From Front-Yard Rink to Syracuse, Marielle McHale’s Full-Circle Success

Her parents didn’t play hockey. Her brother didn’t play hockey. But it seems inevitable, destiny maybe, that Marielle McHale would, and that she’d become great.

The skating rink in the front yard may have had something to do with it.

Marielle, an 18-year-old Williston senior, will play next year for the Syracuse University Women’s Hockey team, an NCAA Division 1 program. Coached by Paul Flanagan, Marielle and her teammates will compete against other powerhouse programs including Wisconsin, Northeastern, Providence, Colgate, and Cornell.

Getting to this point in her still-burgeoning career began 16 years ago, Marielle said, when her dad, Michael, built a “pretty big” rink in the yard in front of their Clifton Park, New York, home. She estimates it was about the length of the Williston Schoolhouse. Marielle, just two and already on skates, began by pushing a plastic chair across the ice, balancing on it for support. Soon the chair was gone and Marielle was developing into the intimidating left wing she is now.

But first she had to play with the boys for a few years.

Until she was 11, Marielle, along with her friend Hannah Tulchinsky, played on the Clifton Park Eagles, the local under-12 youth team in Clifton Park. Though too reserved to admit it, Marielle and Hannah had no problems fitting in and holding their own. (Her teammate Hannah, now a senior at The Gunnery school in Washington, Connecticut, is playing Division III hockey at Nazareth College, in Rochester, New York, next year.)

“They [the boys] were all so used to me being there; it was the same kids every year,” Marielle explained. “Plus,” she added, “I didn’t have pink everything; I fit in fine.”

Marielle fondly remembers getting up way before school to get some time in on the front-yard rink before school or 6 a.m. weekend games.

“I would always get up at 5 a.m. and make my dad play goalie for me,” she said.

When checking became allowed, at age 12, Marielle and her cohort joined the Boston Junior Eagles, a U-16 club team. She played for them her freshman and sophomore years, with practice and games every Sunday in the fall. Her parents, ever the committed supporters, used to swing by Williston at 6 a.m. so she could make it to her team’s 9 a.m. practice and 1 p.m. games. That means they’d leave their Clifton Park home around 4 a.m. They would then drive Marielle back to campus in time for study hall.

“They drove so much when I was little,” Marielle said. Laughing, she recalled her parents driving her to Plattsburgh, New York, roughly 150 miles away, for a game when she was just five years old.

“I’m really thankful they did that,” Marielle said. “I don’t think I’d be where I am now without them driving me everywhere.”

As a junior and senior at Williston, Marielle switched to the Massachusetts Spitfires, a U-19 club out of Foxboro. Joining her on the Spitfires were Williston teammates Julia MacLean ’18, Dani Marquez ’18, Claudia Capone ’19, Kate Holmes ’19, and Brynn Saarela ’20. The Spitfires kept Marielle’s weekend hockey schedule busy, but now she could stay at Julia’s home in Medfield on Saturday nights so the Sunday mornings weren’t quite as brutal.

Marielle credited her time on the ice at Williston with boosting her confidence; in the rink, she said, she’s not the reserved, sometimes shy student her teachers know her as.

“I’m different on the ice,” Marielle said, noting that she finds herself being “Weird, outgoing, funny,” during practice. “I’ll be the one to just get up and do something funny just to lighten the mood,” she said. “Hockey, especially here,” she added, “has given me an overall better confidence in myself, given me friends—all these people [are] supporting me to just be me.”

Her biggest on-campus support, however, comes from Coach Christa Talbot Syfu.

“She’s been there for me forever,” Marielle said, noting numerous times Talbot Syfu has been there for her, including during freshman year when she had a concussion and Talbot Syfu came to Marielle’s dorm to check on her. She also helped with college phone calls and setting up visits; “she knows everybody, all the coaches,” Marielle said. “If you’re a good kid, she’s going to tell them [college coaches] you’re a good kid.”

Put more succinctly, and sweetly, Marielle said, “She’s our second mom. I don’t really know what I would do without her.”

The respect and admiration goes both ways. “She’s come out of her shell so much,” Talbot Syfu said. “It’s because she’s so comfortable here.”

Having coached Marielle since she arrived at Williston, Talbot Syfu has a keen perspective on how Marielle has grown.

“The kid who came here in ninth grade is significantly different,” she said.

Talbot Syfu was there for Marielle earlier this year, in her dorm when Marielle was preparing to hit “send” on her Syracuse early decision application. “She was ordering me a Syracuse sweatshirt already,” Marielle said.

Before she heads to Syracuse, Marielle plans to spend the summer getting stronger and faster, both on the ice and in the gym.

“There are no breaks,” she said.

Behind the scenes, her dad will still be there: there’s obviously no front-yard rink in the summer, and he doesn’t have to drive her anymore, but Marielle said she plans on enlisting her dad’s help at the gym.