In 2002, NCAA Division I hockey players Sarah Paxson and Alana Collins were nothing more than opponents with an intense rivalry.
Twenty-one years later, that relationship couldn’t look more different.
Paxson and Collins are now co-workers at Green Mountain Physical Therapy in Bellingham — a clinic owned by Paxson — teammates in a recreational hockey league and friends who just returned from an Icelandic competition, all purely by chance.
“We were not friends [in college]. We were pretty fierce competitors on the ice,” Collins said. “All the Ivy League schools had a pretty fierce rivalry with each other. It got pretty dirty on the ice.”
An unlikely reconnection
Paxson, 39, and Collins, 40, shared similar upbringings not too far from one another. The former was raised in Vermont, and the latter in New York state. Each played hockey through high school, almost exclusively against boys — a result of girls leagues being scarce or nonexistent.
Each went on to play hockey at Ivy League schools from 2002–05, Paxson at Princeton University and Collins at Dartmouth College.
From there, their paths diverted. Paxson stepped away from hockey after college, stating she was “ready to hang it up,” while Collins was a member of the women’s U22 U.S. National Development Program with a goal of reaching the Olympics.
Collins never reached that ultimate goal, but she embarked on a hockey-centered career that included collegiate coaching and playing for the British Columbia Breakers of the Western Women’s Hockey League, until the league folded in 2009. It was the reason Collins moved to the West Coast in the first place.
In 2016, Collins was hired at CorePhysio in Bellingham, where Paxson was already employed. Even with new last names post-marriage, the pair managed to connect their pasts.
“[It’s] so random, because we’re both women’s ice hockey players, which is rare in itself, and then from the East Coast, and we end up at this same small clinic in Bellingham,” Paxson said. “We put together that we had played against each other.”
Collins left in 2019 to go on maternity leave and subsequently accepted a job in the Canadian province of Manitoba. She and her husband worked at a hockey academy there before moving back to Bellingham in August 2023.
Collins called Paxson, who had started her own practice, Green Mountain, in 2020. Paxson hired her in a heartbeat.
Then the pair began playing in a recreational hockey league semi-weekly at the Bellingham Sportsplex. They are the only two women that play regularly.
“Each year that I didn’t play hockey, I started missing it more and more,” said Paxson, who had hardly played competitively since college. “I’m finally back in the groove of playing a little more regularly.”
‘Once in a lifetime opportunity’
As of Nov. 20, Paxson and Collins are still shaking off the jet lag of an Icelandic vacation that came with a side of ice hockey.
Just three weeks before the tournament, Paxson heard from her brother and a cousin (who play in a men’s hockey league in Boston) that she was welcome to join them on their annual pre-Thanksgiving trip.
“I have kids and work and I can’t turn my life upside down to make this happen in three weeks,” Paxson said. “And then I got to thinking, ‘This is once in a lifetime opportunity.’”
Two weeks before the Nov. 15 departure date, Paxson threw the idea out to Collins, assuming she wouldn’t seriously consider it. Collins was all in.
“We ran it by my office. We ran it by our office manager. We got clearance to cancel all the patients,” Paxson said. “It was pretty short notice. Our office manager was fully supportive of two delinquent physical therapists heading over to Iceland to live their former hockey dream.”
Their only concern was a possible volcanic eruption that, according to some sources, appeared imminent. Earthquakes had also shaken the region as a result, with the small town of Grindavik evacuated on Nov. 10.
They played three games — two on Friday, Nov. 17, and one on Saturday, Nov. 18 — at the Egilshöll sports and entertainment facility in Reykjavik, Iceland against a ragtag group of both Icelandic amateurs, former professionals and their Boston men’s league friends.
The level of play was middling, Paxson and Collins said, at least for the first two games. They lost the third.
“There were just two women that we played against, and then it was all firefighters, Coast Guard, heavy metal band members — a random smattering of Icelandic folks who play hockey,” Paxson said.
But to the two women, it was all about the experience.
For every two hours of games Paxson and Collins played, they spent twice as much time socializing with those who had invited them.
The friends returned home on Sunday, Nov. 19 and went back to business as usual at the clinic and their bi-weekly games at the Sportsplex. They feel thankful for the connections they made, primarily through a shared love of the sport.
“It [was] just such a unique opportunity to get to know those people,” Paxson said. “It was a unique experience playing against people that just truly got into [hockey] for the love of the game.”