The Women's Hockey Star Fighting to Grow the Game
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because pro hockey should be pro women.
By Matt Foley
When she was just 2 years old, Kaliya Johnson knew figure skates wouldn’t cut it. “I was obsessed with Julie in D2: The Mighty Ducks,” says Johnson. “She was the only girl on the team … I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
For the next six years, Johnson followed in Julie’s footsteps. With no girl’s youth hockey club within an hour of her home in LA, she played with the boys. But once her mother, Kelli, a former collegiate basketball player, realized hockey was more than a phase, road trips became part of the family rhythm. “I knew she was serious when she gave up all her other sports,” Kelli tells OZY. “She was an amazing soccer player and was on her way to a black belt in Hapkido, but she gave that up.”
The routine was tedious: school, drive to Anaheim — to play at one of only two girl’s hockey clubs in California in the early 2000s — practice, drive home. When Kaliya was 10, the family moved to Chandler, Arizona, a region where hockey was barely gaining traction and girl’s youth opportunities were scarce. “Luckily, my mom helped me fly back to California every other week to play with my same team,” says Johnson.
Johnson is one of a growing number of “NHL expansion babies”: young stars hailing from sunny regions where professional hockey is new.
In one sense, Johnson’s hockey tale is like many others — long hours on the road, familial sacrifice, predawn practices — but hers represents a shifting tide in this male-dominated northern sport. Johnson is one of a growing number of “NHL expansion babies”: young stars hailing from sunny regions where professional hockey is new. In Los Angeles, Arizona and South Florida, the NHL is seeing young talent emerge. Exhibit A: the reigning NHL rookie of the year, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, who also hails from California and Arizona. But Johnson’s gender adds another layer: The 22-year-old finds herself enduring the rigors of being a professional athlete while also working a 9-to-5 because she’s yet to be paid like one. In addition, she volunteers as a youth coach, doing what she can to grow the game so, one day, girls like her won’t have to choose between sporting glory and a career.
Round-the-clock travel growing up means Johnson can’t recall many dinners at home with her mom and two older siblings, but Kelli remembers one meal quite vividly. “Kaliya invited me out to dinner,” says Kelli of the night her youngest child said she wanted to attend high school 2,600 miles away, in Stowe, Vermont. “She created this list of pros and cons … there was really no reason not to go … We decided right there over dinner.”
Watching her youngest leave the nest was difficult, but not unexpected. A lifelong educator — Kelli taught for 23 years and now works at Franklin Covey, an education and management training firm — she raised her children according to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book based on her employer’s research. “The first step is ‘be proactive,’” she explains. “Kaliya had a plan and knew how to execute.”
A lightning-quick defender, the teen starred at Stowe’s North American Hockey Academy and quickly blossomed on the national scene, winning fastest skater at the 2009 USA Hockey skills competition and representing Team USA in various U18 world championships. Soon, perennial powerhouse Boston College took notice. The Eagles made the Frozen Four in each of Johnson’s four years with the team, going 40-1 and losing the national championship game to Wisconsin her senior year.
But, as a popular NCAA commercial reminds us, “most college athletes go pro in something other than sports.” This holds especially true for women, whose opportunities to build on even the most standout collegiate careers are frighteningly slim. That’s not lost on Johnson. With a degree in applied psychology and human development, she’s aware that her future may very well hinge on what she does off-ice. Still, she’s all in on the National Women’s Hockey League. “I’m just enjoying being a professional right now,” says Johnson. “All of my life, college hockey was the top tier, but this is a whole new level of competition.”
— Kaliya Johnson (@kleaa42) May 7, 2016
Still, there’s no denying that growth is necessary for the three-year-old NWHL to find its footing. The four-team league is searching for innovative ways to generate interest — by airing games on Twitter and the internet-streaming channel Cheddar in the absence of a television deal — but revenue and salaries are modest. Each NWHL team has a cap of $270,000, leaving athletes with far less than a livable wage. After going undrafted out of college last season, Johnson signed with the Connecticut Whale for $13,000 across a six-month season. “That was a huge adjustment for me … going from doing everything with my teammates to playing for the Whale,” says the Boston resident. “I was commuting 2.5 hours, only seeing the girls during practice and games.”
This summer, Johnson signed with the Boston Pride. The fierce defender will play a major role in rebuilding Boston’s blue line, which lost three key players prior to this season. But she’s also digging into her career as a nonprofit event planner. By day, Johnson coordinates corporate volunteer engagement for Building Impact; by night and on weekends, she dons her coaching cape to teach young girls the game that has given her so much. “They’re really smart,” she says. “You’ve just got to throw them [on the ice] and let them play tag.”
Ask Johnson to look beyond her one-year contract with the Pride, and you find she’s got a plan: “Being in sports, we’re able to get a lot of people together to rally for important causes,” she says, mulling her future. “I’m definitely going to start my own nonprofit. Anything I can do to give back to hockey, I will.”