NEWINGTON - When Dakota McMahon first entered this world, she weighed just one and half pounds and was 13 weeks premature. Flash forward 17 years and Dakota verbally committed to play Division I ice hockey for Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
The road to playing collegiate hockey was far from easy, however.
“At the time, it was just how do we keep her alive?” said Sean McMahon, Dakota’s father. “Everything was so uncertain - was she going to be disabled, was she going to have breathing problems, vision problems? We didn’t know.”
For three months, Dakota remained at the UConn Health Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Sean and his wife, Nancy, would visit Dakota three times a day, cautiously watching the oxygen, to make sure she was breathing correctly.
“Slowly but surely the day came when we were able to take her home,” Sean said.
But on that same day, a tornado touched down in Farmington, a town just 15 minutes away from their home in Newington.
“In all the chaos, Dakota was calm,” Sean said. “She was so used to all the bells and whistles for the last three months that with all the commotion going on around her, it didn’t bother her in the least.”
As time went by, and Dakota got stronger, she found her passion for sports. She played town softball and lacrosse, but at the age of 4, she found was she truly loved - ice hockey.
“It’s funny because no one in my family is a hockey player,” Dakota said. “We don’t have any history of that. So one day, my dad told me I should try it and I did, and I really got into it. I started loving it.”
Dakota began her ice hockey career with the Central Capitals out of the Newington town rink. From there, Dakota played with the Connecticut Polar Bears, which at the time was one of the top teams in Connecticut. Today, Dakota plays with the Hartford Jr. Wolfpack.
Dakota began high school at Kingswood Oxford, solely because of its ice hockey program, but in the fall her freshman year Dakota thought she’d try something new.
“I started field hockey,” Dakota said. “It was completely new to me. I was just excited to try it just because it had the word hockey in it. So I tried that and continued with it up until junior year.”
Dakota tore her ACL in her junior year.
“I was running a 30-yard sprint to go get a ball and I think I stepped forward and then backwards, and as I turned, I didn’t feel it in that exact moment, but I knew something was wrong,” Dakota said.
Dakota didn’t find out she tore her ACL until about two weeks later.
“I was really nervous and extremely disappointed,” Dakota said. “While I missed the rest of my field hockey season, I just knew it was going to be a long recovery. And in that time I wouldn't be able to play ice hockey every day, and that was my passion.”
Dakota was already two steps behind, as in her sophomore year, Kingswood Oxford got rid of its ice hockey program. The school decided it wanted to repurpose the rink, thus the end of the program.
The school tried to fuel a girls co-op team, but there wasn’t enough interest, so the school decided to get rid of the program entirely.
With that gone, and Dakota’s ACL torn, her dreams of playing Division I ice hockey were quickly dimensioning.
“I came to [Kingswood Oxford] specifically to play ice hockey,” Dakota said. “I also wanted to get that exposure and that experience so I could continue my career in college.”
Anxious for the upcoming season, Dakota had a long recovery process before she could even step back on the ice.
Dakota persevered, though, and eight months later she was back on the ice.
“I was fortunate enough to heal quicker so I got to go back earlier,” Dakota said. “But my doctor told me it still would take up to a year to a year and a half for it to be fully healed. I just would have never imagined that would happen to me.”
Now in her senior year at Kingswood Oxford, Dakota was forced into making a tough decision.
“My doctor told me I had to choose between ice hockey and field hockey,” Dakota said.
Dakota was named captain of the field hockey team her junior year and would be captain her senior year as well.
“I had a role to fulfill and I felt as if I was letting my team down,” Dakota said. “I just didn’t want to let them down because I was choosing not to play, and to focus on ice hockey.”
Dakota decided to put all of her focus back on ice hockey and her college career.
Dakota missed her junior and senior recruiting years because of injury, but was lucky enough to land a spot on the Hartford Jr. Wolfpack out of Cromwell.
“Dakota has been an impact player for the Wolfpack since she joined our team in 2016,” Jr. Wolfpack head coach CJ Kenney said. “Robbed of her junior season due to a torn ACL, Dakota never gave up on her dream of playing in college. I’ve had the pleasure of coaching her since her freshman year at Kingswood Oxford. I can confidently say that you will not find a harder working athlete. Any obstacle that is thrown her way, Dakota finds a way to overcome it.”
That has a lot to do with her work ethic. During practice, Dakota is always focused from beginning until the end, and even puts in time after practice.
“Dakota has always been an impact player in the time I've coached her,” Kenney said. “She leads by example. Her younger teammates look up to her. Myself and the other Wolfpack coaches are very proud of her and wish her success at Sacred Heart next year.”
Dakota’s dream has always been to play Division I ice hockey, but she knew because of her size it would be a bit difficult.
“Just because of that level of bigger players, I was nervous because I knew it put me behind. But I never thought I couldn’t do anything,” Dakota said. “I always tried to say to myself, ‘you can do this. It doesn't matter your size, you can do anything.’ That has always been my mindset through sports and through life.”
When it came time to pick a college, Dakota was focusing on hockey and the curriculum, making Sacred Heart University the obvious choice for her.
Not only does Sacred Heart have an NCAA Division I ice hockey team, but the school offers the opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree and a DPT (degree of physical therapy) degree within six years.
Growing up, Dakota had many injuries, including sprained ankles, a dislocated shoulder, and in seventh grade, a broken wrist. When she broke her wrist, Dakota had to have surgery that required pins being put in place, and after surgery, she had to go through weeks of physical therapy.
“I've had a lot of experience in physical therapy, which no one wants to have the experience in that, but I just really loved it,” Dakota said. “I thought that would be a job I would love to do. It’s sports related and I know how I felt when I returned back to sports. I just want to help others do that.”
Dakota’s father, Sean, has been her biggest influence. Sean was always the more athletic one, whereas her mother would always be on the sidelines cheering and supporting her.
“I let her try everything and anything,” Sean said. “Anything she wanted. [Dakota] is very driven and determined. I admire her so much. She is very goal oriented. She sets them and then works to achieve them.”
“My parents always instilled this hard working mentality,” Dakota said. “Do everything at 100 percent. I just want to say that I am very thankful for them. I’m thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had, and to be able to play Division I college hockey is such an amazing achievement. They would drive me around everywhere with all the sports, hours and hours of their time taken up, so it’s a testament to them. They’ve done a great job.”
Now Dakota is off to conquer her next challenge, playing Division I hockey at Sacred Heart.
Shelby Iava can be reached at (860)801-5096 or email@example.com