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By Chris Bayee, 03/08/19, 9:15AM PST


You couldn’t fault Annie Pankowski if she got a little distracted with that’s going on around her these days.

Yet the former Anaheim Lady Ducks standout, who was selected the WCHA Women’s Player of the Year on March 7, remains laser focused as her college career winds down. And what a career it has been at the University of Wisconsin.

In addition to captaining the No. 2 Badgers, the redshirt senior is closing in on 200 career points. Entering the WCHA Tournament, Pankowski is at 198 in 147 games, including a team-high 43 in 34 games this season. Only five other players have hit that milestone in the Badgers’ illustrious history.

That’s very good, but she has a way to go to reach her career-best mark of 58 points, which she racked up in 40 games as a sophomore. Still, her efforts this season vaulted her into the conversation for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award (the Heisman Trophy of the NCAA women’s hockey), which she is a top-three finalist for. She was a top-10 finalist for the “Kaz” twice before.

The points and honors are nice, Pankowski says, but they’re not things she spends a lot of mental capital on.

“It’s really easy to get caught up in those numbers, and I try not to look at that because the more you want it, the harder it becomes,” she said. “I’m trying to focus on the team goals. When I focus on the team and other people, that’s when I play my best. … It’s easy to get distracted by that kind of thing.”

She communicates that through both words and actions to her teammates. With a month or less remaining in her college career, there is a certain urgency she feels. Wearing a “C” for one of the premier Division I programs only amplifies that.

“It’s intensity. Every game, every practice matters. Every goal matters.,” Pankowski said. “When you get to play in three NCAA quarterfinals and three Frozen Fours you know the intensity, you know the pressure.

“For some people who haven’t been there, you can get wrapped up in it and shaken and moved off your game. I try to keep up the intensity, and keep up the fun, keep pushing people to get better because we need to be at our best in those moments.”

The push to the playoffs is important, but it shouldn’t overshadow her work off the ice.

In early February Pankowski was selected as one of five finalists for the 2019 Hockey Humanitarian Award, which is presented to college hockey’s finest citizen – a student-athlete who makes significant contributions not only to his or her team but also to the community at-large through their leadership in volunteer work.

She’s an active volunteer with OccuPaws, an organization that trains and pairs service dogs with the visually impaired in the Upper Midwest.

“I spent my childhood years with a bunch of pets. My parents are vets so we always had a ton of animals,” Pankowski said. “There wasn’t that much opportunity to have a dog (at school). I looked into service dogs, because I know that they get a lot of privileges – I could take him to class, take him to practice.

“I looked into it and found OccuPaws, which is a charity in Madison that gives seeing-eye dogs to people who need them. It’s run solely on volunteers and donations. I started working with them, helping them out.”

The more she immersed herself in this aspect of her volunteer work, she grasped just how much of an impact it could have.

“When you meet people who are affected by the dogs and their lives change it’s really powerful. It hooks you in,” she said. “You realize things I can offer can be so important to help one person just by taking care of a dog for a while, teaching him how to ride the bus, how to act in public, how to not freak out when they hear a goal horn.”

Her four-legged friends have accompanied her everywhere on campus, and her responsibilities have grown with OccuPaws, to the point she’s helped organize fundraisers for the organization and has mentored other Wisconsin students.

But that isn’t the end of it. Pankowski also has made it a priority to participate in several other community outreaches through the school’s athletic department.

“I spent two years involved in that,” she said. “The first year was a program called Badger Backpack, where you get paired with a fourth-grade classroom. You were pen pals. We had a weekly topic and we could converse with the classroom and then go meet them. They’re really special.

“Then I did something similar to Flat Stanley, called Flat Bucky, where you take it to the class. I took them on our road trips, took pictures, and they would journal about what he did. That was another really cool way to connect with school children.”

Pankowski’s play has continued to draw the attention of USA Hockey, which selected her to play for the Women’s World Championships in early April. She will team with fellow Lady Ducks alum Cayla Barnes at the top non-Olympics tournament in women’s hockey, which will be held in Finland. Pankowski previously played in World Championships in 2015 and ’16.

That adds to an international resume that also includes two stints on pre-Olympic tours, five Four Nations Cup teams and numerous age-group Select teams.

Which direction Pankowski goes from there bears watching as well. In December, she was the first overall draft pick in the NWHL Draft by the Metropolitan Riveters.

However, the zoology major – and three-time WCHA Scholar-Athlete - has her sights set on graduate school and pursuing become a veterinarian.

“I’m in the middle of hearing back from applications,” Pankowski said. “I’ve gotten into UC Davis and Cornell for veterinary school, and I’m waiting to hear back from Madison and Tufts. Certainly vet school is in my future.

“It kind of depends on if I’m going to keep playing hockey. I know I can’t play forever.”

How grad school could fit with pro hockey presents another challenge, though not an insurmountable one.

“It would be amazing to be part of one of those teams to help grow the sport and help grow awareness,” Pankowski said. “Right now I’m not quite sure, but I’d like to get an opportunity. I know they do fly some people cross-country for games.”

In the midst of all of these constants – excellence in hockey, academics and service – Pankowski always has made it a priority to invest back in the program that she says had given her so much.

“She’s been very busy with USA hockey, Wisconsin, training, summer school so she’d have exceptional grades. But when she’s coming home I usually get a text from her mom saying she wants to know what’s going on,” said Lady Ducks Director Kathy McGarrigle. “Every season she’s been home, she’s jumped over to the rink, skated around with everybody, worked with young players, worked with older players. She will sit for an hour, sign autographs and update her photos. She’ll bring medals. She’s very committed to that.

“She knows that this is an area that doesn’t have the type of population where (hockey superstars) are going to be a dime a dozen. She takes that role very seriously and also in a positive way. There’s a huge connection for any young player because Annie was a Lady Duck. It’s more direct with the girls, and they’re super excited when she’s around.”

Pankowski is quick to credit the Lady Ducks, and McGarrigle and General Manager Caroline Marchant in particular, for the opportunities they’ve provided her and so many others.

“California hockey will forever be indebted to those two (Kathy and Caroline) for their hard work and everything they’ve put into the sport for those young girls to get the opportunity to play,” Pankowski said. “That’s so exciting for me. I didn’t really have all the opportunities these girls have. And then the new rink (Great Park ICE), I’m really excited there is going to be another option to find ice and grow the game. I’m grateful to have gone through that program and be a role model for those girls.”