Seeking adventure: Cardinals state champion goalie finds a home on New Zealand national team
State champion teams in any sport get to that level because they have players who are talented and committed. Both those are also prerequisites for any athlete to play collegiately.
That's why it's not uncommon for many players who win state titles in high school to advance their careers at the next level. Eventually in a team sport like hockey, reality often sets in. College and careers end for many as a new life in a chosen work field begins.
Alexandria native Danielle Justice (now Strayer) was an Associated Press all-state goaltender for the girls hockey team when she helped lead the Cardinals to a Class A state title in 2008. She found a college home at Division III Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter and was part of three straight Frozen Four appearances with the Gusties.
"When all that ends, it can be a bit tricky to find yourself again," Strayer said. "Going from being known as a hockey player to being one of thousands applying for a new job is very daunting. While I had accepted that my competitive playing career was over, my love for the game never disappeared."
Hockey was always a main component of her life—from watching her brothers play, to denting up her parents' hallway walls playing knee hockey before turning into a standout herself for the Cardinals. Strayer's best friends were gained through hockey, and it was one of her teammates at Gustavus, Gina DeNucci, who she traveled with after graduation before settling on a job.
Strayer's parents, Alexandria's Sue and Ted Justice, bought her a one-way plane ticket as a graduation gift that Strayer used to first go to New Zealand in July of 2012.
"When we gave her the one-way ticket, it was only because we weren't sure when she was coming back," Sue said. "We just didn't know when that journey was going to be up."
Turns out, it still isn't over. Strayer is still in New Zealand, still playing competitive hockey for that country and still seeking the adventure that brought her there in the first place.
Missing the game
It was Strayer's adventurous spirit that drew her to a place like New Zealand from the get-go.
She currently works for a company called Active Adventures, which organizes outdoor and hiking trips for people all over New Zealand, Australia, South America, Nepal and Europe.
Strayer had traveled around New Zealand with DeNucci for nine months when they found themselves in Queenstown, a scenic spot that sets up against the Southern Alps.
"One day, we were simply strolling through the Queenstown Gardens and stumbled upon the Queenstown Ice Arena," Strayer said. "Although it was closed being that is was the summer season, just seeing the building made me realize how much I missed being around the sport."
It wasn't long before Strayer reached out to the owners of the ice rink and secured a job for the upcoming winter season. She hasn't gotten away from hockey since.
Strayer started to play casually on co-ed teams in Queenstown. The sport of rugby is beloved by many in New Zealand, but hockey is not considered a high priority in the country. It gets no government funding on a national level, so players are self funded when it comes to costs associated with representing the country at training camps and competing at tournaments.
"When I arrived in Queenstown, there was only a half a dozen or so females in the entire town who played," Strayer said. "This encouraged me to be a strong female presence in the hockey community and push for more girls to take up the sport. It's been incredibly rewarding watching the numbers grow—as of now, there's nearly 60 females who play in Queenstown."
Strayer went from playing in more social leagues to goaltending with the Southern Storm, which is part of the New Zealand Women's Ice Hockey League.
A spot on the national team
After a long process, Strayer was approved citizenship in March of this year to become a dual citizen of New Zealand and the United States.
That opened new doors for her on the ice. Strayer was one of just 23 players—20 skaters and three goalies—selected by the senior women's ice hockey program coaches to the traveling team that made up the 2019 New Zealand Ice Fernz National team.
"I can't even fathom what my reaction would be if you told me 10 years ago that I'd be playing for the New Zealand National Team," Strayer said. "Even one year ago, it was still a dream of mine, and some days I can't even believe I put on that jersey."
Strayer and her teammates recently got back from competing at the Division II, Group B level of the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championships in Brasov, Romania. New Zealand played at one of the lower competitive levels for the IIHF tournament, but they won silver in their division, with Chinese Taipei winning gold and Iceland earning bronze.
"Given that New Zealand is an incredibly tiny county and is quite new when it comes to women's ice hockey, we were very stoked with our second-place finish," Strayer said. "Every team we played was a different sort of challenge, but we came together really well as a team and played to our best ability."
The group played together just once ahead of the world championships. That came a week before the tournament at a training camp.
About a month before leaving for Romania, an injury to a New Zealand defender left the team shorthanded on defense. That opened another new door for Strayer.
"The coach, having heard that I'd been honing my skills playing out, asked if I'd consider switching positions for the tournament," she said. "Knowing this was the best decision for the team, I jumped at the opportunity and was able to live my 20-year goalie dream of leaving the blue crease and getting the chance to score pucks rather than save them."
Everything the game has given
Strayer can look back on her start as a goalie two decades ago in Alexandria and see how it helped shape her.
She pointed to playing with top-level players like teammates Abby Williams and Ashley Holmes as pushing her to become a better athlete.
"Then just being at the rink throughout my entire youth and having the opportunity to hop on the ice at (Noonan Park) or in my own backyard gave me the raw skills, both in goal and playing out, that I do not believe I would've otherwise had," she said.
Strayer can't imagine what her life would be like without hockey. From the time she was young, she and her dad would use hockey trips around the country and into Canada as a chance to see different cultures and explore other landscapes.
"It doesn't really surprise me that she's chosen a place to live that's known as the adventure capital of the world," Danielle's mom said. "When her and her dad would go on hockey trips, they'd go whitewater rafting or repelling. It was always an adventure with a hockey trip. It was never just staying at a hotel and swimming in a pool type of activities."
Hockey led to her meeting her husband, Ryan Strayer, who is originally from Connecticut but came to Queenstown to play for the Skycity Stampede of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League. He too has been granted citizenship in New Zealand and is playing for the men's national team.
"It's hard to put into words what hockey has given me in life," Strayer said. "I cannot imagine who I would be today without the sport. From a young age, you're taught how to be an impactful part of a team, take responsibility for your actions, push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things."
Strayer has gone outside her comfort zone more than most. It's rewarded her with a life on and off the ice that she loves.
"I can't say what the future may bring, but at the moment my husband and I have found a wonderful home here in New Zealand," Strayer said. "The more laid back way of life, small-town feel, endless adventures and a work-balance lifestyle that's found here is something we both cherish."