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Lean on Me

Sure, an athletic trainer has to know the human body. But she also has to know the human spirit.

By Suz Hoppe as told to Rachel Stark

Athletic trainer Suz Hoppe does stretching exercises with Minnesota Duluth ice hockey defender Brenden Kotyk. BRETT GROEHLER / UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA DULUTH

ROLE: The associate director of sports medicine at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Suz Hoppe is entering her 13th season as the head athletic trainer for the Division I men’s ice hockey team. Her STORY: Helping student-athletes through an injury and getting them back on the ice require more than knowledge. She needs to earn their trust. LESSONS LEARNED: Hoppe knows the key to her profession is something you won’t find in an anatomy book.

Growing up in Wisconsin, I was a high school athlete. I played volleyball, basketball and ran track. I thought about becoming a surgeon, but then I thought the only time I would get to see any athletes is when they’re under anesthesia.

My older brother played football at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Originally I was like, I’m not going there, because I wanted my own experience. But I met their head athletic trainer, and I realized that profession was a good way for me to combine medicine, athletics and relationships.

It was a small Division III school, so I ended up working with pretty much every sport they had: ice hockey, women’s basketball, softball, football, men’s basketball. When I left, I knew I wanted to work in the college or university setting. I did an internship at Florida Southern with their baseball team in the spring of ’99 and absolutely loved it.

I went on to work as a graduate assistant at Valdosta State, where I earned my master’s. Then I moved to North Carolina to work with the Gardner-Webb baseball team. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with hall-of-fame athletic trainers in undergrad, while getting my master’s and in my first job.

I took the job in Duluth in 2003 and started working with the men’s hockey team in the fall of 2004. It was early in my second year when I gained credibility. We had a guy in severe pain on the ice. He dislocated a bone in his lower leg. And I handled the situation – got the team away, went into surgery with him, got it fixed, saw the whole process all the way through. I think coaches seeing that you not only care about your athletes, but you know what to do in a difficult situation, is helpful in gaining that trust.

I always want to better myself. That’s part of the reason I went back to school and got my doctorate in 2011. It changed the way I think and the way I present an injury explanation. Everything isn’t so black and white.

My graduate assistant position was so influential in me becoming an athletic trainer and me wanting to continue to work in this profession. So I did my dissertation on how a graduate assistant transitions from being a student to being a professional in the athletic training field.

Coming into the profession, the two main things coaches want to see and athletes want to see is that you care about the team and you care about them as people. You want what’s best for them.

I don’t know who’s a walk-on. I don’t know who’s on a full scholarship. I honestly have no idea. My goal is to get them all playing. Every practice, every day, get the whole team out there.

It’s my role to get to know the athletes as people. When an athlete is getting treatment or getting taped before practice, it is a really easy time for them to tell me things. Sometimes those things are really small, like doing poorly on one test, and sometimes those things are really big, like their parents getting divorced.

Coaches need to know about the big things that may affect their team. You’re not going to bring them every problem; you need to know when things are important enough to tell them.

Each person on your staff has a role. The team’s health care is my primary responsibility. But sometimes with all the pressures that come with being a student-athlete, they just need someone to listen, too.

We have former hockey players who are now playing all over the world. They ask me my opinion all the time. I feel lucky enough to be invited to their weddings and get baby announcements. I’ve used FaceTime to show someone rehab exercises when he was in Germany and I was here in my office. We try to make it work.


About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.