ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine trailed Union College by a goal late in the third period of a recent women’s hockey game.
Head coach Richard Reichenbach pulled goalie Carly Jackson in favor of an extra attacker and the Black Bears dashed up the ice.
Vendula Pribylova passed the puck over to the right wing to Ebba Strandberg in the Union zone.
Strandberg wound up as if she was going to shoot the puck but instead sent a perfect slap-pass across to the front of the net where Tereza Vanisova directed it past Union goalie Coco Francis to earn UMaine a 3-3 tie.
Just six months earlier, Strandberg couldn’t even think about hockey, a sport she dearly loves.
She just wanted to be spared the debilitating headaches that left her lying on the floor of her dorm room at the University of Maine. That was how she was the most comfortable position.
“I just wanted to live a normal life again. That was all that mattered. Hockey was the last thing on my mind,” said Strandberg, a sophomore defenseman from Kalmar, Sweden.
Strandberg was suffering from a condition known as a “sagging brain.”
She had sustained a lower back injury during her freshman season and returned to Sweden last December to have surgery. She had played in nine games and had three assists.
During the surgery, the sac around her spinal cord was perforated, which caused fluid to leak into the surrounding tissue.
Three months later, the loss of pressure in the sac caused by the leak resulted in terrible headaches that left her unable to even go to class.
“She was in a lot of pain,” said sophomore defenseman Brittany Colton, who was Strandberg’s roommate. “I knew it was really bad but I don’t think that, in the moment, I really, truly realized how bad it was.”
“We tried to lighten the mood to take her mind off it,” added Colton.
“It was really scary,” said sophomore defenseman Brittany Kucera, a close friend of Strandberg. “She was in pain for almost six months. She couldn’t get out of her bed. Her whole morale was down. It was hard to see (her like that). We did as much as we could to help her with that.”
Strandberg flew back to Sweden but had to lie down in the airplane to be able to withstand the pain.
She went right to the hospital and the problem was eventually diagnosed, resulting in another surgery to close the hole.
The surgery, which took place on May 27, lasted eight hours.
“It was real tough on me,” said Strandberg. “I was super sore afterward. And they gave me a lot of drugs which affected how I felt.”
The headaches finally went away and she began thinking about resuming her hockey career at UMaine.
“Once I started to feel good, I realized I could play again. I set up a plan with my coach and trainer. I hadn’t been able to work out for four or five months,” said Strandberg. “I wanted to come back and play hockey with my friends. That’s all I wanted.”
Because she had missed so much class time, she had to take summer classes to maintain her eligibility.
She said she really appreciated the support she received from her teammates and the coaching staff during her ordeal. She also praised Cristina Kerluke, the assistant director of academic support. who outlined a plan that enabled Strandberg to fulfill her academic requirements after she regained her health.
Reichenbach called her return amazing and said her health, not her hockey career, was everyone’s primary concern.
“We just wanted her to be able to have a normal life again,” said Reichenbach.
“It’s good to have her back playing the game she loves,” said Colton. “She dealt with everything very maturely. I know I wouldn’t have been able to handle it.”
Colton added that Strandberg’s personality is also a plus for the team.
“Ebba is a character. She’s really funny. She likes to mess around but, on the ice, she’s real serious,” said Colton. “She’s a good leader. People look up to her.”
“She’s a great person in all aspects,” said Kucera. “She is so patient and so grounded. No matter what anybody is going through, she is able to see things clearly and logically.”
Kucera said Strandberg, “loves hockey more than anybody I’ve ever known.”
The 6-foot-1 Strandberg, who played for Sweden’s Under-18 national team, is having a productive season.
She has a goal and seven assists for eight points while playing in 18 of the team’s 20 games. She is tied with Alyson Matteau for second-most points among UMaine’s defensemen behind Kucera (1 goal, 9 assists).
Strandberg’s plus-10 rating is tied for second on the team with Brooke Stacey behind Vanisova’s plus-20.
Strandberg is elated to be playing hockey again but noted that she doesn’t feel she has reached “the level I want to be at yet.”
“But I’ve had some pretty good games lately,” said Strandberg. “I just want to get better every game.”
Reichenbach said her size was the thing that stood out when they recruited her and that she was also a really good skater who can make plays.
“A lot of defensemen tend to move the puck up the wall or hit it off the glass when they’re in trouble in order to get it out of the (defensive) zone,” said Reichenbach. “What was amazing with her was she was able to do that on the big ice sheet in Europe and also able to do that on the smaller ice sheet in Buffalo when we watched her.
“And she is able to find breakout passes and seams on the power play, stuff you don’t find a lot,” added Reichenbach.
The 20-year-old daughter of Mats and Camilla Strandberg is grateful to be back in Orono.
“I’m thankful to be here playing hockey with all my friends,” said Strandberg. “I will definitely not take things for granted.”
She is elated with the team’s 11-6-3 record, which already exceeds the 10 wins they amassed in each of the last three seasons.
“I feel like we’ve got something special going this year and I’m really excited about that,” said Strandberg.
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