By Ashley Pavlakis
Winning the 2023 New England Women’s Hockey Alliance championship (NEWHA) on March 4th helped the Long Island University Sharks, the first Division I female ice hockey team on Long Island, to earn their first-ever automatic bid into the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament that took place on March 9th.
Long Island University added women’s ice hockey in 2019, and followed up by adding a men’s team in 2020. The male Sharks aren’t up to par with their female counterparts as they’ve posted losing records in their first three seasons as a team.
The Sharks entered the NEWHA as the sixth member of the conference in 2019. Being a new team meant a roster filled with new faces, 20 freshmen on a 22-player roster. But LIU’s experience as an underdog has been successful.
“Well, I think with the number of players she’s got coming back that’s a whole different stage. I’ve talked to a lot of players, I never played on that stage in college, but it’s a different stage when you step into that,” Commissioner of the NEWHA, Robert DeGregorio, said. “So obviously the first time there are nerves no doubt. Things didn’t go their way. They tried no question.”
The Sharks success may be in part due to the composition of its coaching staff.
In a 2019 report completed by the Tucker Center, data showed that female head coaches, who are in the minority, were more likely to hire women. One-third (34%) of female head coaches had an all-female staff.
University of Minnesota Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport Assistant Director, Dr. Courtney Boucher has majorly focused on women in collegiate coaching roles. Boucher is part of the research team that aids in putting out the Women in College Coaching report card to assess the current landscape of female coaches at the collegiate level.
The Women’s College Coaching Report Card estimated 37% of coaches were female for Division I women’s ice hockey in 2021-22.
“…They hired people who care about the program, who are supporting it, who are now having success in doing that. And they’re women,” Boucher said. “I think oftentimes, what we see, at least in the work that I do is most athletic directors will swing the other way and say, ‘Oh, we’re just trying to find the best fit’. The best ends up translating to male, because when we think about ‘what is leadership, what is a coach’, we often think and we default to male. For them to not do that is probably a pretty good sign in terms of the way they view the culture of that team and potentially the department.”
The pay gap between male and female athletes has existed for decades, and while strides have been made in recent years, the gap still exists, men, on average, make 13% more than women.
“It’s a huge gap between what the top women’s hockey players get paid and what the guys are getting paid,” Eleni Demestihas from Hecate Sports Group, said. “Someone like John Tavares [NHL player] makes 11 million dollars a year, the top paid player in the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) makes $150,000,” Demestihas said. “It’s not even close and while I don’t think it’s sustainable for us to rush into paying women’s hockey players millions of dollars, it’s improving. This past year in the PHF the salary cap doubled from $750,000 to $1,500,000 which has already had a significant impact. The more investment we see in the women’s leagues, the higher the cap can move and the more players can get paid. But there’s a long way to go to catch up for sure.”
The Sports Innovation Lab created a Women’s Sports Club in March 2023, partnering with more than 20 major brands to help elevate the investment level in women’s sports.
“There’s the pure financial side to it which has to recognize that for certain women’s sports, we just don’t bring in the same amount of revenue as the male counterpart,” Alexis Moed, the NYI Girls Elite President, said. “It is hard to justify monies going out when it is not balanced by the revenue stream coming in.”
“Some people come from eras/places where women aren’t encouraged to play sports and they write them off because of that,” Jake Baskin, a broadcaster for Northeast Sports Network, said. “The differences in physical ability between men and women may affect someone’s perception.”
Former Sharks assistant coach, Sam Faber has been in the women’s game for years both as a player and coach. She’s seen the level of physicality continue to grow at all levels whether it’s youth, college, or professionally.
“Overall in the women’s game, it’s definitely getting more physical. I think officials are allowing more aggression along the wall, which is nice,” Faber said. “Obviously we can’t open-ice body check yet, but you never know the Swedish league is testing it out. But overall, I think the physicality is growing for sure.”
Two-time national champion and 2018 Isobel Cup winner, Kelly Nash was hired as the next bench boss for the Sharks ahead of the 2022-23 season. In her first season, Nash coached the Sharks to their third championship win.
“…It was pretty awesome. That’s a credit to our administration, athletic departments, for really promoting the game to the rest of the university,” Nash said. “We had so many other student-athletes and students out there supporting us. We should get to have that environment more often. It was great to have experienced it for a championship game and I think that’s a goal for us to increase our fan base.”
The Sharks have players from the United States but also other countries like Canada and Sweden. Senior forward Alva Johnsson grew up in Stockholm. There, she played hockey at the international and professional levels. With an already established career, Johnsson chose to venture 3,887 miles to Long Island to play Division I hockey for the LIU Sharks.
“It has been a long journey and a lot of hard work and time,” Johnsson said. “But having the goal to go to the NCAA tournament since the inaugural season and get to accomplish that with the girls that have been here since year one was really a dream come true. A really cool experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Sophomore forward, Jeannie Wallner ranks third all-time in collegiate points by a female born hockey player of the eight to come from Long Island. In her second season wearing blue and gold, the forward helped win a NEWHA championship and advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
“I’m very happy that women’s hockey is growing and that there is a top-notch program here on Long Island that I can play for,” Wallner said. “There are a lot of girls here on the island that are good players, and hopefully my success as well as our team’s success can lead to more opportunities going forward. It’s always nice to score but even more so when it helps our team do well.”
General manager for the Connecticut Whale (a professional women’s ice hockey team) and NYI Girls Elite President, Alexis Moed, grew up on Long Island during a time when girl’s hockey wasn’t popular. She had to go out of state for the opportunity to play. Moed came home after spending years away with her sights set on creating something she never got the chance to experience growing up, a hockey development program for girls.
“I think it’s hugely important, we’ve been doing a series of girl’s clinics throughout the month of March and for every session, we’ve had some LIU girls come out and skate with our players and do a little bit of coaching,” Moed said. “It’s just a nice option to have on the island, it’s not something that we’ve ever obviously experienced before. I think it not only shows the growth of the sport at the collegiate level but specifically in the areas not traditionally known as a hotbed for girl’s hockey,” she said.
Playing Division I for Maine Blackbears as well as three seasons professionally for the Metropolitan Riveters and Connecticut Whale has served as stepping stones in Cailey Hutchison’s hockey career. She’s now back home and behind the bench as a volunteer coach for the LIU Sharks.
“It’s definitely special coaching any event/team on Long Island but coaching division I on Long Island is even more special,” Hutchison said. “When I was growing up I didn’t really have too many female players I could look up to. So to see young girls at our games in the stands watching our team makes my heart so happy. This is a huge step in growing the sport on Long Island. I want to do everything in my power to be a liaison between the team and the LI girl’s hockey community.”