Mayo Clinic nurse double-dipping as pro hockey player, battling with Rochester Grizzlies
Claire DeGeorge doesn't stay still for long. The former NCAA Division I women's hockey national champion at Ohio State is a Mayo Clinic nurse and a professional hockey player who stays sharp on the ice by jumping in at practice occasionally with the Rochester Grizzlies.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Clair DeGeorge was driving from Rochester to Faribault one day in late October when her phone rang.
She saw the number and name of the caller and had a feeling that her two passions were about to collide.
Her skating session that morning at Shattuck St. Mary’s is still a blur. The phone call she received — from Katie Million, the director of Women’s National Team Programs for USA Hockey — was all DeGeorge could think about. And the smile on her face wouldn’t go away, even if she tried to force it.
“Katie just randomly called me one day and said ‘Clair, we’d like to invite you to play in the Rivalry Series,’” DeGeorge said of the annual seven-game series between the U.S. Women’s National Team and Canada’s women’s national team, essentially each country’s Olympic team roster, in non-Olympic years. “I was excited, then I thought ‘oh, man, I don’t know if I can make it because of my job.’ I was nervous about that.”
Two months into her job as a registered nurse at Mayo Clinic, DeGeorge wasn’t sure if she could make things work — criss-crossing the country to play hockey, while holding down her job at Mayo Clinic. But as she has done since she was an energetic young multi-sport athlete growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, DeGeorge found a way to make sure her first love (hockey) could be balanced with her newest love (nursing).
“They’ve been absolutely amazing here at Mayo,” said DeGeorge, who played prep hockey at Shattuck from 2014-17. “They’ve given me all the opportunity to go play. It’s a lot to ask for so much time off, especially early in my time there, but they’ve been really supportive, which is awesome.”
DeGeorge also plays for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, a four-team league that includes many of the world’s best players — Lee Stecklein, Kelly Pannek, Jincy Dunne, Hannah Brandt, Sarah Nurse, Hilary Knight, Alex Carpenter, Amanda Kessel, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Marie-Philip Poulin, among the many — and four Showcases in the United States or Canada, as opposed to a traditional schedule. All of the players in the league travel to those showcases and play two or three games in a weekend.
Once her bosses at Mayo told DeGeorge they’d make her work schedule mesh with her hockey schedule, she sat down to figure out a travel plan, one that took her from one side of North America to the other, and back, in a three-week span.
“I’ll be stretching all five time zones between Canada and the U.S.,” she said early this month.
Shoes without laces were made for this kind of schedule, because, when would she have time to tie them?
DeGeorge flew to Turo, Nova Scotia, on Nov. 3, then played three straight days of PWHPA games. She flew back to Rochester following those games, pulled an overnight shift at Mayo Clinic, then flew to Seattle the next day to begin training for the Rivalry Series.
The U.S. beat Canada 4-3 in a shootout on Nov. 15 in Kelowna, British Columbia (approximately 240 miles east of Vancouver), then won again 2-1 in Kamloops (approximately 220 miles northeast of Vancouver) on Nov. 17. The Series moved to Seattle on Nov. 20, where the U.S. won again, 4-2.
Following that game, DeGeorge made a brief pit stop in Rochester before heading to Pittsburgh for another round of PWHPA games this past weekend.
“It’s been … I like it a lot,” DeGeorge said of the pro hockey experience she’s had so far. “It’s allowed me to explore my other passions. Nursing is something I’m very passionate about. Just being able to have your dream job that isn’t hockey, but at the same time play the sport you’ve loved and dreamed about since you were a kid.
“The goal is to eventually have a whole (women’s) professional league for young girls to look forward to, just like little boys get to, so maybe gone will be the days of girls looking up to a life that they know they can never have.”
Battling with boys, Part I
Professional hockey rarely, if ever, crossed DeGeorge’s mind when she was growing up in Anchorage.
No one else in her family played hockey.
Her mom, Lynn, was an All-American swimmer at Indiana University. Clair’s sister Tara swam at Air Force. Her younger sister Leah is a junior on the University of Florida swimming team.
“The joke is that I just chose the frozen water,” Clair said with a laugh. “My parents were very into getting us all into as many activities as possible. They decided we were all going to learn to skate, so we started figure skating. Then I begged them to let me play hockey and when I was 5 they gave in and let me do it.
“The rest is history with that.”
There were no girls-only teams or leagues for DeGeorge to join, though, so she learned the game by playing in boys’ leagues.
“It’s definitely interesting,” she said. “There were a couple of girls older than me who I’d look up to and try to emulate. But I played boys hockey the whole time growing up. And I don’t think I’d be where I’m at today if I hadn’t done that.
“The girls ahead of me who were really successful did that, too, up until it was time to leave the state. Hopefully some day girls won’t have to do that to keep playing.”
DeGeorge’s time to leave home to continue her playing career came in the fall of 2014, when she was just 15 years old. She played one season for the Sabres 16U team, then two for its top team, the Prep team. And she put up some eye-popping numbers: 55 goals and 95 assists total in her two seasons on the Prep team.
Her play caught the eye of many college coaches, including the staff at Bemidji State.
“They were the ones who believed in me from the start,” she said. “They saw my potential, believed in me. I loved that. I had a great experience up there.”
DeGeorge put up 79 points in four seasons in Bemidji before entering the transfer portal and using her “COVID season,” a fifth season of eligibility granted by the NCAA to athletes who were playing when the COVID pandemic altered the course of two seasons. DeGeorge transferred to Ohio State and played last season for the Buckeyes and head coach Nadine Muzzerall, a former Gophers player and coach.
She had a breakout year, scoring 16 goals and adding 30 assists, helping the Buckeyes go 32-6 and beat Minnesota Duluth 3-2 on March 20 to win the national championship.
“Playing there helped me gain more confidence with the puck and learn how to battle,” DeGeorge said. “We did a lot of that. When you go against players like that in practice every day, you can’t help but improve.”
Battling with boys, Part II
DeGeorge’s confidence in her game landed her a spot in pro hockey. Her degree in nursing helped her land a job at Mayo Clinic.
While PWHPA teams are no longer based in a city or region, all players in the league practice as often as they can make it to one of five regional hubs — Boston, Calgary, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Montreal or Toronto. That often means players from two, three or all four PWHPA teams are practicing together.
DeGeorge, of course, practices in the Twin Cities.
But, she has found some home ice in Rochester, practicing when she can make it, with the Rochester Grizzlies. And she hasn’t been shy about jumping in to any drill, whether it’s a full-ice skating drill or it’s battling for the puck in the corners.
“I love it,” she said. “They’re fast. They’re physical. They definitely are sometimes trying to not hurt me, but I’ll do the battle drills, anything like that. It helps me a ton. When I go back to the women’s game, it feels slowed down a little bit just in terms of speed, but the puck movement is still there, still fast.”
Grizzlies coach Chris Ratzloff said DeGeorge’s presence has been mutually beneficial for her and for the Grizzlies’ players.
“She does everything and she doesn’t hold back,” Ratzloff said. “It’s been good to have Claire here for her and for us. The guys see how hard she works and she doesn’t shy away from doing anything.”
Ultimately, DeGeorge said she is just thankful to have an opportunity to play professional hockey, no matter the travel required or how the league is structured. She praised a generation of players who helped grow the sport nationally and internationally.
“The women ahead of me — Kendall Coyne, the Lamoureux twins (Jocelyne and Monique), Megan Duggan, some of them aren’t even playing anymore — I have to give all the credit to them,” DeGeorge said. “They’ve given me the opportunity to look up to a future of women’s hockey and know I’m right in the middle of this, and eventually girls will get to experience an even better opportunity. And that is awesome.”