Equality on Ice
Professional hockey player Alyssa Gagliardi is helping build the National Women’s Hockey League and encouraging the next generation of players by hosting girls-only hockey camps in Raleigh.
By Kurt Dusterberg
Photos Courtesy of Boston Pride/NWHL
When Alyssa Gagliardi began playing hockey in Pittsburgh at age 8, female hockey heroes were hard to find. Girls’ leagues were rare, and there were no professionals to admire.
But now those barriers are gone, and Gagliardi has become the role model she never had.
Today, she plays for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League. The players don’t enjoy the status held by the men who play in the National Hockey League, but Gagliardi is a pioneer in her sport, not to mention one of the top players in the world. For now, that’s good enough.
Midtown magazine: You started playing as an 8-year-old. When did you move to the Triangle?
Gagliardi: We moved to Raleigh when I was 10. My older brother, Ryan, and I had been playing a few years. I ended up playing (with boys) for Raleigh Youth Hockey Association, which is now basically the Junior Hurricanes. I actually switched to goalie when I was 9 or 10 because I thought the equipment was cool. The next year I tried out for goalie and I didn’t make it, so my only other option was to play on a girls’ team. It was a U-16 team and I was only 11. So I started playing defense again. Then I played boys Bantam when I was 13. At that point, the boys started getting a little too big.
So then you left home to play hockey?
When I was 14 years old, I went to boarding school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Minnesota. My brother was there, so my parents weren’t exactly sending me off by myself. That’s where I learned about the college process and got seen by some coaches.
And you chose Cornell University, an Ivy League school with a really good women’s hockey program.
I was pretty lucky with the timing of when I went there. I studied communications and I have a minor in business. I loved every minute of it.
After Cornell, you played one season for Boston in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and then the National Women’s Hockey League started in 2015. I know you can’t make a full-time living playing in the league, so how do you approach that?
I always said I would take things year by year. When the NWHL started, it just made sense to give it a shot. That first year we were salaried, so every two weeks we were getting a paycheck. The top salaries were around $25,000, but marketing projections were not what the league expected. Now there are three pay tiers, and we get paid per game. The top tier is $300 per game, so we can make about $7,000.
Obviously your league doesn’t have the history and popularity of the NHL, but are there times when the modest circumstances in NWHL seems unfair?
NHL guys get equipment on demand whenever they need it. In our league, it’s like pulling teeth to get a new pair of skates. On the other hand, I am really grateful that a league exists to keep playing, so we can work with the youth teams and kind of grow the game at the grassroots level. After the games when you do the autograph lines, you see all these youth players who are so excited. Obviously we’re not the NHL, so people think we’re comparing apples to oranges. So you try to find that line. I want not only to be grateful, I also want to earn my worth. It’s a process. You want to make some small wins along the way.
Do most of the players have other jobs?
This past season, pretty much everyone had a full-time job. I work full-time for a startup company in Boston. We make wireless headphones and assisted listening technology for seniors who struggle with hearing loss. I am the director of the customer engagement team.
So you’ve got your career underway and you’re a professional athlete. Is that difficult to manage?
I love it. Honestly, I think I would be kind of bored if I wasn’t doing something with my career. I like being challenged that way, too. My coworkers and bosses are really flexible. If I have to leave early on a Friday, they’re totally supportive of that.
You’ve played three seasons in the league. Is there any question of whether to keep playing?
I’m in Boston; all my best friends are playing again this year. It was a no-brainer. I still love playing. I’d regret not doing this and [not] trying to build the league.
The U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team won the gold medal in South Korea in February.
Did you try out for the team?
I tried out for the 2014 team but I didn’t make it. Until 2016, I was part of the U.S. Women’s National Team Program, which is a pool of about 50 players that they pick from for different [tournament] teams. They’re always making cuts, and I was released from the program then. But having this league to play in, it wasn’t like my playing career ended all of sudden.
Do you ever stop and think about the fact that you are among the very best hockey players in the world?
Last year they put together an all-star team from our league, and we went to Florida and played the Olympic team for two games before they went over to South Korea. Our team had some really talented players who easily could have been on the other side of that. It was cool to see how women’s hockey is growing and how many good players there are.
Do you get to Raleigh often?
My parents still live in Raleigh. I come back a few times a year to run girls’ hockey camps. I’ll be back in May for my first one. I realized there were no girls-only hockey camps. I love being able to work with everyone—from teenagers who maybe want to play college to the girls who are 5 years old and just playing hockey for the first time.
(For more information on Gagliardi’s hockey camps, visit AG2Hockey.com.)
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