Jun 11, 2018

By Jacob Born (@Jacob_Born)

It’s been nearly two months since Iowa Wild played its last game of the season. The team had its exit interviews and locker clean-outs in mid-April and players went their separate ways. Some stuck around in Des Moines while others hopped in a car or plane and headed across the world.

But for three players, the end of the season meant heading back to school.

Mitch McLain, Gerry Fitzgerald and Mark Auk skated for the Wild on Amateur Tryout Agreements following their respective senior seasons in college, which presented a unique challenge. While attending everything required of a professional athlete (practices, morning skates, team meetings and of course, games) the trio also had to keep up with their classes.

“It definitely wasn’t easy, I had to work with my time management skills,” Fitzgerald said. “Tried to get my homework done on the road when we had some downtime.”

When the season ended, it was time to head back to college and finish up their respective degrees.

McLain attended Bowling Green State University, where he was a mild to moderate intervention specialist major, or in layman’s terms, a special education teacher. McLain’s passion for helping those with special needs derived from personal experiences with classmates with learning and developmental disabilities.

“You work with kids three to 18 years old to have an education plan to have them ready for when they’re out of school, to set them up with a job or more schooling,” McLain said. “I always had a really good relationship with my classmates who had disabilities. When I got to college, I knew it was something I wanted to do; I wanted to be a teacher. I enjoyed every day of it.”

At Bowling Green, McLain was a leader in the community, donating his time at Wood Lane, a local school that provides services for students with special needs. There, McLain interacted with the students through classes such as Social Skills or Physical Education. He invited students out to the Slater Family Ice Arena, where the Falcons play, for a skate with his teammates during his senior season. For his service work, McLain was named a finalist for the 2018 Hockey Humanitarian Award.

After spending nearly a month away from Wood Lane, when he returned from playing with the Wild, the students couldn’t contain their excitement.

“When I got back to school, I continued to help out at Wood Lane,” McLain said. “I helped run their PE Adaptive Therapy program and other classes as need be. It was really exciting to head back; they don’t forget you and were excited to see me. It’s really rewarding to see how they care so much that you’re there and they’re willing to give their best effort.”

Fitzgerald returned to Bemidji State following his stint with Iowa, where he was studying marketing communications. He was lucky enough to have a majority of his classes online, which meant that once he was back on campus, he could sit back and relax until finals.

“Most of my schoolwork was pretty much done at the time, I just had to complete a couple of projects,” Fitzgerald said. “It was pretty laid back. It was nice to see all the guys again and just relax.”

Just a couple weeks after being back in Bemidji, Minn., Fitzgerald walked with his brothers in front of his family.

“My mom came down to Bemidji to see us graduate, which was great,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a big accomplishment for me. I was relieved and excited and it was nice to have my mom there too.”

Auk was a member of the Michigan Tech program and went back to Houghton, Mich., once the season ended. Like the other two, Auk took online classes, but unfortunately for the defenseman, one class required attendance.

“I was trying to keep up with my classes, but some of them required you to be there, so it was tough to keep up with those,” Auk said. “But it was a great experience, learning how to be a pro and seeing how guys do things on a day to day basis.”

Missing those classes meant his degree would have to wait until the end of the summer semester. He’s currently attending summer classes at Michigan Tech, where he and the rest of his collegiate team is also participating in summer workouts.

“It’s a good community here over the summer,” Auk said. “Current players and alumni come back just to work out and skate and then play golf later in the day. It’s just a great situation.”

For Auk, being with Iowa was especially rewarding, as he could see first hand how to apply his sports and fitness management degree in the real world.

“(Former Strength and Conditioning Coach) Jason Aldrich is from Houghton, and I actually used to work for his brother, so I know him well,” Auk said. “It was great to pick his brain and just learn as much as I could from him.”

Having a degree in hand by the end of summer was important to all three players, especially after dedicating four years to classes and hockey at their respective universities. But they’re not done yet, as they want to play hockey for as long as they can.

Fitzgerald signed a one-year deal with Iowa and will be back with the team for the 2018-19 season. McLain and Auk are still looking for their next opportunities, but after finishing school with a degree, they know they’re set up for life after hockey. 

“It was exciting to get that degree, see all your hard work in the classroom realized and share that moment with my family,” McLain said. “But I want to play hockey as long as possible and play at the highest level I can. But I still want to be involved in volunteering. They’re both extremely important in my life.” 

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