At Home On and Off the Ice

Alumni6 MIN READ

McKinley Karpa ’23 moved from being a standout ice hockey player to enthusiastic coach

McKinley Karpa '23, assistant coach of the Colby women’s ice hockey team, encourages players during a game against Hamilton College.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Ashley L. Conti and Gabe Souza
June 18, 2024

Excitement was in the chilly air of the Jack Kelley Rink at the Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center in late February as members of the Colby women’s ice hockey team zoomed around and took practice shots on goal. 

When the puck made it into the net, the triumphant sound of sticks thumping the boards almost drowned out the upbeat pop songs that blared over the loudspeaker. 

Assistant Coach McKinley Karpa ’23, a standout ice hockey player for the Mules during her student career, was on the ice to cheer on the players. She helped guide the team to the NESCAC tournament in early March in a whirlwind first year as assistant coach.

“It’s a lot of learning, but it’s definitely been a lot of fun,” she said, reflecting on the team’s success and her growth as a coach and leader. “And I definitely want to keep learning how to be a coach because I like to help players feel confident and proud of themselves. It makes me happy to be able to help them out.” 

‘An inspiration to all of us’ 

Karpa has gracefully navigated the transition from player to coach, said Women’s Ice Hockey Head Coach Holley Tyng. Her positive demeanor, can-do attitude, and love of the women’s hockey program helped make her as indispensable on the sidelines as she was as a goal-scoring forward, according to Tyng. 

“She’s such an inspiration to all of us. Colby women’s hockey is so ingrained in her—since she got here, she’s just been such a key contributor on the ice, and with our culture, too,” the head coach said. “Off the ice, she just adds such a positive spin on just about everything that she does. She’s wonderful.” 

A woman wearing a Colby sweatshirt poses for a photograph.
McKinley Karpa ’23 is gracefully navigating the transition from player to coach. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

For Meg Rittenhouse ’24, who earned East All-America honors on the CCM/AHCA Women’s Division III All-America Hockey Team, Karpa was a teammate she could always count on who embodied the same qualities as a coach. 

“She has been a key part of our team and has certainly helped us get to where we are now,” said Rittenhouse, who was named the 2024 NESCAC Player of the Year by coaches in the conference, the first time a Colby player has garnered this award. “I am looking forward to seeing her grow as a coach in the future.” 

Finding the right fit

Karpa, a science, technology, and society graduate from Ipswich, Mass., was born deaf. When she was 3, she had cochlear implant surgery to be fitted with the small electronic device that has helped provide her with a sense of sound. 

Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies sound, cochlear implants bypass damaged parts of the ear and send signals from the auditory nerve to the brain. Having one doesn’t restore hearing but can give a deaf person a useful representation of sounds in the environment and help them understand speech. 

For Karpa, the surgery has helped shape her life. She does not speak American Sign Language but instead speaks and hears with the assistance of the implant, and she reads lips, too. 

McKinley Karpa ’23 was a standout player during her years on the Colby women’s ice hockey team. Here, Karpa (top) played against Middlebury College in January 2023.

When it was time to choose a college, the avid ice hockey player, who competed as a high school senior in exhibition games with Team USA in the Deaflympics, was accepted into a college with an NCAA Division I hockey program and a community of Deaf students. It seemed like a logical choice.

But Karpa hadn’t realized that cochlear implant surgery is controversial, with some people believing the surgery implies that deafness is a medical problem to be cured rather than a cultural identity to be celebrated and respected. 

Karpa became acutely aware of this divide early in her freshman year, and she wanted to transfer. Her mom encouraged Karpa to apply to Colby, and Karpa was elated when she was accepted. “I just fell in love with the hockey program and the school,” she said. 

McKinley Karpa ’23, left, huddles with her teammates during the first round game of the 2023 NCAA tournament.

Keeping her eyes up

Karpa transferred to Colby in the middle of her first year and played a few games with the women’s ice hockey team soon after arriving. It’s not always easy to join a team midway through the season.

“The girls on the team were like, ‘Coach, we don’t need another player in the middle of the year.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but this one’s pretty special,’” Tyng recalled. “The second everybody met her, they just loved her and it was a very easy transition.” 

Karpa built strong relationships with her teammates and the coaching staff. Tyng described her as a gifted athlete who was instrumental to the team’s continued growth and improvement over the last few years, including making it to the quarterfinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s tournament in both 2022 and 2023. 

‘I know who they are and how to push them, and I also want to be there to support them. I have to find that balance, and it’s something that we figure out each day throughout the season.’

McKinley Karpa ’23, assistant women’s ice hockey coach

She’s done that despite not being able to hear well while on the ice, because her cochlear implant loses connectivity when she is exerting and perspiring. 

“Her awareness and her understanding of the game, you just have a deeper appreciation for that because of the fact that she does it without hearing,” Tyng said. “A lot of us rely on hearing to learn that there’s some pressure coming up from behind, but she just knows that, I think because she plays with her head up more than the average person. She has to have her eyes up all the time.” 

Once a year, Tyng would try to have the entire team practice while wearing earplugs so they would understand what it was like to play without being able to hear the game. “They’d always have a deeper appreciation for McKinley’s skill and talent,” the coach said. 

Learning how to coach

Making the move from playing with her friends to coaching them was daunting, but Karpa feels she’s found a good groove, maintaining her friendships while also understanding player-coach boundaries. “I know who they are and how to push them, and I also want to be there to support them,” she said. “I have to find that balance, and it’s something that we figure out each day throughout the season.” 

Rittenhouse said that everyone on the team sees Karpa as someone they count on and go to her when they’re having a tough time or need encouragement. 

“Obviously, it can be challenging navigating these new relationships as a coach now instead of a player,” Rittenhouse said. “But McKinley has done a really great job with it and is consistently looking to help the team out where it is needed.”