A closer look at the Asian pro hockey players in the inaugural season of the National Women’s Hockey League
By Ren Hsieh
Earlier this month, the National Women’s Hockey League finished its inaugural season with the Boston Pride winning the Isobel Cup by defeating the Buffalo Beauts 2-0 in a best-of-3 series. Posing with her teammates for championship photos after the series clinching win at the Prudential Center Practice Facility in New Jersey was Rachel Llanes, a Filipina American from San Jose who played her college hockey at Northeastern. She was one of three players of Asian descent in the championship series.
Beauts forward Kourtney Kunichika, a Japanese American from Anaheim, led her team’s line for the traditional post-game handshake, which included Kelly McDonald, a hapa Japanese Canadian from Ontario. Kunichika and Llanes knew each other from their days of youth hockey in California, but the Beauts didn’t linger much on the ice to chat after the result.
A look through the NWHL’s “founding four” team rosters reveals that each has at least one player of Asian descent on contract. Nana Fujimoto is the goalie for the New York Riveters, and also for the Japanese national team. For the Connecticut Whale, there is forward Jess Koizumi, a former member of the U.S. women’s national team.
While hockey doesn’t appear at first glance to be North America’s most diverse sport, Asian faces should not be unfamiliar. Two of North American hockey’s most iconic women have Asian ancestry. Julie Chu, a four-time U.S. Olympian and flag bearer for the 2014 winter closing ceremonies, and Vicky Sunohara, a two-time gold medalist with the Canadian national team, once considered to be the best female player on ice.
Both Chu and Sunohara have been huge pioneers not only for Asian Americans and Asian Canadians, but for women’s hockey as a sport. And to players like Jess Koizumi, knowing that someone like Chu had made it to the very highest level was reassuring. For Koizumi, growing up in Minnesota as one of two Asian American families in her town was not always kind. She found solace in playing hockey. Her teammates and coaches treated her with the kind of respect she didn’t always find off the ice.
McDonald suggests that she was never fully aware of an Asian Canadian presence or lack thereof in hockey, but she was aware of herself, and did look up to fellow Canadian Paul Kariya, the former All-Star forward for the NHL’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Like McDonald, Kariya is hapa. His father, Tetsuhiko Kariya, was a Japanese Canadian born in an internment camp during World War II, and his mother, Sharon, was Scottish Canadian.
But perhaps more important to McDonald was whether or not there was a female population playing and being encouraged to play hockey. There was, and much of that comes thanks to Sunohara, an Ontario native who has been a champion for women’s hockey throughout her career and in retirement.
“In Ontario,” says McDonald, “there is a huge female population in hockey. I always had a place to play.”
McDonald would eventually go on to play Division I hockey in the U.S. where she become captain of her team at Maine, the same university for which Kariya had played his college hockey.
It was a somewhat different experience for Llanes who grew up playing with other Asian American girls on the San Jose Jr. Sharks girls travel team, one of two prominent youth hockey clubs in California. Kunichika played on the other one, the Los Angeles Selects (now known as the Los Angeles Jr. Kings). She also had the opportunity to play with other Asian American girls. In fact, a look at both clubs now shows no shortage of Asian Americans on their youth rosters, male or female.
Where Kunichika grew up, her church was connected to the local roller skating rink. Roller hockey was the sport of choice for youth of the congregation, which she says was, “probably more Japanese people than any other race.”
Koizumi would later move to California as well, and with a much larger Asian American community, she no longer felt so out of place. There were still but few elite Asian American players, but the circle was well acquainted. Koizumi would become teammates with her role model, Julie Chu, on the U.S. national team in 2007.
Being Asian while playing hockey isn’t something any of these women are necessarily preoccupied with, but it will always mean a certain self-awareness. It is distinct to see another Asian face across the ice. It’s just a thing that Asian American athletes (and presumably Asian Canadian athletes) do in sports where there aren’t too many other Asian American (and Canadian) athletes. It’s a sudden spike of recognition, like seeing someone who looks like an old friend–or an old rival, depending on your frame of mind.
Teammates Kunichika and McDonald have joked about that sort of recognition. But with women’s pro hockey just beginning what appears to be a long process toward becoming a sustainable paid profession, it is the identity of simply being a woman playing pro hockey that comes across with more urgency.
Women’s hockey is still young and growing. Future generations have a league they can now dream about playing in. – Rachel Llanes
The NWHL is by no means anyone’s golden ticket, yet. The league offers a minimum $10,000 salary, which isn’t chump change, but it’s also not a livable wage on its own. Per Vice Sports, almost all of the NWHL’s members who are not on a national team have to balance time on the ice with another job.
Fujmoto has the unique position of being a star player for her national team. Just last year, she was awarded Best Goalkeeper of the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championships. This year’s tournament started this week and she is back in goal with Team Japan.
Koizumi, the veteran of this group at 30, wants to play for two more years. She currently juggles her pro hockey career with a coaching position at Yale. Before the NWHL, she played for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, essentially a volunteer-based league. She is the all-time points leader for the CWHL’s Boston Blades. Koizumi notably scored the first goal in NWHL league history as a Connecticut Whale.
Kunichika, Llanes and McDonald don’t quite have the same clarity for their future as pros. For now, pro hockey seems to be something that they do for the love of the sport. It’s the kind of passion that’s akin to McDonald’s description of the game itself.
“It requires you to be both a little insane and very calm simultaneously,” she says. “You have to play with a vicious edge, and at some point it becomes more than a game. Hockey is a lifestyle, which is something only hockey players can understand.”
Llanes also played for the CWHL’s Boston Blades while balancing coaching and running her own hockey training business. For her, the NWHL paycheck was never the sole reason for signing the contract. Playing in the league meant something more to Llanes than just the implications for her career. It was also the feeling of being, “part of a bigger picture.”
“Women’s hockey is still young and growing,” says Llanes, “future generations have a league they can now dream about playing in.”
She, too, acknowledges that NWHL salaries are not sustainable living wages for most of its players, but Llanes believes that this season was a huge step in making women’s hockey a viable profession.
As for whether or not that means she will keep playing hockey, in the NWHL or anywhere else, Llanes sums it up by saying, “I will play hockey until I physically can’t.”