Celebrating women in the MJHL | Lydia Pongoski

Story by Dave Anthony

Lydia Pongoski – Athletic Therapist, Portage Terriers

Born and raised in Portage, Lydia got her start in hockey with the Winnipeg Blues but her dream of working in sports started in a totally different sport. “When I was in school, we had to get so many practicum hours, so I actually was placed with the track and field team at University, but I wanted to get more experience in a contact sport. I actually met Lana Debeer(long time Blues trainer and athletic therapist) from a Pan-Am placement I was at and I asked her if I could job shadow and just follow along and she said ‘sure’. It all started from there and I’ve just stuck around.”

Lydia says her parents were very supportive when it came to working in hockey. “They thought it was pretty cool and exciting” Lydia says with a laugh. “My younger cousins have all been involved in contact sport. My parents love the idea of having me in the hockey industry and they’re still pretty excited.”

When Lydia started working with the Blues, she says they were very receptive and her being female wasn’t even close to an issue. “It was smooth sailing. I think that when I saw I was with Lana, they thought, ‘oh this girl, she must be okay’. They had no weirdness or anything like that, it was quite nice actually. It was a very welcoming team.”

Having Lana already there may have paved the way to the smooth addition of another female around the team. “I definitely think it did help” Lydia explained. “She’s been with the team a while, so they had that surrounding before, so it was nice.”

Getting into the game of hockey wasn’t a dream for Lydia, she says it kind of found her. “I fell into it” she says again with a laugh. “Growing up, I never did hockey, I was in gymnastics. My parents tell me I wanted to be in hockey when I was younger, but it just never happened. Going through school, I started liking the fast pace environment, how everything is so go-go-go and I just fell in love with the hockey world.”

Going to school in Portage, the Terriers and their continuous success caught the attention of Lydia, like it did most of the community. “I definitely, definitely heard it. I lived out of town so unfortunately I couldn’t get to many games, but I did hear a lot about the Terriers.”

After starting in hockey with the Blues, Lydia gained more responsibilities and says those grew after graduation. “I asked if I could stay with the team and Lana said yes and she would like that. From there, we shared the responsibilities. I was with them for three or four years, but in the last couple years, we were pretty much 50/50. It was so nice she allowed me to have that with her. It felt really good to know that she trusted me with those sorts of things.”

When the Blues ownership changed, Lydia made a change herself. “I actually work in Portage in a private clinic. When the Rink bought the Blues and they moved over, they were doing interview processing and said I could have the job if I wanted it, but I was looking for work closer to home. I just so happened the Terriers had an opening. I reached out and it was pretty smooth sailing for me there too. Things just seem to kind of fall into place for me.”

Doing the job with a partner in Winnipeg was fun but when Lydia moved to Portage, it all fell on her shoulders. “Oh, it was interesting” Lydia said after a brief pause. “Geno Romanow, (long time Trainer/Equipment Manager with Portage) was still with the team when I started. It was kind of hard to find out what he was doing and what I should be doing… it took a little while to find our groove. But once we found it, it was so good.”

Geno passed away in May of 2020 and Lydia talked about those tough days and the support she had around her. “I was so thankful to have the organization. Somehow, Geno found a way to be like a third grandpa to me. It was really hard when I heard that he passed. I was lucky that I could reach out to other therapists like Lana or Kate (Wiens from Swan Valley), just to talk with them about it. It was nice to have that support through them knowing how they knew Geno as well. Being from the community, to see people care so much, it just makes your heart feel so warm. He made a difference. Even though he probably didn’t want to make a big fuss about anything, he did make a difference in the community. He was so well loved by people and that’s what comes from being a part of a small community. It was nice.”

When it comes to people Lydia looks up to, it doesn’t take long for her to come up with the answer of who is her role-model. “Lana, 100% is my role-model” she says emphatically. “I’ve taken her to be my mentor. I love her dearly. It’s so amazing to see her and know she’s been in the hockey world for so long, it’s like, I can do it. If Lana can do it, I can do it. It was for sure her that kept pushing me into that world.”

Many women have already made an impact in the MJHL and Lydia believes there’s more coming. “I think it’s amazing and I think that it’s not just a world for the men. I think more women should be involved and could be involved. I think that down the road there should be more involvement. I’d like to see it have a bigger impact elsewhere, just to see that world grow through women.”

Girls in Portage and across the MJHL now see Lydia on the bench and look up to her the say she looked up to Lana Debeer and that’s something Lydia admits is hard to put into words. “I feel really good that someone can see a woman like myself or Kate or Lana or Allison (Deneweth from the Selkirk Steelers) are in the industry and they think that they can do that too. I feel very touched and very special. I think that any girl can do anything that they want. I just hope that they realize it and really pursue what they want to do.”

When asked what comes next for Lydia, she responded “oh gosh, that’s a hard question” followed by the classic laugh she has. “I would like to stay in the world of hockey. If there’s a chance to move up at some time, that’s great. I’m just trying to figure it all out myself. If I could move up in the world of hockey, that be great but I’m just so thankful to be in the world at all.”

For someone who didn’t grow up loving hockey, not having it this year sure made quite the impact on her. “I definitely felt that void” Lydia says again, followed by that well known laugh. “It was really hard in the beginning to figure out… it’s like ‘oh I actually have a weekend free? This is weird, what do I do?’ But I did end up working more just to keep busy and I took another part time job at Pan-Am clinic, so it’s been a very big learning experience this past year and broadening my horizon.”

She says she can’t wait to get back to hockey, hopefully in the fall. “I am really looking forward to it. I’m really missing it.”

Even the long bus rides?

“Yeah… okay… those ones can kind of be a little shorter” Lydia says through a laugh. “I just love the atmosphere so much, I can look past the long trips.”