Annie Pankowski’s life has always featured hockey and animals. Since the spring of her freshman year at Wisconsin, Pankowski has balanced playing hockey alongside volunteering with OccuPaws, a nonprofit organization that raises, trains, and places guide dogs.
“It’s definitely an honor. They are two different aspects of my life, so to be recognized in both of those arenas is really humbling,” Pankowski said in an interview with The Ice Garden. “My personality pushed me to do more and to be more and to give more. And then you turn around and you look up and you’re now nominated for awards like this. It’s a pretty cool experience.”
When Pankowski arrived in Madison, she went looking for something outside of hockey. “You’re thrown into this environment that’s competitive. School’s competitive, hockey’s competitive, so I needed a part of my life that was for enjoyment,” she said. “I’ve always gotten enjoyment out of service to others and animals, so I was looking for a way to kind of find a niche for that in my life.”
Dogs and Annie Pankowski...Two of our favorite things of all-time!— Wisconsin Badgers (@UWBadgers) March 7, 2019
"I gained an appreciation for what these dogs do and the independence and strength they can give to one person. Being a small part of that for me is just incredible." @BadgerWHockey @anniepank #OnWisconsin pic.twitter.com/Lam3K4EDAO
The daughter of two veterinarians, everything about OccuPaws made sense to her. She applied, went to a class about the nonprofit, and the rest was history. “This is the coolest thing ever,” she remembers thinking at the class. “I was just surrounded by a bunch of people who loved dogs, love helping people, and, I don’t know, I just kind of found my place in that organization and was like, ‘This is awesome, I need to do this’.”
She started out with taking puppies on the weekends when the full-time Puppy Raisers went out of town. Eventually, Pankowski and then-teammate Lauren Williams decided they could handle being Puppy Raisers together. By the end of her sophomore season, Pankowski had a dog of her own to train.
The dog went everywhere with them — around downtown Madison, to class, to practice, to video review. “I actually realized that I hadn’t asked Coach if I could bring a dog into to the locker room, so it just kind of happened. Lauren and I would be coming from class and it really wasn’t an option to stop at home,” she said. “It kind of turned into this thing where Coach was excited to see the dog in the locker room, and when we’d go to video, the dog would go to video with us.”
For the organization, Pankowski’s life offered a unique but valuable environment for guide dogs in training. Most of the Puppy Raisers were located outside of Madison where it is much quieter. Being downtown, on campus, and at the rink exposed the dogs to a much louder lifestyle. “It is a stressful environment. There’s tons of people. There’s traffic, there’s buses. There’s going from walking in a crowd of people to having to settle in class so it’s a good test for a dog,” she explained.
OccuPaws made it easy for her to balance multiple commitments as well. They set up pupsitters for her when the team traveled, letting Pankowski focus on raising, socializing, and training the pup and also on hockey.
On the ice, her role has shifted in the last four seasons at Wisconsin. In the regular season, she had 17 goals, a slight dip in production compared to her earlier hauls. “Coming out of last year there was a different focus. I spent three years here being a goal scorer and kind of doing that for my team, and then I was asked last year to be more of a role player. It’s a different game and then you try to switch back into being the go-to players and it takes a little bit to get going.
“Emily [Clark] and I both talked about it how we felt like our freshman, sophomore, junior years were so easy. Everything just clicked and I feel like we had to work a lot harder for our success this year.”
When the playoffs hit, though, Pankowski’s scoring ability shone. She found the back of the net in every single post-season game this year, including a hat trick in Game 2 of the WCHA quarterfinals series against St. Cloud State.
Pankowski also credited the rise in parity in the WCHA. “I think it also goes to show how much the league has grown, just the talent that’s around the WCHA,” she said. “My freshman year, it would be eight or so to zero, both games, for three or four weeks in a row. All of a sudden now we have teams like Mankato and getting beat by Bemidji for the first time. That stuff is is really cool to see I think.”
Despite the tough competition, Pankowski still has at least one more game in a Badger jersey. Wisconsin remains in the hunt for the National Title after advancing to the Frozen Four this weekend, thanks in part to her two goals in the NCAA quarterfinal game against Syracuse.
As for her post-college hockey plans, the Riveters draft pick will be attending Wisconsin’s veterinary school in the fall. And, much like her undergrad, she’s not planning on letting school stop her from continuing hockey — the ability to train in Madison was a key factor in her decision to continue in a new program at Wisconsin. First up is the World Championships with Team USA in April.
She hasn’t completely ruled out professional hockey. But Pankowski is realistic about the financial aspect of playing women’s hockey and about how hard she’s worked on her off the ice goal to be a vet.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” she said. “I have been driven in this aspect of my life and I’m not ready to just put my whole life on hold for that quite yet.”