," she added. "I've learned how to work with teammates, and now I’m working with players who have teammates."
The biggest coaching challenge for Mucha is, unsurprisingly, reeling in her passion at times.
"For me growing up, hockey was my life, and if my parents wanted to punish me it was telling me I can't go to hockey. With a lot of the kids, it was hard for me to understand that not all of them have the same type of passion and focus I had, even if they're girls that wanna play," Mucha said. This realization has helped her to reevaluate her expectations for the team and figure out their goals together.
Despite her uneasiness about being interviewed, Mucha agreed to share her story with me. The nerves eventually vanished and she spoke with fervor and joy about hockey, the kids she works with both on and off the ice, and her teammates.
Ultimately, she hopes that her story will create the "possibility for someone to connect in the hockey world" and give them with the courage to reach out.
"I want them knowing that if they're going through something, maybe they have a heart condition or something and think they can't play…I hope that someone gets out of it that even when something pops up, an injury or an illness, knowing that you can continue to play the sport," she said.
"I'm definitely nervous for this whole thing, but I hope it's something I can give back to girls hockey."