A basement bed in Iowa. A locker room in Chicago. A small college in Wisconsin. When life means moving around, constants are hard to come by.
Some might struggle without similarity. Others, like Matt Smith, do not. That name is one of many in Chicago, but don’t underestimate the power it has.
It won’t tell you about his mother, an immigrant from Macedonia and a widow that fell in love with his father at a Jewel-Osco on the corner of Clark and Division. She was a cashier. He stocked shelves.
“I was given opportunities [my mom] wasn’t given,” Smith said. “I think I’ve always had that mission-driven service ethic from her in some way.”
His name won’t tell you Smith was a class president at Lane Tech. Or that he was also a class president at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Or that he played hockey everywhere he went.
Those attributes might be why Smith was in a dour locker room on March 6 in the suburbs north of Chicago. He was in a hockey rink so close to O’Hare he could’ve walked onto a plane and left the scene as fast as he could, as far as he could. Instead, he was trying to keep 20 high school kids from crying.
It was the last time Smith would coach some of those kids, the two sides working together to orchestrate the rise of St. Ignatius in the Chicago Catholic Hockey League. They had fallen just short, the players that were graduating and the man that had just lost his day job.
Smith’s life changes rapidly, but the constant remains the same. The sport that gave him avenues for success and stayed with him everywhere he went is the same one that pushed him to a wall of emotions inside that locker room.
Al Gore was going to be the President of the United States. At least, that was the goal.
Smith plugged away for a few weeks in Iowa during 1999, helping grow support for Gore before the caucuses for the election in 2000, crashing in a basement when he found time for sleep. His waking hours were spent pounding the pavement for Gore’s campaign.
Before any of that, though, Smith found himself at a crossroads that many recent college graduates come across. He needed a job.
“And then that led to an interesting journey,” Smith said. “It was a very unconventional route.”
The biggest thing working in his favor was his positive, outgoing personality.
He served as a substitute teacher in Chicago after working a rare connection. The assistant principal at his old elementary school had moved into a principal role at another school. He dropped off his resume and had a job soon after.
He moved on to work with James Houlihan in the Cook Country assessors’ office, writing speeches and working on policy papers.
He had acquired a taste for positive political change.
Smith moved to Dubuque, Iowa to work on Gore’s presidential campaign. He lived in that basement, under the house of two retired teachers while spending three months as a field organizer.
The movement had began. Not just for Gore, but for Smith’s life.
“I went to Columbus, Ohio for six weeks, spent a week in Nashville, and it all culminated with going to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles,” Smith said. “I lived with a friend of a friend at his home in Pasadena.”
After the Gore campaign, Smith returned home. He spent time working with public housing in Chicago, but the constant remained the same. Hockey had his heart.
“I was coaching hockey while I worked with Houlihan, coached hockey while I worked with the Chicago Housing Authority,” Smith said. “Then I was able to flip over to Chicago Public Schools in sports administration and leverage that passion for youth sports and align it to the service ethic.”
That was his day job, something he stuck with. He raved about working with kids who, like Smith, didn’t come from a wealthy background or had equal opportunities to play sports.
He ran an annual fundraising event, raising money to send low-income youth to sports camps around the Midwest. He wanted to give, and the kids he worked with were happy to get.
It was a job he loved until he lost it.
St. Ignatius was a mess on the ice, becoming the joke of the CCHL after joining in 2007. The Wolfpack had managed 53 league wins in eight seasons, or just under seven wins a year on a conference slate of 22 total games.
Then, Smith arrived.
He changed the entire culture of the program when he arrived in 2016, guiding the team to a record 13 wins in his first season while winning a CCHL playoff game for the first time ever.
Season two was another year of firsts. There was the regular season title, a new addition for the Wolfpack. They won more than just one playoff game that season, taking multiple playoff rounds on their way to the Kennedy Cup, the league’s championship series. There, the team added its first heartbreak, losing in the final game of the best-of-three series to St. Viator.
After this past season, Smith’s third and the team’s second regular season title, St. Ignatius has 48 league wins in three years.
“The program has changed a lot. [The last] coach wasn’t really connected with the team,” said leading scorer Patrick Doyle. “We never really saw him outside of practice, no concern for what’s going on in your life.”
Smith is much different. He organized team dinners, gatherings outside of practices and even study groups.
He also built a staff capable of helping with that culture. That includes assistant coach Nick Ustaski, a law student living in the city and a former hockey player at the University of Delaware.
“Dedication, commitment, excitement… he’s got a plan ready to go,” Ustaski said. “I think [the team before Smith] was just complacent being where they were. They were just going to the rink and doing the same drills… guys were tired of it.”
The coaches bicker like children some days and smile and laugh like long friends the other days. That bickering is healthy, Ustaski says, since it helps the coaches build off of one another.
Smith brought in extra skills coaches. His team watches film. He even had a sports psychiatrist work with his players.
“A lot of the lessons he’s taught us about hockey are applicable to life in general,” said Christian Klein, one of 14 seniors that were with Wolfpack this season. “A lot of stuff about accountability [and] doing things the right way.”
It was that culture that built the team into the powerhouse it was this season. It helped them to that second straight regular season title, and it hurt when they fell in the Kennedy Cup Finals to St. Viator again.
Near the end of the season, Smith was told he was part of a series of layoffs at his job. After a life on the move, he never wanted to leave.
He never told the team. They couldn’t tell.
His energy didn’t waver as they charged into another battle with Viator in the state quarterfinals, one last shot to extend their season, one positive development for the coach that built their program at a time he needed it the most.
They lost 5-0.
Smith was in that locker room on March 6, no day job, no more hockey. Another season cut short. His seniors cried, many of them realizing it was their last game together, even more knowing it was their last game in organized hockey. The sadness was palpable.
Yet there was Smith, walking out of the locker room nearly 30 minutes after the game had ended, talking to players and families in the lobby, shaking hands and keeping up the positivity.
He still doesn’t know his next move.
“I wish I had an answer,” Smith said. “Maybe that’s what’s holding me back.”
He loves Chicago and hopes to stick around. The athletic director role for St. Ignatius opened up, but his application was not accepted. It might be time to change lives again.
His phone keeps him grounded, with one text. One of Smith’s co-captains had written to him, a long paragraph filled with gratitude.
Smith might move on, but hockey won’t leave his life anytime soon. At this point, it’s part of his name.
Nobody in the St. Ignatius locker room on Sunday woke up thinking they’d see one of the rarest plays in hockey that night.
The Wolfpack had just tied rival St. Viator the night before. That game was a rematch between the two teams that had met in the league championship series last season.
The battle against Benet on Sunday was a big tilt between the top-ranked Wolfpack and the second place Redwings. It also screamed of a trap game, one that St. Ignatius might underestimate after the 1-1 scrum the night before.
Wolfpack head coach Matt Smith knew the St. Viator game was still fresh for his team.
“That’s the team that knocked us out of the Kennedy Cup and won the championship,” Smith said. “It was a good experience for our guys to go into a hostile environment, kind of battle through some adversity.”
For parts of the night, it felt that way. Benet raced out to a quick 1-0 lead and held three separate one goal leads throughout the night. St. Ignatius clawed back every time, eventually tying the game at 4 to send the battle to overtime.
The seeds were sown for something rare and extraordinary to happen.
A hat trick isn’t common in high school hockey, but it isn’t rare with blowout games occurring often enough. A hat trick with a game winning goal is special, even more unique if it’s in overtime.
The rarest achievement of all, though, is a buzzer beater goal. A buzzer beater to complete a hat trick and win the game in overtime? That doesn’t happen.
It did on Sunday.
A quick look at the stat sheet would show two goals for Patrick Doyle, the leading scorer for St. Ignatius. Games against the Redwings were special for Doyle, the son of a Benet alum with several Benet relatives.
It was in overtime where Doyle did something few have ever seen.
“The puck went into the right hands,” Smith said.
High school hockey rules in Illinois specify 4-on-4 action in overtime for five minutes. No score, no winner. The way coaches talk about it, a tie might as well be a loss, too.
St. Ignatius hadn’t gone winless over an entire week all season, and the tie the night before wasn’t even a moral victory. Smith mentioned that a winless weekend wasn’t part of the Wolfpack schedule for at least the last two years, which explains the team’s strategy in the final minute of overtime.
Doyle was sent onto to the ice as the Wolfpack geared up for a final assault at a win, 60 seconds hanging ominously in white lights on the scoreboard. Assistant coach Nicholas Ustaski sent out two other forwards with Doyle, leaving a sole defenseman behind them.
It was a risky tactic that almost resulted in a goal for Benet. Instead, it began a series of events that led to a game winning goal for St. Ignatius.
“That was a small little thing that may have created a little bit more of an offensive mind to the final minute,” Smith said. “It’s easy to say now, but in retrospect it could’ve gone the other way.”
Only 10 seconds showed on the clock when Doyle and forward Dominic Bertucci were behind the puck, chasing the play.
A Benet turnover in the middle of the St. Ignatius zone changed the entire game, a tipped pass sending the puck to Bertucci’s stick.
“I’m not the fastest player on the ice,” Bertucci said. “I look up, I see there’s five seconds left on the clock.”
Bertucci gathered the puck, getting to his own blue line before shoveling it ahead to Doyle.
“I gave it right up to him and then just watched everything unfold,” Bertucci said.
Four seconds remained on the clock when Doyle gathered the puck at center ice.
“I didn’t think I was getting anywhere near the net,” Doyle said. “If [Bertucci] doesn’t get it up at that exact time, I probably wouldn't get there in time.”
The bench tensed up, eyes between the clock and the puck. Mouths were open in shock and excitement, while some joined senior Marcus Mathurin in shouting at Doyle.
“We were all standing up like ‘oh my god, this could happen,’” Mathurin said. “I’ve never been a part of a buzzer beater like that.”
Three seconds were left when Doyle entered the Benet zone. Alexander Grzbek, the Redwings goaltender, had already made 44 saves on 48 shots. Everyone waited and watched to see if he would make one more. Doyle couldn’t afford to wait.
“I didn’t think I was going to have time to score,” Doyle said.
The entire rink thought a shot was coming. So did Grzbek, who had skated far out of his crease to challenge any chance from Doyle as the clock ticked down.
With two seconds left, Doyle faked that shot that everyone expected. Grzbek dropped to his knees, pads splayed out in anticipation.
As the clock ticked down to one final second, Doyle slid the puck to his backhand, Grzbek falling down in desperation behind him.
The puck slid over the line as the horn rang out, both events signaling the end of overtime and an incredibly rare achievement for Doyle, who wasn’t sure if he had scored in time.
“I looked right to the ref,” Doyle said. “I was worried at first, but I saw him point at the goal.”
No hats rained down as shocked fans tried to understand what they just witnessed.
The chant rose quickly and soon thundered throughout the arena from section to section. Fans in full tribal attire, reflecting their affection for the home team, maintained the three-word chorus for a long time.
“Ref you suck, ref you suck,” they chanted until the words began colliding with the echoes generated by the first wave of the cry. It slapped the glass near the ice, rose to the ceiling, and careened like a wayward car from person to person.
The targets of that chant had heard it before many times. That’s the life of a National Hockey League referee. That used to be the life of Rob Martell.
Martell heard those words, plus unprintable others, during his 20 years in the NHL. Now, he said the off-ice critics are even more vocal. This was especially true during the run to the Stanley Cup.
“I hate to say back in the day, but you used to get the benefit of the doubt because of the human element,” said Martell. “In a lot of ways. TR he human element was taken out of (officiating) and it’s hard.”
Martell is from the Canadian city of Winnipeg, where hockey was an organic component of life. He worked his way as a referee to the NHL in 1996 and skated with the whistle until January 2016, when he retired after his 1000th game officiated. He remains connected to the game developing young referees with USA Hockey, and continues to remain relevant in officiating circles.
Many fans would scoff at that, considering the amount of turmoil and controversy embroiled among NHL officiating recently.
That uptick has increased in the playoffs, especially as reviews and blown calls are magnified with instant replay widely available.
However, Martell thinks that a combined ignorance of officiating and the excess use of replay for fans magnifies a problem that doesn't need to exist.
“Something will happen and (the) coach will drop his head and he’s looking down at the monitor,’ said Martell. “The players will do it too. If it was legit…”
Martell nodded his head, mimicking what a coach would do if the call seemed fair.
“If it was something he didn't like he would start yelling,” he said. “But he didn't know until he looked at it. That’s the downside to it.”
The cameras from seemingly every position around the ice don’t help.
“People get such good angles, (fans) see everything,” Martell said. “Nothing gets past (them). There’s 30 cameras that are looking at this guy or that guy, and nothing gets missed really. That’s the problem, everyone sees those (looks).”
The problem, Martell insisted, is that these looks are slowed down and magnify a potential missed call that is impossible to see at full speed.
“Everybody is an expert,” he said. “My biggest pet peeve is when (TV analysts) go ‘We looked at it seven or eight times and it clearly shows one thing or another.’ Well if it was clear, why did you look at it seven or eight times? In slow motion? It’s the nature of the beast. The speed of the game, you can’t have it both ways.”
Martell referenced recent plays in the postseason that were criticized on social media and on television networks after the game. In the second game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins, a potential missed call shifted the game. Brad Marchand, a forward for the Bruins, skated in on a breakaway and was hooked by Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman. The call was not made.
“Marchand was on that breakaway, and he got hooked. (A) legitimate hook,” Martell said. “But the only reason it didn't get called was (that) it was off a face-off.”
Martell said the natural speed of the game and the hectic action following a face-off often work against clarity when making a call.
“It was a bang-bang play,” he said. “What happens on a face-off is that the refs are lined up at center ice, the linesman are at the blue lines. Face-off happens… now the referee is chasing him, like in the old days.”
Martell said he focused on the position of the referee, something fans don’t ordinarily consider.
“So if you look at that video,” Martell started, “everybody cues in on the hands, and where (Stralman) gets (Marchand) and such. ‘Ah, it was an obvious penalty, how did they miss that?’ Well if you look at the big picture, the referee is chasing, he's about 20 feet behind, looking over Marchand’s shoulder. All he sees is the guy reaching in and it looks like (Stralman) lifts the stick, so he doesn't give him a call.”
Controversy accompanied many calls in the series between the Lightning and Bruins, who meet several times each year as Atlantic Division rivals. But the rage over officiating continued in the next round, the Eastern Conference Semifinals, when the Lightning met the Washington Capitals.
A high-sticking call against Washington forward TJ Oshie proved to be wrong when the replay showed that a puck hit Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.
“They’re beating (the refs) up over that, but the stick is in the vicinity,” Martell said. “When they show the replay, they don’t show it at real time, they just show it slowed down. The puck hits (Hedman) and the stick goes by his face, but in real time, and one (view) only, it looks like a high stick. (The refs) talked about it, they did everything that they can do to come to a decision.”
Try explaining that to a coach who has watched the replay on big scoreboard or on the tablet kept on the bench.
“When you get it wrong, the replay just kills you,” he said. ”That’s part of the issue nowadays.”
Martell added that reviews have taken some of the pace out of the game.
“Replays are good, but look what happened with the offside (reviews).,” he said. “The beauty of hockey is the speed, intensity, pace. You can go five or six minutes sometimes without a whistle. If you're going to review all of these things, like a puck hitting a guy instead of a stick (such as the Hedman case), that happens… out of 1,200 games a year, it might happen twice. Is that really what you want to do? Slow the game down?”
Sometimes that review can help. During a game between the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, Washington goalie Braden Holtby appeared to have made a save on a ___ shot. It was close enough to look like a goal or a save, and nobody could tell. Especially the ref sitting a few feet away, with one, fast-paced glance at it.
The call on the ice was the eventual decision. No goal.
“Holtby, when he made that one save, when the puck was on the line… you could take all kind of CSI moments but you can’t see it,” Martell said. “You can say ‘I think it’s in’ but you can’t do that. You can’t make that call. There’s no winning in those situations. You can’t guess.”
Those reviews is one of many Martell insists is slowing down hockey, especially the always controversial, seemingly never-satisfying goalie interference reviews. He referenced the old skate-in-the-crease rule from when he began in the league as a similar situation.
“Anyone from Buffalo that is a hockey fan would be very proficient in talking about the crease rule back in those days,” he said. “A foot in the crease… the idea behind it was to keep players out of the crease. That came back and bit (the NHL) in the a— a little bit.”
In recent years, goaltender interference became reviewable for goals, “The idea being the goalie should be allowed to play inside the blue paint,” Martell said. However, the league was not very streamlined with that process.
“(The league) put it in the hands of the officials to look at it on the screen,” Martell added, “but they kind of dropped the ball a little bit with those little tablets. They weren't very good.”
Now, the rule changes the NHL put in place a few weeks ago took the power away from the referees on the ice. The final call rests with the hockey operations staff in Toronto.
“We don’t have control as the referee,” Martell said. “We have the headset on, looking down at the tablet, and we’re talking with Toronto. Their technician is taking us through the replays. We don’t always see the (angle) they show at home until later in the process. I don’t know what the answer is to streamline that process a little bit, but (the league) is going to Toronto now. They make all the decisions. The referees still get on the headsets, they look at the play and they talk the guys in Toronto through it.”
Even with the power gone, Martell knows from experience that pleasing people will never be an option.
“It’s all based on your opinion or alliance to a particular team,” he said. “We don’t care who wins. We really don’t. We’re not out to get a particular team. You don’t have time to think about (biased calls) because things are happening so fast, you have to react. You start thinking, that’s when more mistakes are made. All these conspiracy theories about certain teams and certain officials…” Martell paused and rolled his eyes.
Part of that distrust and frustration, Martell said, lies within the rule book, and within the decisions made by the owners and general managers.
“Referees are the scapegoats,” he said. “They’re the guys that take the hits all the time, but the league and the owners decide how the rules are applied. They don’t change rules that much, (and) when they do change them it’s more the application, it’s not the rule itself. Every general manager likes a new rule until it gets called on them, and every owner. They all love it until it happens to them. Now they're mad and now it’s a bad rule.”
Going into the 2017-2018 season, the NHL officially decided to call slashing in a more tightly thought out manner. That meant even more borderline plays were to be called, no questions asked.
“Last year it was the slashing, and (the NHL) made an adjustment and they've cut down on that,” Martell said. “What happens with that now is that you take the slashing away, and you get announcers and guys complaining about these ticky-tack slashing penalties because they slashed a guy in the gloves. Well, you can’t have it both ways. So now (players are) actually cross-checking. The NHL doesn't want (those penalties called), they want that intensity, aggressiveness, physicality.”
In one way, Martell is right. If every penalty was called, hockey would be slowed down and frustrating to watch. Plenty of borderline calls are left alone. The speed of hockey, Martell insisted, is what gives the sport its best attributes. Sometimes, though, it can cause issues with injuries and officiating.
“Because they took away a lot of the holding and the hooking and stuff, the speed is so much faster, and these guys have these collisions at such top speeds,” he said. “Guys get hurt because of it. It’s even faster than (my last years). It makes it that much more difficult to be an official because you're spending half your time trying to get out of the way. These guys are going 1000 miles an hour and they don’t give two s—ts about if you're in their way. They'll just run you over. That happens, and that’s how (calls) gets missed as well.”
He stressed that referees really do care about getting calls right, and keeping the game called correctly.
“I used to hear all the time as well, ‘They’re not going to overrule their own call.’ That is not how we think,” Martell said. “We want to get the right call. The simplest answer is that we want to get it right. I have no problem reversing my call once I see something that gives me information that I didn't have previously. That’s how officiating works in general. You take all the information you get and apply it.”
Just like anything else in hockey, mistakes are made. “If you take the human element out of it… that’s what sports is really about,” Martell said. “I don’t know what the answer is (to fix reviews). You can beat it to death with replays and reviews, but that’s not what hockey is.”
“There are three teams out there,” he suggested. “If we make the fewest mistakes out of any of the teams on the ice tonight, we’re going to have a good night. Hockey is a game of mistakes. Mistakes are going to be made every single night. If there aren't mistakes made, (the score) is 0-0 and it’s a pretty boring game. The analysts break down goals, they’ll say “Oh look, so and so got turned here, he went the wrong way, he stepped up when he shouldn't have,’ and things like that. Those are all mistakes. When referees make (mistakes) they’re magnified. It’s like being a goaltender.”
Even without those mistakes, the refs can’t win. Even with that, Martell still has a humor shared amongst many refs. It’s almost required when you have arenas and stadiums full of rabid fans jeering you.
“One side is going to be mad at you, depending on how it goes,” Martell said with a laugh.
At least in retirement, Martell won’t face many chants coming his way. That will be saved for the next on-ice call, and the one side that doesn't agree.
A sense of cold hung in the air, unfiltered despite the environment. It had nothing to do with the near-freezing November weather outside, or the temperature inside the three-rink hockey facility. It manifested in the small locker room that said “Connecticut” on the outside but read turmoil on the faces of those inside. A singular thought poured over and out of the minds that grew in worry, fear, and anger. For the Connecticut Whale, one of four teams facing the same dilemma in the National Women’s Hockey League, the question was the same.
“What do you mean, pay cuts?”
Harsh news shook the NWHL to its core; yet after the bomb, in the still-remaining rubble, those that survived would soon help women’s hockey evolve.
It was the second year of operation for the NWHL, the first and only professional women’s hockey league in the United States. Born out of competition with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the CWHL, the NWHL immediately needed some clout on the national stage. With one decision, they got it.
Commissioner Dani Rylan, just a few months removed from being denied ownership of a CWHL team in New York, declared the birth of the NWHL in the Player’s Tribune. The announcement came with the decree that the league would be the first women’s hockey league to pay its players, with a small caveat.
“Right now, our salary cap is still small. Our players make an average salary of $15,000. They still have to work day jobs, of course,” said Rylan at the time. “We have nurses, teachers, and mechanical engineers on our rosters. But it’s not just about the money. It’s about respect. It’s about being treated as a professional.”
The CWHL, years away from projected pay for players, could only look on as four NWHL teams actively recruited the same players it coveted. For Rylan and the NWHL, this was a success.
The first year was, in a way. Attendance was high as fans poured into games. Players took in a pay that wasn't high enough to sustain a living, but enough to find worth in sacrificing part of their time and lives. With a salary cap just over $270,000 per team heading into year two in 2016, things were looking up for the NWHL. Then, as large donors stepped away, the culmination of several missteps by the league reached its peak in November.
Anya Battaglino remembers the day without fond thoughts. The head of the NWHL Players’ Association was merely a team representative, alongside fellow Whale Cydney Roesler. They were told by the NWHL to be ready for a phone call before practice, seemingly another common meeting among the team representatives and league officials. Despite her intense, passionate optimism and warm personality, there was nothing but cold on the other end of the phone.
“We were delivered the message that salaries were getting cut. ‘You need to tell your players that this is the new pay structure in an hour. Good luck,” said Battaglino. “We got this overwhelming phone call. Tomorrow it changes and this is what it is. We hung up the phone and we were both shaking.”
Practice was an hour away. Sitting around the locker room, their locker room, were their friends, teammates, and sisters in arms. All of whom had no idea what was coming their way. Battaglino turned to Roesler.
“I’ll do it. I’ll talk to people. I’ll be the one that delivers the message.”
Battaglino walked into the locker room, crestfallen but prepared.
“In sales, a lot of people say no and you have to grow some tough skin,” said Battaglino, referencing her day job. “I took that on, and as I was in the locker room I was shaking, sweating. It was a scary, overwhelming feeling.”
Her teammates joked around, getting ready for another late night practice. Some lived close enough they could walk to the rink when the weather outside was more forgiving. Others drove a multitude of hours each week, some from Boston, some from New York, leaving their cities where they held down jobs that afforded them the chance to play hockey for a few hours of practice each week. That cold November night would not be worth the ride.
“Watching every single teammate… they were hurt, and they were angry,” said Battaglino. She stood there, in front of her team, and announced sweeping salary cuts the league had dropped on her just an hour before.
The new plan was necessary in the league’s eyes, and abysmal for the players.
For each game, $5,000 was allocated per team. That total was divided among the players by the percent they made against the previously required salary cap. If a player was earning $27,000 before, about 10 percent of the salary cap, they would make 10 percent of the cash per game.
This high pay was a rarity, however. For most players, their salary previously was around $10,000 for the season. That meant about 3.3 percent of the game money, which amounted to around $165 per game, almost three times less than their expected pay. Without travel accommodations for games or practices, let alone payment for practice, most players were losing more money than they were making.
Take a shortcut through the wall behind the locker room, thin enough to hear noise but thick enough to limit verbiage, sits Connecticut’s trainer’s room. Rolls of medical tape and bandages sit to the side. Inside, on that day in November, sat trainer Paul Fernandes and Whale intern Kevin Ristow.
“They were promised “X” amount of dollars. Anyone would be disappointed, especially a lot of the players that moved (to their team) from way out-of-state,” said Fernandes, who sat in his room listening as the silence was soon cut. Ristow sat in worry next to him.
“Nobody was saying anything. You could hear faint conversations, what sounded like a team meeting, through the wall,” said Ristow. “You couldn’t understand what they were saying, but eventually we realized practice wasn’t happening for some reason or another… You got a sense that something was off.”
Despite the cold of the November, added with the freeze inside the ice rink, Battaglino could see the locker room heating up.
“(I had) to look all of my best friends in the face and tell them that the dream we were striving for and hoping for had a setback. People had to adjust their lives and change what they were doing.”
“They had to look at the sport of hockey and see if it was viable and what it meant to them. It was hard. It was really sad and it was hard.”
The players did not take kindly to the bombshell dropped upon them. They immediately took to the only weapon they had to fight with: social media. Fans began to question the decision as well.
The tension was palpable, and so were the results. Players left the NWHL, some immediately, others after a few weeks, and many more deciding this would be their last season with the league.
Whale captain and defender Molly Engstrom, a vocal leader and rock for the team, left for professional hockey in Sweden. Defender Ivana Bilic, already dealing with injuries from the games she had played, decided enough was enough and headed home. With two other defenders hurt, the blue line for the Whale disappeared in the span of a few days.
“I’ve never gone back in NHL history but I’m pretty sure it was bad in the beginning days too. It wasn’t what it is now. It has to start somewhere and somehow,” mentioned Fernandes. “Of course money fixes everything, but until you get that it is a battle.”
Players questioned the legality of the decision. Media members wondered if this was it for the first professional women’s hockey league to pay its players, a toy losing its shine and luster. Over in Canada, the CWHL looked on, ready to pray on fleeing NWHL athletes, its only competition on the verge of collapse.
Only, the NWHL didn't fall. It evolved.
Within days of the pay cuts, another announcement was made, this time by the NWHL Players’ Association. One of their team representatives was anointed head of the NWHLPA, with hopes of growing the league that the players had looked to with hope for so long. Their new face for hope, volunteering for (and given) the role, was Anya Battaglino.
“My whole plan (as head of the NWHLPA) is to make sure the players are being treated fairly and equitably and being treated as the professionals and employees that they are,” said Battaglino. “Every single day I’m on the phone trying to create partnerships, something to believe in and work towards. Just for the players well-being. “There’s always things we can be doing better for our players. There’s a lot of good movement forward but there is work that needs to be done in a three-year league.”
Year two for the NWHL seemed to be the final year, but Battaglino and the players managed to push back enough to find ground with the league, and with a future. Players still left, true to their word, in search for better grounds. For the Whale, rookie sensation Nicole Kosta was plucked by the CWHL, while fellow rookie Nicole Connery has completely left professional hockey in search for a career in video production. Engstrom remains in Sweden.
The losses are tangible, and obviously hurt the team and the league. But Battaglino remains hopeful.
“It’s like the chicken before the egg. Do you get the salary to substantiate having it be your only job, or keep it in a night-and-weekend position but then the quality on the ice might not be as great? There are these differences that will hopefully work themselves out when it comes to a long-term future, “ said Battaglino. “There’s a lot of pieces that are going to go into what women’s hockey is going to be and where the sport should be going.”
Year three has seen that growth. The NWHL has lost some players to national team training with the Winter Olympics on the horizon, a loss known about for years and planned for. However, the league has new toys to play with.
Twitter and the NWHL reached an agreement over the summer to broadcast games, with a “Twitter Game of the Week” each weekend featuring two NWHL squads battling it out. The games have increased exposure, leaving hope for new ad revenue among other benefits.
The other benefit in year three was another big one, as the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils announced plans to partner with the league and the team nearest them, the Metropolitan Riveters. The announcement was the first time an NHL team has formally partnered with an NWHL team.
With each step in the right direction, Battaglino has felt the hope emanating around the NWHL, and especially around the Whale.
“I don’t know if it’s just the team dynamic and who we are as people this year, but the Whale have never been so close,” said Battaglino. “It re-energized my love for this sport.”
While issues still remain, especially in the regrowth of a salary, the hope that shines the most is the human side of the players.
“We try to highlight ourselves not only as athletes but also as people with a message and a goal and a dream,” said Battaglino. “(We’ve been) humanizing ourselves and telling our own stories and not necessarily being athletes on this platform. (We’ve been) letting our walls down and letting people into our lives. (We’ve been) letting them know that as a division one athlete trying to get the grades and going into the work world and having a hockey job is not easy.”
That human side remains the reason Battaglino, and dozens of players around the league, continue to fight to make professional women’s hockey successful.
“Letting people know it’s not easy, and that I’m human and I make mistakes, all of that comes with empowering girls and women,” said Battaglino. “We’re not any different, we just happened to pick up a stick at a young age and do that really well. Using that platform to humanize us is hugely important when trying to figure out how we inspire the next generation.”
In year three, hindsight shows that the human side has been tested more than anything else for Battaglino. The league has had its ups and downs, but Battaglino rides the roller-coaster buckled in nice and tight. Year one gave her a reason.
She was hurt, and had to sit out a game. As disappointed as she was in missing the ice, she made a memory that powers her through each season, each issue and each bit of turmoil.
She looked down from her perch atop the stands to see a young girl, energized during play, wearing a Whale jersey. The number shined up, a bright white four with lettering that read “Battaglino” below.
Battaglino took a few steps towards the young girl.
“Hey, I really like that jersey. Why do you like that jersey, what does that player mean to you?”
The young girl smiled back at her.
“I love Anya Battaglino! My mom and I talk about her, she really works hard, and she’s just like me, she’s from a small hometown.”
Battaglino recalls the memory fondly.
“She told me my whole story back. She was so excited that she had somebody to look up to that was just like her,” said Battaglino, choking back tears. “We both went nuts, we were hugging and telling stories. Her name is Willow. She was the sweetest girl. She was just excited to be in an environment where she felt equal. That would be, bar none, the best human to human connection I’ve had.”
Ask around the league, and that human interaction is one of the biggest reasons players come back, no matter how hard it is to, just to be pioneers and role models.
“They’re role models for young girls,” said Fernandes. “Being around these players… they’re competitive. They have a dream too. They want to play and they love the game.”
Ristow concurs. “You got to see the smiles on these girls’ faces every day at the signing table. You got to see players interacting with young girls who get to meet some of their heroes,” said Ristow. (The young girls) see there is something for them to do after they graduate. They can keep on playing.”
With year three already underway, the players do indeed keep playing. Battaglino remains head of the NWHLPA, and continues to ensure the best for the future of professional women’s hockey and its players.
“It’s really really hard. I don’t sleep,” said Battaglino. “But at the end of the day, I think I’m doing the right thing.”
The last few minutes of the game had all the fixings of an epic finish to a women's ice hockey championship game.
The home team, Quinnipiac University, had yet to win an ECAC Championship in women's hockey. The Bobcats' opponent, Clarkson University, already flew an NCAA Championship banner on their campus in Potsdam, New York.
The Golden Knights featured the tough, relentless and, most of all, poised play of a champion. But so did the Bobcats as they held on to a 1-0 lead with just minutes remaining in regulation. Could they hold on?
The burst of color on the scoreboard above center ice at the TD Bank Sports Center in Hamden, Connecticut, made for a great background as Quinnipiac's 24 players piled on the ice to celebrate.
They held on. They had won.
The 1-0 win was met with an empty bench, with gloves in the air. A patchwork of sticks resembling a lumberyard splayed here and there across a worn-out ice surface. Gold letters exploded all around the rink, screaming, “Bobcats Win!”
In the light of those flashing screens, the seats themselves were mostly empty. Noticeably empty.
“I think that the fans that show up to women's games are the passionate fans that really care about the team,” said Matt Bell, an ardent supporter in his senior year at Quinnipiac. “From my college experience following the Quinnipiac women's team for four years, they really appreciate the support. Not to say the men don't, but the men expect large crowds.”
That same game, earned in a battle resembling a street fight, was fought with women. Not men.
Would you still go watch it?
The game was the ECAC Postseason Championship, hosted for the first time by Quinnipiac University, the winners.
The message rang from Hamden, Connecticut, to Potsdam, New York; Quinnipiac, young upstarts to the ECAC, a perennially-close-just-to-come-painstakingly-short team, had finally won the conference postseason tournament. Finally champions, and victors over the class of the ECAC in Clarkson University, which hung a national championship banner high in previous years. For the first time in school history, Quinnipiac’s women’s hockey raised a trophy after postseason play.
Fun game, right? A huge championship match, at home, against the toughest possible opponent. Quinnipiac had never reached the championship game in the ECAC. The possibility of firsts were endless. A can’t miss final.
It was missed by the thousands, as empty blue seats adorned the TD Bank Sports Center while a trophy was raised. The final attendance? A total of 912 people, including just about 80 students.
That's the true figure at a college hockey conference championship game, on the home ice of one of the two teams. To make that figure seem even more tragic, the rink stands within either a three-minute walk from a major dorm, or a six-minute shuttle ride from the main campus.
Maybe 80 students.
This in relation to the men’s championship game, also featuring a talented Quinnipiac squad ranked in the top five in the nation. The game was held in Lake Placid, New York, roughly four-and-a-half hours from Quinnipiac’s main campus.
The attendance? 4,626 butts in Herb Brooks Arena seats, over five times more than those in the plastic blues at High Point Solutions Arena back in Hamden.
Oh, and the men’s hockey team won the Whitelaw Cup, eloquently named and adorned. The women’s hockey team won a trophy still nameless, unfairly to less of a fanfare.
Of course, this is not a shot at the men’s hockey team. Their efforts are well-documented, and their exploits well-earned. They didn't finish second in the nation after an NCAA championship loss for nothing. They earned an attendance.
But why can’t that be said for the women’s team?
The week after the Quinnipiac women’s hockey team became ECAC Champions, they hosted another high stakes game. An NCAA tournament game, held on home ice for the first time, against the same Clarkson opponent that was licking the Bobcat-inflicted wounds they had just suffered.
The storylines were endless, the tensions high, the outcome almost the same.
Clarkson won this time, 1-0. Same score. Same lack of attendance.
The first-ever NCAA tournament home game for Quinnipiac? That game with those tensions and stakes? 604 fans in attendance. The same lack of students, as well.
Those who showed up were the same students who came all year long, and it is safe to assume they were not pleased with the showing of students.
“Speaking in general for sports, and general at school besides men's hockey, our support as a school is very poor,” said Liam Kenney, a junior originally from nearby Cromwell, Connecticut. “We hosted a conference championship and an NCAA tournament game on our home ice! The stands were still empty. But yet, we will have a sold out crowd for a men's hockey exhibition game. To me, hockey is hockey.”
Massachusetts natives Bell and Alex Perrella, a junior in the Quinnipiac Pep Band, share the same mindset.
“I believe that hockey is hockey no matter who's playing, and that women deserve the same respect that the men do,” said Bell. “The women won the ECAC, and were a game away from making the Frozen Four last season. They deserve better from the students.”
“I personally think that the women's team doesn't get the support it deserves. The number of fans at a women's game aggravates me because the lack of fans makes it difficult to keep up the pep,” said Perrella. “(It) also makes me feel bad for the players and coaches who put in all of the time and effort to perform at a top tier level, and have it go almost unnoticed because no one comes to the games.”
The average attendance for a women’s hockey game at Quinnipiac is 432 fans. The average attendance for a men’s hockey game at Quinnipiac is 3,102 fans, near the sellout capacity of 3,386 attendees. The men ranked second in the nation last season in capacity filled, at 105.2 percent. In the same rink, the women filled only 16.2 percent of seats.
Sophomore Matt Kricheli, a constant supporter at Quinnipiac games— including a few road trips— was dismayed at the numbers.
“I think that for how good the women’s hockey team is, the lack of support they get is absurd,” said Kricheli. “(Quinnipiac) has been top five in the country since November of last year, and that should be reflected with people in the stands supporting them.”
Kricheli is questioning the attendance. Bell is, too, as is Kenney and Perrella. They're not alone in wondering, “Why?”
The reasoning? Not so simple.
It’s not as if either team is bad. Quinnipiac is one of only two schools in the nation with both teams ranked in the top seven by both the USCHO and USA Today polls. Minnesota-Duluth is the other. Last season, only Boston College and Quinnipiac had it’s men’s and women's teams ranked in the top five nationally, with Quinnipiac holding that distinction for more weeks..
Both teams have elite pre-game and post-game training, as well as top quality strength and condition programs under the direction of highly renowned coach Brijesh Patel. They also have nationally recognized head coaches in Rand Pecknold for the men’s team, and Cassandra Turner for the women’s team.
“With this program and coaching staff, I don't think any other team in the country is more prepared (for games) then we are,” said Emma Woods, the senior captain for the women’s team at Quinnipiac.
Both teams at Quinnipiac have held notable achievements, from ECAC champions to making NCAA tournaments to multiple players with 100-point careers. While the men traveled to Tampa for the Frozen Four earlier this year, the women finished the season with that 1-0 loss to Clarkson, which went on to the Frozen Four in Durham, New Hampshire.
Kenney has a theory. “If people can get over trying to follow trends and set a trend by going to other sporting events, then every sporting event can be as "fun" as the men's hockey games.”
Kenney has been an avid supporter at Quinnipiac events since his arrival on campus, currently serving as the Vice President of the Quinnipiac Spirit Group.
“I've always had a passion for sports. It's such a proud feeling wearing the letters across my chest that these athletes wear. It's a special bond,” says Kenney. “It’s different than being a fan for a major league sport because I know many of these athletes on a personal level. I love being able to hear how hard they are working in practice and in the weight room.
His favorite part of games? “I enjoy every aspect of a game, but what I enjoy most is when a fan comes to a game and enjoys his or her self in the student section.”
The group of supporters that attend each women’s game may be small, but they are dedicated.
“I attend games because I'm the type of fan that is "go hard or go home" regardless of what sport it is, and I like cheering on the Bobcats as much as I can,” said Perrella. “I like the intensity during the games, and how they seem to keep me on the edge of my seat because of how quickly things take place.”
The games certainly don't seem to bore the fans; this is especially clear considering the dominance of the Quinnipiac women’s team the last few years.
Love high scoring affairs? Quinnipiac beat Union 9-0 last season at home, in what also served as their senior night. The attendance on such a special night? 424.
Perhaps you prefer a game against a talented, household name college. Quinnipiac beat Boston University 6-1 last year in a game that many expected to be even closer. The attendance was a relatively high 1,024; however, a large portion of BU fans made up that number, which still pales in comparison to a men’s game.
Maybe a close, tight game against a local rival will do the trick? A 1-0 Quinnipiac win over Yale last season saw 396 fans.
Meanwhile, the men’s version of said rivalry featured an over-capacity crowd of 3,696 in which standing-room-only tickets were being sold for upwards of $50.
Men’s games feature $18 tickets for general admission, while premium games (such as those against Ivy League foes Harvard or Yale) go for $25. Each women’s game features $5 tickets, which is more than half price of the mere standing room only tickets for men’s games at $12.
Both teams have free tickets for students.
Affordability should not be, and is not, a realistic issue. If not because of monetary reasons, if not because of entertainment, is it because it is a game played by women?
A “different” style of hockey?
Professional photographer Rob Rasmussen, a Quinnipiac graduate in 2006 after growing up in the nearby North Haven area, has been around the team for years. He broke down the women’s game, one he has witnessed and analyzed for years in his line of work.
“I'm sure a lot of it has to do with the fact that there's no checking in women's hockey, but I do often hear people reference the speed of the women's game as being too slow for them,” said Rasmussen. “Both of these are frustrating things for me to hear because the game doesn't need checking to be wildly entertaining. Sometimes, the speed difference is a good thing because it allows you to appreciate the development of plays.”
Rasmussen built off of Kenney’s theory of trends and social events. “I'm sure some of it has to do with (the) advertising (and) marketing (of) the games, too,” said Rasmussen. “I think another big part of it is that there are so many demands on people's time that they make a conscious decision to attend men's games instead of women’s. Especially when they play on the same days. That may come down to education.”
Education? Rasmussen stressed the importance of fans witnessing the games for themselves, rather than relying on a common (and misinformed) stereotype that sports based off of female athletes are “boring.”
“The few people I've been able to bring to women's games have all told me that they were surprised by the level of play,” said Rasmussen. “I think that comes down to a few things, the biggest of which is getting people to the games.”
Kricheli agrees. “I enjoy the hockey— it is really good hockey. They’re a top team, and they have the ability to go really far this year. I think with people in the stands cheering them on, it’d give them the lift to do something special.”
Rasmussen ended with his own solution. “The real question (is)— other than checking and speed— how do we get more people in the building? How do we build an education for folks who love hockey, but don't think women's hockey stacks up? My response is always to get them to a game. From there, the quality of play speaks for itself.”
That quality features many talented teams nationwide, featuring multiple Olympic athletes among other talented players.
In Hamden, that features established stars such as T.T. Cianfarano, a participant in multiple U.S. National Team events, as well as fellow American star Melissa Samoskevich. The player known affectionately as “Samo” by the dedicated Bobcats fans is a homegrown talent. She starred in nearby Sandy Hook, Connecticut before playing at Shattuck St. Mary’s, a nationally renowned hockey prep school.
Shattuck St. Mary’s has produced players such as Sidney Crosby and Zach Parise. It has also produced players such as Amanda Kessel and Brianna Decker.
All are skilled hockey players, and all are nationally renowned talents, no matter what kind of hockey they play.
The attendance problem is not only affecting Quinnipiac, which ranked 11th in the nation in average attendance last season. While national powers such as Minnesota (First) and Wisconsin (Second) each averaged over 2,000 fans per game, they are also large state schools with a large crowd of students that could attend.
Both see their attendance pale in comparison to their male counterparts; Minnesota saw 9,849 fill the seats for men’s games, while Wisconsin welcomed in 8,849 fans per game. The women’s games saw a similar ratio to Quinnipiac, as 2,125 and 2,019 fans per game were seen in Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively.
39th ranked Merrimack had more attendance for it’s men’s games— a team that went 13-19-7— than the women’s team at Minnesota, which won the NCAA national championship.
Both Minnesota and Wisconsin, along with Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota, were the only four teams nationally to see women’s hockey average over 1000 fans per game.
55 men’s teams had more than 1000 fans per game. Only 5 men’s teams did not.
Many former Quinnipiac hockey players were diplomatic in their responses, with hope for support in coming years.
“There definitely is a loyal and dedicated fan group that attend all the games at Quinnipiac and having their support over the past four years was amazing and it really meant a lot,” said Cydney Roesler, who graduated last spring after serving as last year’s captain. “It certainly would've been nice to get more support from students… (However), I do think things are slowly changing, and the student body is beginning to realize how good the team is.”
Roesler was the same captain who raised the ECAC Championship trophy high after the 1-0 win over Clarkson. The only goal in that historic win was scored by Nicole Brown, who graduated last year as well.
“There's no doubt that the fan support at the games is minimal compared to (the) male counterpart. However, I was fortunate enough to see an immense growth in the number of fans during my four years at Quinnipiac,” said Brown. “(My) freshman year, we had barely anyone come out and watch. (But) during my senior year, it was awesome to look up and see a good crowd of people behind our bench supporting us. More and more students and faculty started showing up to games to add to our already-dedicated super-fans.
Brown was also adamant that more fans should attend. She said, “Do I think they deserve more support? Of course. I hope that the students will give the women's team a chance and come out to a game or two and see for themselves that it's great hockey.”
Roesler added, “For some reason, it was hard to market the game to the students.”
With an eye towards the future, both alumni are excited and hopeful. They also were very ardent in appreciating the support they received.
“I miss everything about them! I was fortunate enough to get to know many of them on a personal level, and they're such amazing people,” exclaimed Brown. “They’re the kind of people you want at your games supporting you. They are always super positive and smiling when you see them after a game, whether we won or lost. They truly care about the team, and (they) go out of their way to show it. That's a special thing, and one I'm not sure I'll ever get to experience again.”
Many alumni from the team, as well as current players, are hopeful that the experience of having large crowds will happen often.
It is an experience that should.
Special thanks to everyone that participated in this article, as well as Professor Richard Hanley for editing the piece.