Emilie Kruse; Norwegian U18, Linköping HC forward

The 2017 Women’s World U18 Divison-I Championships for hockey will be taking place from January 8th, 2017 through January 14th in Budapest, Hungary. Gearing up for the tournament is a 17-year old young lady who is already a three-time veteran of this particular soiree. Meet Emilie Kruse, a forward for Team Norway. “It is always an honor to represent my country, and I appreciate every opportunity that I get to wear the polar bear on my chest”, she says. Kruse is most eager and passionate about the upcoming showdown in Budapest and for the game of hockey in general. “Yes, I’ll be playing in my last U18 tournament. Being a veteran of two other previous tournaments, I will do my best to be a good example and a leader to the younger players. It is important to be dedicated to the game, and willing to sacrifice everything to achieve your goals, and I believe that we as a team are all going into the tournament with this same goal”. Poised and professional for sure, even at 17.

Knowing that it is not necessarily common for a female player to participate in more than two U18 tournaments, I became curious to know more about this young Norwegian. “When I was 3-years old I started to skate with my dad at the rink in my hometown in Norway, and I started to play shortly after that”. Kruse is from the town of Halden, Norway; one of the southernmost points of the country and very close to its border with Sweden. “My hockey life in Halden was always great”, Kruse says. “I got the opportunity to play hockey with boys ever since I started playing. I played with the same team until I decided to move to Sweden”. Kruse presently lives and plays hockey in the city of Linköping, Sweden.

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Hailing from Halden, Norway, 17-year old Emilie Kruse plays for Linköping HC in Sweden (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

Kruse’s love for the game seems greatly fostered by her parents; both of whom were players themselves. And while she cannot quite put her finger on what most drew her to the sport, the fact that it was a “family affair” began to groom her interest from the time she was a toddler. “Since I was only 3-years old, I cannot really tell what made me interested in hockey, but my dad and my mom used to play hockey when they were younger, and even my brother played at the same time as me for a while. So I guess that it just came naturally for me. No one ever forced me to play but of course it had an effect on me when I was younger that my mom and dad used to play. I used to play soccer as well, but that came to an end when I had to pick one of them; it wasn’t even a question which sport I was going to choose over the two”, Kruse tells me.

“I wouldn’t say that there were a lot of opportunities for me to play hockey in Halden”, she recalls from her childhood. “There was really one team, and that was it. Of course, there were other hockey teams nearby, but they belonged to other cities, and for me that was not an option”. From conversing with Emilie Kruse, I garner that she continuously endeavors to develop her hockey skills and that she had recognized at an early age she may need to seek opportunities elsewhere if she wanted to heighten her abilities. “It was when I decided to play with a women’s team that I began to look to other cities and countries to play. I had to play with a team from another city because my team in Halden didn’t have a women’s team; that was when I decided to play with Sparta Sarpsborg”.

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Prior to joining Linköping HC, Emilie Kruse played for Sparta Sarpsborg in her homeland of Norway. (Photo credit: Kenneth Myhre).

Sarpsborg is located in the same region as Halden, Østfold County, and dates back to the time of the Vikings as one of the oldest inhabited regions of the area. Only 30-minutes away by car, the close proximity between the two towns and the increased level of hockey brought about a virtual “no brainer” for Kruse to choose which path to take. “I decided to go to Sparta Sarpsborg because it was not far from home, and the team took me in before I was old enough to play with them”. Emilie Kruse actually started to practice with Sarpsborg a full year and a half before she was old enough to play with the team and with this particular league. “You have to be 13-years old to play in the league. It was an easy choice because I was always welcome with the team, and they were known for having a good team spirit”.

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Anytime that Emilie Kruse is able to don the Norwegian polar bear on her jersey, she considers it an honor (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

At only 5-foot 3-inches and 120-pounds, Kruse’s small stature never gave her reason to shy away from physical play. And although she was even smaller as a 13-year old, she earned herself a bit of a reputation on the ice with Sarpsborg. During her 47-career games with the team, Kruse registered 56-penalty minutes in addition to her 9-goals and 11-assists. She explains her style during those early years and how it has since transitioned: “Especially in my first two seasons in Sarpsborg, I was very small and didn’t follow with the tempo of the game. I was so little, and I got a good amount of hooking, tripping and slashing calls. I would not say that I played a particularly intense style of hockey at the time, but as I got taller and quicker I started to bodycheck. It’s hard to tell exactly why I did that, but it may have had something to do with me playing with boys and girls at the same time; I didn’t separate between two types of intensity in my game”.

I am especially impressed by Emilie Kruse’s own self-awareness as a hockey player, and how she is truly  able to take an inward look at her own game. Kruse goes on to say, “Now I feel that I play a more intense style of hockey. I am that type of player that can be very rough in a duel to win the puck, and especially when we have those really important games. It’s a physical game”, she says, “and I believe that I have to play with an edge to be the best for my team. We have so many good players in the league that I presently play in that being physical is becoming a part of my game. And for me, that’s how I can contribute for my own team”.

Kruse does not have to look far for role models, nor in less obvious corners of the “hockey globe” to find inspiration and further blossom her game. “I know that it’s a very original answer”, she says with a grin, “but if I am picking a hero from the NHL it would have to be Sidney Crosby. I think the overall package that he presents is highly impressive. The way he uses his body to protect the puck, and how he makes it possible to take advantage of his edge control to gain speed. He is naturally a good role model for me because of the way he works on the ice, and the happiness he gets when he is repaid for his hard work”.

In addition to Crosby, Kruse can find plenty of inspiration among her teammates with her current hockey club Linköping HC. Olympians Jennifer Wakefield, Denise Altmann, Florence Schelling, and Swedish legend Pernilla Winberg all comprise the roster. “I have the opportunity to play on the same team as many great hockey players, and I have even gotten to play against some others as well. I had the opportunity too to participate at the IIHF’s High Performance camp this summer, and got to listen to players tell their story and tell us about their careers”.

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With Linköping HC, Emilie Kruse plays for one of the most elite hockey clubs in the world. (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

And so how did Kruse end up in Sweden to play with one of the most historic hockey clubs in the history of the game (and that’s not just meaning in Sweden!)? “When I was younger my dad always took the family to watch Swedish Elite League games in Gothenburg, and I guess that got me to dreaming about wanting to play in Sweden someday. When I was playing for Sparta Sarpsborg I knew a man named Jens Brändström that had moved to Sarpsborg from Linköping, and he happened to coach me sometimes. He told me about Linköping, and that they were starting a gymnasium for girls, and he wondered if that would be of interest to me. Jens set me up on a tryout that Linköping was having in connection with the upcoming gymnasium, and I was lucky enough to be accepted”. 

For Kruse and her fellow countrywomen, the opportunity to play hockey in Sweden is a bit of a dream come true and is something to be held in high regard. “I think that many girls in Norway really want to play in Sweden. It’s a totally different league with players from all over the world; that right there naturally makes a higher tempo game. Swedish hockey for women is well spoken of in Norway, in general”. Having started with Linköping during the 2015-16 season, Kruse has already appeared in 43-games with the club between two seasons, potting 2-goals and an assist in that time. “Linköping is known for having a great association and for developing young players to become even better, and to be able to play in the US or wherever they would like to play. And for me, it is an honor to be a member of this association”.

In all, that is a vast amount of training, competition and experience for a young player like Kruse to have gained in a relatively short period of time. After all, she is only 17-years old and is playing on a roster with women who have won multiple Olympic medals in some instances. Needless to say, Kruse is enriched with the intangibles needed to be an elite international player herself, and has already made good use of them in two previous U18 competitions representing Norway.

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#18 Emily Kruse (Johansen) celebrates with her teammates for the Norwegian women’s national U18 team. (Photo provided courtesy of Emily Kruse).

2015 brought elation to the Norwegian women’s U18 team. A 3-1-1 finish in that year’s tournament in Vaujany, France gave Kruse and Team Norway an unprecedented silver medal at the tournament. “The silver medal is definitely one of my greatest achievements so far. I did not get much ice time except for some shifts in the first game of the tournament, but it was a unique experience and a motivation boost for the following year’s world championship”. The Norwegian’s tied for the tournament lead for fewest goals against; a mere 9-goals in 5-games. A particularly exciting matchup was Norway’s fourth game of the competition; a heart racing 5-4 shootout victory over Slovakia. The game featured a large amount of heated penalties between the two teams (slashing, elbowing, and illegal hit calls) with the Norwegians coming out victorious on Anniken Olafsen’s game-winning shootout goal. Still feeling a sense of exhilaration as she thinks back, Kruse says “I just remember that I was very nervous because of the shootout, but we won the game in the end and that’s all that matters”.

Another year older brought about a larger role for Emilie Kruse in 2016 for that year’s U18 tournament held in Miskolc, Hungary. Even though they would falter during her second major IIHF competition and end up in a fourth place by tournament end (2-wins, 3-losses), Kruse was a key contributor for the Norwegians. “For me it was a good tournament. I got a lot of ice time. Our coach trusted me and played me all the time. It was a totally different experience from the championship that I had the year before”. This 2016 go-round would see her finish with 2-assists in 5-games and have a plus-1 overall.

Entering into her third and final U18 tournament in only a matter of days, if there is anything that Norway can depend upon it is Emilie Kruse’s preparedness. Between the two prior tournaments and playing on a team as elite as Linköping HC, it is almost unbelievable the amount of experience that this little lady already has pinned to her résumé. But in talking with her too, another couple of things you can depend upon Emilie Kruse is her sense of humility and that self-awareness again as a hockey player.

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Wheeling away from a Hungarian player, Emilie Kruse (Johansen) #18 will represent Norway for third time on the national U18 squad in Hungary January 8th, 2017-January 14th in Budapest, Hungary (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

“I’m a technical player with a lot of energy. Sometimes I still need to remember and remind myself that it is necessary to play a full 60-minute game, and that is something that I have been working on”. This is what I mean by Kruse’s humility; she can critique herself with no issue and is always looking for ways to better her game. “Even though I consider myself pretty young, I have had a lot of opportunities to visit places I would never have seen if it wasn’t for hockey. I have also made a lot of friends from different countries that I will never forget”. Kruse appreciates what she has. No question whatsoever.

Some final words from Emilie to me: “As I said, I am very young, but a thing that I have learned during these years of playing hockey is that nothing comes for free. If you want something, you have to work hard to achieve your goal, and even if you meet challenges on the way you just have to keep going because eventually you will get repaid for your hard work”. Words to live by from a remarkable young woman. Thank you Emilie, and best wishes to you and the Norwegian team in Hungary!

 

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Andrea Rišianová: Team Slovakia U18 Women’s Goaltender

“Our team’s goaltending coach came to my mom one day with some goalie pads and equipment and said, “Okay, Andrea is going to be a goalie now. I don’t really know how, but I can tell that she knows it; she can play the position”. That is how her role as a goaltender started. Simple, but intuitive on the part of her goaltending coach. It’s Christmas Eve, and I am chatting with a 16-year old netminder for Slovakia’s U18 national team, Andrea Rišianová.

She hails from the city of Martin, Slovakia. Located towards the middle of her homeland, Martin is the eighth largest city in the country and home to a population of 61,000. Despite the small population, former NHL players Zdeno Ciger, Richard Panik, Robert Svehla, Radovan Somik, and Peter Smrek all call the same town as Rišianová their home. The region is incredibly picturesque, accompanied by strolling mountains, dark green woods, and even waterfalls. “In the city where I was born, the ice rink is located next to our grandparents’ house. I started to skate there, and then got involved with the MHK (Martin Hockey Club) training for children. From there, I just fell in love with the game of hockey”, she says.

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Soon to be 17-years old, Andrea Rišianová is a superb young goaltender for Slovakia’s national U18 women’s team (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

Though Rišianová is only 16 (she will be 17 in less than a month), she has actually been skating for a long period of time. “I was 3-years old the first time that I walked out on the ice, and then I started playing organized hockey on a team when I was 8”. According to Rišianová though, there was not a particular reason that she wanted to take on the goaltending position other than that their appearance was a lot more to her liking than a skating position. “I was just always interested in how nice goalies look out on the ice, and I kind of wanted to try it”, she says.

For Rišianová, she emulates and admires her fellow countryman, Peter Budaj of the Los Angeles Kings. Budaj is presently the longest tenured Slovakian-born goaltender in the NHL, and as of late has found a resurgence of sorts with the Los Angeles Kings; also Rišianová’s favorite hockey club. With top Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick on the shelf due to injury for almost the entire 2016-17 NHL season thus far, Budaj has taken over the reigns as the team’s number one backstopper, and is just about to pass the 30-games plateau for the season. “I love the L.A. Kings and Peter Budaj is my hero. I have watched his career for a long time, and it is unbelievable how much of a star he has become”, Rišianová tells me. By happenstance, I share with her that Budaj’s Kings were just in my hometown to take on the Buffalo Sabres, and I had the opportunity of seeing him play. Rišianová is jokingly jealous, and tells me “if coming to an NHL game from Slovakia were that simple, I would already be there!”, she laughs.

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Making a save while in net for her club team MHK Martin, Andrea Rišianová is constantly practicing and honing her skills (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

I ask Rišianová what she feels are her skills that have made her such an elite goaltender for her country. “I am not the kind of person who admires herself, but I believe that I have good stickhandling skills for a goaltender, and I believe that my movements in net are quite fast”. Even though she is humble, Rišianová has been able to demonstrate her talents on the international scene on multiple occasions during the past year, and the experience for her has been most memorable. “Tournaments with the national team are always so exciting, and I love that!”, she says.

Firstly, Rišianová and Team Slovakia captured a bronze medal at the 2016 Women’s U18 Division I Championships held this past January in Miskolc, Hungary. Rišianová went perfect with 10-stops on 10-shots against Denmark in Slovakia’s second game of the tournament. Sharing the goaltending duties with Adriana Stofankova, Slovakia took third place with a 3-1-1 record at the tournament.

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Andrea Rišianová in heavy action against the Czech Republic (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

After the Division I tournament, Rišianová was featured between the pipes at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. It was at this tournament where Rišianová particularly shined in net. In 3-games for Slovakia she put up very solid numbers of a 2.49 goals against average to go along with .889 save percentage. Included in that was a very tight 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic in which Rišianová stopped 32-shots, a 15-save performance against Switzerland, and a 9-save game against Sweden after she came in for relief of fellow Slovakian netminder Simona Lezovicova who was pulled after allowing four goals. And while Slovakia lost in the February 20th bronze medal game against Switzerland, the tournament was still a great success for Rišianová.

Putting her international experience into perspective for me, Rišianová says, “Every game that I played in Lillehammer was very special for me. To answer what my greatest achievements in hockey are thus far, I would have to say winning the bronze medal in Hungary for the U18 World Championships, and then definitely the Youth Olympic games in Lillehammer”. It would probably be needless to say that these first two international tournaments are the first of many that will come for Rišianová. She most assuredly has the passion and the desire to be a student of the game and the goaltender position, and to continue to hone her skills through constant hard work.

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Winning the bronze medal at the 2016 Women’s U18 Division-I tournament in Hungary is one of the major highlights to Andrea Rišianová’s young career (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

That being said, Rišianová has faced some struggles that she is intent on overcoming in this current season, 2016-17, playing in Slovakia 1st-Division women’s league. Rišianová is the starting goaltender for MHK Martin. Dealing with illness and injuries, her play has faltered at times but she has met these challenges head-on. In 7-games this season for MHK Martin, Rišianová’s numbers have been a 6.21 goals against average and a .773 save percentage in this early part of the season. And while such numbers and struggles could be discouraging to her, Andrea has forged onward and maintains a positive outlook on her game. “The most important thing that I have learned in hockey is that you have to have strong nerves”, she says. “And if something doesn’t go well for you, keep trying and working at it until its perfect”.

On top of that, Rišianová sees the importance of being an advocate and an example for other Slovakian girls younger than her even who want to play the game of hockey. She encourages them that if they have an interest in the game, by all means, pursue it. “Don’t worry about those who may tell you that hockey is a ‘boys’ sport’. There are a lot of girls and a lot of women playing hockey more and more each day, and it’s a really nice thing to see developing”.

It is refreshing to see a young lady like Andrea Rišianová who is not only passionate about hockey, but who also is capable of maintaining her composure and her cool through good times and in bad. The highs of winning a bronze medal and a successful solo performance on the international scene, while trudging through the lows of a challenging season for her club team. Rišianová does not “toot her own horn” over her capabilities, but she also doesn’t lose sleep because she is going through a rough patch. She is a focused and a determined young lady who is bound to be a cornerstone for Slovakia’s national team for many years ahead. Keep up the great work, Andrea!

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Andrea Rišianová will be a strong goaltender for Slovakia for many years to come, much like her hero Peter Budaj. (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová; photo credit Piotr Synowiec).

 

 

 

“Professional in all aspects”: Mark Hartigan, former Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, Atlanta Thrashers, Detroit Red Wings forward

If you look at Mark Hartigan’s accomplishments as a hockey player at St. Cloud State University, you will find that in nearly every instance they are second to none. Hartigan holds the Huskies’ school records for career goals, goals scored in a period, goals scored in a single season, assists in a single season, shorthanded tallies in a season, and most total points in a season. Hartigan holds the distinctions of being a 2000-01 Third Team All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association selection, and bettered that with a First Team All-WCHA selection the following season. Perhaps most noteworthy, Mark Hartigan was a Hobey Baker Award Finalist during the 2001-02 season; the trophy awarded to the top NCAA player in men’s ice hockey.

Taking all of that into account and recognizing the preponderance of those accolades, it would seem that there would be many on-ice moments that would stand out for Hartigan in his mind’s eye. But trophies, goals and selections are not what Hartigan deems as most meaningful from his time playing at St. Cloud State. “Honestly, all the friendships that I created are what stand out the most”, he says. “Lifelong friendships. I believe university is a part of many young people’s lives, and it ends up being a memory that you consistently look back on more than any other life moments with great passion and joy. Certainly an era that I still look back on and talk about”. To have Hartigan sum it up concisely: “Definitely the best time of my schooling and/or my hockey life”.

Hartigan’s “hockey life” has taken him all over the globe. He’s played in the NHL and KHL, and maintained himself as an elite scorer for many years in the American Hockey League. Hartigan even has two Stanley Cup rings that he earned during his time in the NHL. And yet despite a very impressive hockey résumé, Mark Hartigan still seems a bit surprised that I had wished to interview him. “I guess I should ask, how did you hear about me?”. I tell him simply that I remember him quite vividly during his time in the NHL, especially his years with the Columbus Blue Jackets organization. Being that Coumbus’ minor league affiliate for many year’s was the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, and that I am born and raised in Buffalo, the close proximity gave me the opportunity to become acquainted with Mark as a hockey player. To sum it up concisely for Mark, I said: “Basically, if I ran a hockey club, you would be a player I would want on my team”. Fair enough.

Starting to play organized hockey when he was about five years old, Hartigan was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, but calls Fort St. John, British Columbia his hometown. “We moved away from Lethbridge when I was about 7-months old. We lived in approximately 12 different places before I was in grade-3. But I consider Fort St. John my hometown, and where I played all of my minor hockey”. Fort St. John is the oldest European-established settlement in present-day British Columbia, and provided much opportunity for Hartgian to learn his craft outside. “I learned a lot of my skills from the outdoor rinks growing up. I loved being on the outdoor ice. Many hours in the cold”. Likely many youthful hours spent emulating his hockey heroes; the Edmonton Oilers’ version of “Rogers and Hammerstein” – Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, who were his two favorites.

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Mark Hartigan would be part of the Columbus Blue Jackets organization for 4-seasons (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

As Hartigan’s skills developed he ended up playing Junior-A hockey with the Weyburn Red Wings, earning arguably his first noteworthy accolades by being both the top scorer and named as the MVP of the 1997 Royal Bank Cup; the national championship for Canadian Junior-A Hockey. For whatever reason though Hartigan was not sought after by a major junior team.Instead, opportunity would present itself to play hockey collegiately. Hartigan tells me, “I was never recruited to play major junior. Growing up in Fort St. John, it was a small town and I never even knew of the opportunity of being able to play NCAA. Luckily though my hockey abilities improved every year, and the NCAA found me. I had multiple schools recruiting me, but I had an extreme comfort level with SCSU and felt that it was a great fit for me”.

St. Cloud State University saw Mark Hartigan attain all of the aforementioned honors, and he proved that he definitely had the merit and the hockey sense to move onto the professional level. “Luckily I had the option of being able to choose to sign an NHL contract with multiple teams. I again went with my gut-feeling and comfort level when choosing the best possible team for me”. Hartigan opted to sign with the fledgling Atlanta Thrashers franchise, who were in their third year of existence when Mark joined their team for the 2001-02 NHL season. The Thrashers featured a pair of superstar rookies that same year, in Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley; both would be strong incentives for any player to enlist with this particular franchise. “I felt Atlanta had a bunch of good, young forwards that I would be able to fit in well with”, Hartigan remembers.

Hartigan would sign his first NHL contract on March 27th, 2002; shortly after completing school and late in the NHL season. He would quickly be inserted into the Atlanta lineup only 6-days later, and would have the opportunity to show what he was capable of when the Thrashers squared off against the Calgary Flames on April 2nd. The game itself would be incredibly exciting, but would also have a moment that Hartigan laughingly would like to forget. “My first NHL game was very exciting, like I assume it is for all hockey players. Not only was it my first NHL game, but it was being played in one of the closest cities to my hometown, where all of my family could make it to the game. The whole day was a blur and it went by extremely fast. But the game itself went fairly well. A little fun fact though; for my very first penalty in the NHL, I gave a guy a penalty shot. The penalty shot was awarded to Scott Nichol of the Flames, and of course he ends up scoring”, Hartigan chuckles. But how exciting to play his first NHL game and to have his entire family be able to attend!

On a more serious note though, Hartigan would suffer a severe injury in his second NHL game, April 3rd against the Colorado Avalanche, that would end his season with the Thrashers, and pose difficulty heading into his second year and first full professional season. “In my second game I tore two tendons in my hamstring, and they had to be surgically repaired. This injury really did make it difficult to start my professional hockey career. I couldn’t train properly as I had to rehab throughout the summer. So I went into training camp (for the 2002-03 season) already a few steps behind everyone else to start my first full NHL season”.

The injury challenges that hindered his training camp with the Thrashers led to Hartigan initially being assigned to Atlanta’s AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves; a veteran laden team with numerous players Mark’s senior, including longtime NHLers Rob Brown, Steve Maltais, and Dallas Eakins. “When I came into the league I wasn’t your prototypical rookie, as I was a little bit older. And to be honest, the only one I knew out of those older players was Rob Brown. When coming into an older team like that, it’s always a bit more difficult to find your spot and role on a team but after a couple of months I fell in nicely into a top-six forward role on the team, which made for a successful season”. Hartigan would finish fifth overall for Wolves’ team scoring with 15-goals and 31-assists in 55-games, plus a goal and a pair of helpers in 9-playoff games.

That same 2002-03 season, Hartigan would get into the lineup for 23-games with the parent club Thrashers which further proved that he was an NHL caliber player. However, a tumultuous relationship with a newly hired Atlanta coach posed difficulties for Mark to earn a permanent NHL roster spot. Original Thrashers head coach Curt Fraser was fired by Atlanta during the early portion of the season, and after a brief time of Don Waddell serving as the team’s interim, the Thrashers named Bob Hartley, a former Stanley Cup winning coach with the Avalanche, as their new man at the helm. “Unfortunately for me Atlanta hired Hartley. He made it abundantly clear he did not want me on his team because I had played college hockey instead of major junior, and he was looking to make an example out of me any time that the opportunity presented itself”.

And while the hiring of Hartley would signify the beginning of the end for Hartigan’s time in Atlanta, he would still have a shining moment to call his own that same year when he would score his first NHL goal during a December 1st showdown with the Washington Capitals; a 5-4 Thrashers win and the goal coming against Capitals’ goaltending great, Olaf Kolzig. Hartigan recalls, “It was a long and trying road getting up to the game when I scored my first goal. I had been snakebitten coming into the season with the ability to not score any goals up to that point, even in the AHL. If you watch the video of my first goal, you will see my extreme excitement of not only scoring my first NHL goal but of also getting that monkey off of my back. It was a tremendous feeling”. I am fortunate enough to have seen the video of Mark Hartigan’s first NHL goal and he is exactly right; he is grinning from ear to ear and you can see a look of sheer levity and joy.

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Mark Hartigan would have two solid seasons with Dynamo Riga in the KHL; a unique opportunity to play and live in Latvia (Photo credit: Agris Krusts).

Recognizing that the relationship with Hartley would not be improving and that he would be Atlanta’s coach for the long haul, Mark Hartigan looked elsewhere to continue his NHL career. He would find a place for himself with another relatively new NHL franchise, the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was with Columbus that I would first become familiarized with Hartigan’s play. Signing with the Blue Jackets in July of 2003 Hartigan recalls about the decision, “it was a good opportunity for me and it gave me a chance to prove myself with the organization like many players. After leaving Atlanta I felt that I was on a downhill slide out of the NHL, especially after my run-ins with Bob Hartley and how I was his example boy. I was unsure of how the league looked at me and my skills”.

Hartigan would spend four years with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ organization splitting time between the team and becoming one of the top players in the history of their AHL affiliate at the time, the Syracuse Crunch. He would lead the Crunch in goals for the 2004-05 season, and then would lead them in goals and points the following year. In fact, the 2005-06 season with the Crunch would be particularly noteworthy because not only did Hartigan score 34-goals and 75-points, but he did so in a mere 49-games. Such a solid performance that year was enough to vault him into 33-games with the Blue Jackets that same season.

Putting into perspective his time with Columbus and Syracuse, Hartigan tells me, “I had a great career in Syracuse. I believe that I still hold their team record for most career goals as a Crunch player. It would have been nice to have been a mainstay in Columbus but they had a lot of pressure to win, so young depth players such as myself were not high on their priority list. They believed that they needed young drafted superstars and highly touted free agents to get them into the playoffs, which does make sense but unfortunately it didn’t work. They got stuck with a few big contracts of players who were underperforming, which made it fairly frustrating for a bunch of us in the minors watching what was happening”.

Piggybacking off of what Hartigan says, the Blue Jackets did bolster their lineup those years by having the likes of a young pure goal scorer in Rick Nash, a shifty, though oftentimes criticized, Nikolai Zherdev, and perhaps an underrated netminder in Marc Denis. However, they hindered themselves by signing or trading for beleaguered veterans like Sergei Fedorov (as great a player as he truly was), Andrew Cassels, Jan Hrdina and Adam Foote, who were all once highly coveted players but by the time they were brought to Columbus were well past their prime. “This is fairly common with many organizations”, he says. “Unfortunately in the world of business, players’ contracts dictate whether you are on the big team or the affiliate team, rather than the decision being made by how the player is playing”.

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It would be with the Columbus Blue Jackets that Mark Hartigan would spend the majority of his NHL career (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

In January 2007, Hartigan and teammate Joe Motzko (along with a fourth round draft selection) would be shipped from Columbus to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Zenon Konopka, Curtis Glencross and a seventh round pick. Finishing his time with the Blue Jackets, Hartigan had appeared in 48-games with the team and registered 11-goals and 8-assists for 19-points. Thinking back on his time, he says “My best memory of playing with the Columbus Blue Jackets was when I got called up for the last 15 or so games of the year (2005-06) and I ended up scoring 9-goals in 10-games along with a few assists to end the season. But especially in Syracuse, I truly enjoyed the fans and my relationship with the Syracuse community”.

The Anaheim Ducks of ’06-’07 would become Stanley Cup champions for the first time in the franchise’s history. Having been traded to the team that year, Mark Hartigan got to be part of that experience even though his time with the Ducks was relatively brief. And while it is in his nature to have wanted to have been a larger cog in the team becoming  champions, winning the Cup would be extremely special to Mark on a very personal level. Spending most of his time with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate Portland Pirates, in which he would average a point per game (25-points in 25-games), Hartigan would appear in 6-regular season games for the Ducks plus one more during their fateful playoff run to the Cup.

“Getting traded to Anaheim was great as it was a fresh start for myself. I did request a trade with Columbus approximately a month and a half before I got traded. My reasoning was that I felt that there was nothing else I had left to prove with their organization if they were not going to have me with the Blue Jackets. I believed that I had proved myself over and over again in Syracuse. From the time that I arrived in the Anaheim organization up to my day with the Stanley Cup in August, I had many life-changing events occur. First off, during the second round of the playoffs (late-April/early-May) against the Vancouver Canucks my mom passed away from brain cancer, then in June we won the Stanley Cup, and in July I had my first child. The ring and the experience was great but of course it is a little bittersweet. Like all hockey players that are competitive, I would have liked to have had a bigger role in winning the Cup. It was definitely a rollercoaster ride to say the least”. I cannot even imagine the series of emotions that Hartigan experienced in such a short period of time. Highs and lows, and then highs again. It is perhaps too much to ask from one person in a small span like that, but Hartigan was able to come out on top.

That same summer, as if the aforementioned items were not enough, Hartigan signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings in July. Rattle off some of the names from that Red Wings roster. Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg. Kris Draper. Dominik Hasek. Nicklas Lidstrom. Tomas Holmstrom. Kirk Maltby. Chris Chelios. Darren McCarty. Many of them Hall of Famers. And except for Zetterberg, all of them perennial Stanley Cup champions. An opportunity of a lifetime to join a team that encapsulated so much talent and history. Hartigan explains the experience, “I was very excited going into that year with the Red Wings. They were an ‘Original Six’ team, which is very cool. I was going to a team with lots of veterans and veteran experience, so it was very easy for me to fit in both in the American League and the NHL”.

Scoring 3-goals and an assist in 23-games with the Red Wings that year, Hartigan would have another incredibly strong season in the AHL and their minor league affiliate the Grand Rapids Griffins. Even though he played in only 48-games for the Griffins, he still finished fourth overall in team scoring with 42-points (23-goals, 19-assists). “I never questioned my ability at that point in my career. I knew that I was a good player, but I also knew there were things that I needed to work on. You can always improve. I really liked the Detroit organization as they made it clear what everybody’s role was and what was expected of everyone. They gave you the truth, and if it did not work for that player then you were not a good fit for the team. It was always about the team. I learned a lot that year, especially how to be a true professional in all aspects of life”.

The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were the top team in the NHL that season and finished the year with 115-points. And garnered with the plethora of players who were previously mentioned, the Red Wings were well on their way to earning another Stanley Cup title. And for Mark Hartigan, who would play in 4-playoff games with the team and record an assist, it would be a second Cup ring in back-to-back years. And while I know that he still would have liked a larger role in this second run too, both rings are forever his and are something to be admired and cherished.

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Raising the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings; his second Cup championship (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

The championship season with Detroit would be Hartigan’s final year in the NHL. He would opt to play in a far different atmosphere after that, albeit with still an elite brand of hockey. July would continue to be a month of change for Mark, as he signed with Riga Dynamo of the KHL; a team housed in the capital city of Latvia. Former Columbus and Syracuse teammates Duvie Westcott and Martin Prusek also played for Riga. An exciting opportunity in a new and beautiful country! Hartigan explains how the decision to jump to the KHL came about: “After my year in Detroit, I knew that if I was not a full-time NHL player by that point, there was no sense sticking around any longer. I would be lying if I said it was not for the opportunity to be able to make more money playing hockey. You get to a certain point in your hockey career knowing you may only have a few years left, and then the reality of having to get a real job or start a new career is quite frightening. So having the option to make more money, to try and set the family up as best as I could financially, and still play really good hockey – it was a no-brainer; my family and I decided to sign in the KHL. It was also very exciting thinking of being able to play in a different country that I had never been to before”.

Even more so, after testing his skill in the NCAA, AHL and NHL, it was an opportunity to try out his talents in another elite league; one he knew about, but had not previously had the opportunity to experience. “I had always heard about the Russian Super League and how skilled it was, so it was intriguing and exciting to think of the possibilities of playing in that league, which of course is now the KHL. I believe that the biggest difference between the KHL game and the North American game is the coaching styles and their expectations of each individual player. Of course, the ice size is a lot bigger in the KHL too, and that makes it quite a bit different. I am not saying that it is not a job over here in North America, but over there they make sure you feel like it is a job all year long”.

Two separate seasons in Riga saw Hartigan score 36-goals, 25-assists, and 61-points in 100-games, while a season between the two was spent with CSKA Moscow in which he tallied 8-goals and 14-assists for 22-points in 48-games. “I have to say that my time in Riga, Latvia was really great. It’s a beautiful city and country. Truly passionate fans too”. I am particularly impressed with Hartigan’s first season with Riga. He finished third overall in team scoring with 37-points in 55-games, and was second overall in goals for Riga with 22. But on top of that, Hartigan put up a whopping 115-penalty minutes; the highest season-long penalty minute total of his career in a relatively small amount of games, and for a player who was always very productive offensively. Thinking of all of his totals that season, Hartigan certainly made his mark in the KHL too.

There would be one more season of professional hockey for Mark Hartigan’s career. The 2011-12 season he would split between playing in Switzerland with the top Swiss-A league and in Sweden with the Swedish Elite League; again, both highly respected and challenging leagues. Even though Mark was able to produce in both leagues, he already knew that it would be his final year of pro hockey.

“My last year I signed in Rapperswil, Switzerland initially. The story behind it is fairly simple. About the third or fourth game into the season I had hurt my knee which put me out 4-5 weeks. The team was able to bring in another foreign player to take my spot while I was out”, Hartigan says. Most European leagues have stipulations as to how many foreign players are allowed on their roster, while most of the team is comprised of players native to that particular country. “When I came back from injury I played approximately 10-games but could never really find my game, which was really frustrating”.

Hartigan then went and played with Linköping in Sweden. “The opportunity presented itself to be able to sign a new contract with Linköping in the Swedish Elite League, so I took the opportunity of a fresh start. Transferring to Sweden seemed best for myself and for the Swiss team at that point too. It was a good mutual agreement. I pretty much knew that was going to by my last year halfway through that season, as hockey as that point was not fun for me”.

Those moments in life where something that should be enjoyable but for some reason ceases to be, at least in the way that it once was before. Like Hartigan, people come to the realization that perhaps it is time to move onto the next chapter in their lives when it is hard to get up for something that had been a pleasure previously. “I was always a guy that loved being on the ice; first one to the rink and the last one to leave. That year I found myself being the last one to the rink in the morning, and then the first one to leave. I was mentally and physically worn out. It actually wasn’t until last winter (2015-16) that I started watching and enjoying hockey again. I wanted nothing to do with it for a few years”. In the split season, Hartigan played 15-games with Rapperswil and 23-games with Linköping tallying 13-points between the two leagues.

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Mark Hartigan’s two Stanley Cup rings; 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks and 2008 with the Detroit Red Wings (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

Calling it a career on hockey, Hartigan has since moved onto a new career in real estate and has found some great success in that too. Mark also still stays involved with hockey for younger ones as well. “I now live in Fort McMurray, Alberta where my older brother and sister live, and where I grew up part-time as my dad lived there while my mom lived in Fort St. John. My brother is the broker/owner for Coldwell Banker Fort McMurray. I got my real estate license and joined his office. It was a good fit for me and my family. My first year in real estate I was named Coldwell Banker “Rookie of the Year” for all of Canada. I occasionally go out and run practices for the Fort McMurray Junior-A Oil Barons, and I also coach my daughter’s novice hockey team (7-8 year olds).

I like to see how Mark has maintained his hockey roots still, and at the same time he has entered into a new venture where, like his hockey career, he has continued to perform at a high level and be recognized for his talents. Learning this about him makes me feel good to see his successes. “Friendships, professionalism, experience, World Travel, and opportunities” – that is what he tells me hockey has given him. It is nice to see how has capitalized upon all of these personal gains in his life. It is certainly something to be proud of.

When I recall Mark Hartigan’s time with the Syracuse Crunch, I specifically recall his net presence. I felt he was always very solid around the opposing team’s net, and was able to get a quick shot away or be in the perfect position for a scoring chance recognizing how a play was about to develop. After all, he put the puck into the back of the net 224-times during his professional career. A player also does not earn back-to-back Stanley Cup rings by happenstance. There was a reason that Anaheim and Detroit sought Mark’s services for their respective Cup runs. An intangible or two that perhaps coaches in Atlanta just could not see. Regardless, they wanted him on their team. And as I said in the beginning, if I ran a hockey club, I would want Mark Hartigan on my team as well. He would bring professionalism and experience that are uniquely his own.

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The Hartigan family (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

“Levity with a killer instinct” ~Anya Battaglino, Connecticut Whale defender

It’s the morning of the Connecticut Whale’s NWHL home opener and I am speaking with defender Anya Battaglino. The irony being that this evening Battaglino’s Whale will be squaring off against the Buffalo Beauts, and while she is on one end of the phone line in Connecticut, I am on the other end here in Buffalo. Though hearing her talk, indulging in every word of her answers to my questions, I sincerely wish that I were in Connecticut too with the opportunity to see her play tonight.

I have never attributed the phrase “heart of a lion” to anyone before, but I will do so in the case of Anya Battaglino. She embodies it completely, and when you listen to her speak about hockey, about her teammates, about the young kids who marvel at she and her fellow NWHL players out on the ice, you would be willing to enlist and go to battle alongside of her wherever she may lead the charge. And in this day, she is presently helping to lead the charge for the NWHL and growing the women’s professional game. Battaglino certainly has the experience and the wherewithal to do so too.

“I probably started playing hockey around the age of three”, Battaglino recalls. “My brother is four years older, and he started playing around the age of seven”. In some pesky but lovable sibling rivalry, Battaglino had to follow in her brother’s footsteps. “He started playing, and I could not handle not doing something that my brother was doing. I was like, ‘Mom, that’s what I want to do!’ I was tugging at her shirt every time we were at the rink. ‘That’s what I want to do! That’s what I want to do!’. My brother wore number-8, and I was such a little jerk”, and she laughs, “that I had to wear number-16 because I had to be two-times better. I had been a ballerina, I was doing all of the things that little girls do. So what really motivated me to start playing hockey was my older brother. Once my brother started to play, I wanted to play too. I wanted to put myself in his world. I really looked up to my brother, so I started to play because of him”.

A young lady hailing from Massachusetts, becoming utterly enthralled with the game at that early of an age, one would be inclined to think that Anya Battaglino is naturally a Boston Bruins fan. And while she is in fact, Battaglino is quick to clarify that it isn’t entirely across the board. “I am a diehard Bruins fan. But, I am also a diehard Kings fan”, she says. “You’ll find me on either side of a black jersey; whether it is black, silver and white, or black and gold”. Though she loves both the Boston and Los Angeles based NHL franchises, Battaglino also finds herself cheering for the teams of NHL players who played for her alma mater, Boston University. “Especially now that I have played at BU and I have met so many guys who have gone on to play in ‘the Show’. My buddy Brian Strait played for the New York Islanders, so then I was like, ‘okay, I like the Islanders’. But now he plays for the Winnipeg Jets, so I ended up saying, ‘okay, I like the Jets’. But any given day that the Bruins or Kings are on the ice, I am losing my mind over them!”.

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One of the most endearing players in the NWHL, the Connecticut Whale’s Anya Battaglino (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

Having to narrow it down to a single NHL player though, Battaglino informs me that her favorite player in the game today is Los Angeles’ most elite player. “Anze Kopitar is my favorite hockey player”. The two-time Stanley Cup champion for the Kings and the current reigning winner of both the Lady Byng and Selke trophies has even brought about a nickname for Battaglino. “Everyone calls me ‘Anze’, which is actually a nickname coined for me by Kaleigh Fratkin (current New York Riveter, former teammate at Boston University, with the CWHL’s Boston Blades, and the Connecticut Whale). Since I was in college, everyone has taken to calling me ‘Kopitar’ or ‘Anze’ or even ‘Anz’, all because I am a big Kopitar fan”.

Anze Kopitar may be her current favorite hockey player but growing up as a kid in Waltham, Massachusetts, an encounter with a U.S. Olympian brought about major inspiration for the young Anya. “My hockey idol as a young kid was Courtney Kennedy”, she says. “Courtney was on the national team at the time, and they happened to play a game at BU. To this day, I remember it like it was yesterday. We were going through an autograph line, and all of the players were standing up or sitting in chairs signing autographs. Courtney Kennedy took a knee, she put her face right at my level and she said, ‘You can do this if you want to. You know that, right?’. I had to have been about 9-years old, and everyday since that time when I have gotten onto the ice to play hockey, I’ve just thought of Courtney Kennedy saying to me, ‘You can do this someday too'”. Kennedy earned both silver and bronze Olympic medals at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics respectively, as well as a gold medal at the 2005 World Championships.

Beginning in eighth grade Battaglino played five years for Waltham High School and helped her school qualify for the state tournament for four straight years from 2007 until 2010. Strong success at the high school level developed into Battaglino accepting an opportunity to play in one of the most elite collegiate hockey programs, both for women and for men, in all of North America, the Boston University Terriers. “This is going to sound lame, but I loved the idea of playing for a team whose colors were red and white. My high school team was red and white. I was partially obsessed with that, so I will admit that at first it was a colors thing. My biological father started working at BU when I was a kid, and at the time there was a team called the Junior Terriors, and I ended up playing for them. So in my life, I was surrounded by BU. Their program at the time was still fairly new. They actually only started their women’s program five years before I started going to school there. I had actually always dreamed of playing BU Men’s ice hockey. I did not even think of there being a women’s hockey program there when I was a kid. I remember thinking, ‘I want to play in Walter Brown (arena; current home of the BU Women’s Terriers, and former home of the Men’s team as well), and I want to play on the Men’s team because there was no women’s team at the time”.

As fate would have it though, BU assembled a women’s hockey team coinciding with the time that Battaglino was finishing high school and looking to attend college with the hopes of continuing her hockey career. “It all worked out perfectly. They started up a team. They were a good team off the bat, and they were playing right out of Walter Brown. It was my dream come true. I probably could have played somewhere else, or played more ice time at a different school, but I could never even imagine not wearing the red and white and not representing Boston University; I couldn’t even fathom that. For me, BU was a natural choice. And everything in my life was Terriers”. During her two years as a Terrier, Anya Battaglino suited up for 18-regular season games for BU, plus 14 more in the Hockey East playoffs.

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A stalwart defender for the Whale, Battaglino (#4) never second guesses putting it all on the line to protect her zone (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

When asked about special moments or memories during her time as a Terrier, Battaglino is able to pinpoint one moment in particular, though it might not be what one would guess. “It’s so funny because I didn’t even play in the game, but during my freshman year we made it to the National Championship. The whole team before every single game had this routine where we would put music on. Jenelle Kohanchuk would get up and she would dance. And then the whole team would go quiet. I love to dance, and everyone would be quiet, and they’d turn on ‘The Dougie’. I would get up and dance for the whole team”, Battaglino remembers with great lightheartedness. “It was that moment where you knew that the game was so important, and we were all laughing, and I was dancing around like a silly person. It was that camaraderie and that team that just felt right to me”.

Having fun and joining in an amusing pregame tradition as a team extended beyond any specific moments on the ice. When Battaglino thinks back on her time at BU, it was the togetherness that it was really all about. “I think it’s not about being on the ice. It’s not about the shifts, or about the goals, or anything like that. It just came down to the concept of, ‘At what moment did I feel that I was so connected to the team that I would die if I didn’t have that?'”. And in the locker before the biggest possible game, she found that moment as a BU Terrier. Her “favorite” moment while being at BU, as she tells me.

I mentioned Battaglino having the heart of a lion. One could also apply phrases or terms such as “reckless abandonment”, “Tasmanian devil”, or “devil-may-care” when she competes on the ice as a defender. In fact, Battaglino is probably all of that rolled into one. Describing her own best attributes when she defends, Battaglino says, “I have a killer protective instinct. In anything. When it comes to my friends, my family and my hockey. I am not going to be the defenseman that gets a lot of points or does crazy, offensive things. I am such a quiet, stay-at-home defender that I will protect my D-zone with my life”. And she is not kidding. Elaborating more, “Whether that is taking a slap-shot off the throat, or some other crazy situation I have gotten myself in. I will not rest until I have done everything that I could to protect my goalie. I think that’s what makes me a strong defender. When I am on the ice my team knows that I am not going to go end-to-end and score a goal. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s going to be safe”.

This style of play is what has given Battaglino her longevity and has brought about a professional career for her. “I will constantly work to get better. I won’t stop going  all the way out, and I won’t let anything by me without given the hardest fight that I have fought in my life”. In my estimations, Battaglino fits that persona of the player whom you would love to have on your team, but that you absolutely hate playing against. “I make it hard for other players. I definitely make it hard. I am proud that I know what my team needs of me, and I can capitalize on that when I am on the ice”.

This tenacity of Battaglino’s brought about the opportunity to play the highest level of women’s hockey in Canada when she joined the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). “I played two years at BU, but then I stepped away to see where I fit in with hockey. That was a very hard thing for me. I went through this moment of trying to determine what I should do now, and what it is that I want for me. Thankfully for me I was blessed to play with the highest caliber of players. With the Blades, I was on a team that was essentially the U.S. National team”. Throughout their time, the Boston Blades have held such elite U.S. players like Meghan Duggan, Brianna Decker, Hilary Knight, Kelli Stack, Jenny Potter, and Gigi Marvin; some of whom have gone onto play in the NWHL with Battaglino. “After one year of playing with the Blades it made me fall back in love with hockey. It made me work every single day to get better. But not because someone else told me to. I made the decision everyday to wake up and go play hockey, and it made me love the sport again”.

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Anya Battaglino is a player who ceaselessly works to improve her craft (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

The success that Battaglino found with the Blades culminated in the Clarkson Cup championship of the CWHL with the team during the 2012-13 season. “I was playing the best quality hockey that I had ever played in my life. I found myself getting better every single day, and I was making the conscious choice to go out on the ice and enjoy myself”. Having left BU and jumped to the CWHL was in Battaglino’s own estimations a “tough transition” and an “odd story” as she puts it. “When I tell people about my hockey career, they are surprised that I didn’t play all four years at BU. But this was the path that ended up leading me to success. Winning the Clarkson Cup, my name is on the Cup and forever in the Hockey Hall of Fame”. Things work out the way that they are supposed to, and for Battaglino that is no different. She says, “I came to the realization that, am I going to be on the national team? No. But, am I going to play this sport because I love it and I think it does a lot of good for the world; for people, and for kids, and for confidence levels? Yes, I will. I really believe in hockey as vehicle to being a better person and I could not give that up”.

Despite the success that Battaglino found with the Blades, there were moments of doubt that she felt about her own game. It would take some clarity brought to her by her Blades’ teammates that made Anya realize that she had grown immensely as a player and as a person. “I could say that winning the Clarkson Cup was the pinnacle of my time in the CWHL, and although that was special, I will still say that my strongest memory there was more along the lines with what I shared when I felt a part of the team at BU. We were at practice, and I was all frustrated. I felt that I had been playing terrible and I just could not get my legs under me that day. But then Caitlin Cahow and Kacey Bellamy came up to me and said, ‘An, you have gotten so much better. We can’t even fathom how hard you work and why you do it’. I had two of arguably the best defenders in the U.S. at the time coming up to me and giving me the affirmation that I was ‘killing it’, so to speak. Moments like that, and being able to friend people like Kelli Stack, Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight. It was people like that who I really looked up to, and it felt like that team was there to play hockey together. Camaraderie was high, and they were recognizing me for my hard work as a practice player on the team and helping to make them better too”. Battaglino appeared in 21-games with the Blades during her time in the CWHL.

Playing women’s hockey at the most elite level, an even greater opportunity was just around the corner for Battaglino and many of the best players in the game. A new professional league that offered paid contracts to play the game that they love. After the 2013-14 season in the CWHL, Battaglino would become one of the pioneer players of the NWHL during the inaugural 2015-2016 campaign. “I started to get that realization that, ‘Okay, you have to start a career at some point. You’ve got to do something’. Many times when I have had to make a major decision in my life, it is me trying to figure where does hockey fit. Kaleigh Fratkin said to me, ‘An, there is going to be a league. It’s going to start up, and we’re going to get paid for it. What are you thinking?’. And I told her, “You know what, Kal? I’ll throw my hat in the ring. Why not, right?'”, Battaglino remembers. I have often heard that the best thing you can do is the right thing, the second best thing you can do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is do nothing at all. Battaglino, like many of these talented women, followed through on that thought and gave this new league a go.

“I ended up getting my car. I kissed my mom. Packed my car up. Took a job in Connecticut. Why? I don’t know. But I felt like it. And I got the offer from the Whale to be a practice player, and start building on the success that I had started having in hockey. I turned my back on some opportunities that I had in Boston in terms of jobs and careers. But I think at the end of the day I just wanted to give it one last hurrah, and the NWHL gave me the capability to be an adult with a job and a career, but also start to try and look at what the picture was, as to whether I could try to fit hockey in”. During her first season in the NWHL with the Whale, Battaglino appeared in 8-regular season games plus one more in the playoffs. She has also become one of the league’s most beloved players and it is easy to see why when considering her warm personality and her never-say-die attitude on the ice. “A lot of it was just taking a risk on myself, and taking a risk on a new idea”.

That being said, new ideas typically do not come without trials and tribulations. It takes time for fledgling concepts to develop, and they are often built upon the backs and the hardships of those brave enough to venture forth and believe in these ideals. For Battaglino and the players of the NWHL this is not really different, especially considering the current status of the league in which players unexpectedly were told to take very sizable cuts in their pay. “It has been a whirlwind, especially lately. But, it has been one of the best decisions that I have made in my entire life. It takes a lot of commitment. Ashley Johnston and I, both with full-time jobs and hardly any time to connect with one another, end up talking all night long on conference calls. Discussing what are we doing, how do we fix it, and how do we provide the support to the league that they need. My passion takes me so far in this world that I cannot imagine letting hockey fail. Especially when we as people are so wildly passionate about it, and not because it is our fulltime career, but because we just love it”.

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A sincere appreciation of her loved ones is one characteristic of Battaglino that makes her so admirable (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

Battaglino thinks of the younger generation of hockey players especially. And she is careful to point out not just the little girls but also little boys too that love the game. These youngsters are who she wants the NWHL to be a success for. “I see the look on the little kids’ faces when they meet me, and I remember the look on my face meeting Courtney Kennedy. If I can inspire one person to chase their dreams as hard as I have, then I have done my job. I think the NWHL has given me a great portal to say, ‘Hey, these are things that I believe in. This is whom I want to instill my thoughts and messages down to; the people who can take my job and do it better. And really how can I continue to advocate from the inside out. The league is definitely a great platform for that”. I give Battaglino all the credit in the world for this undertaking, and I tell her so. It is obvious when you look around the arena at the young fans attending the games. It makes a difference. Hats off to Anya, and those doing this with her.

So where does the NWHL go from here, and what does Battaglino want for the future of this league? She tells me. “For the next generation, I honestly hope that they will have that buy-in from the NHL. I love the feeling of pioneering. But I will be honest with you – it is hard, and it is trying. There are times that it beats you up and breaks you down, and you just want to cry and you just want to quit. But then there are times when it is really a rewarding feeling. I would want the next generation to just feel the levity of being able to sustain themselves, and have the sense of pride and passion that they’re playing for something that doesn’t have to feel so hard. I want the next generation to be recognized as pro hockey players and looked up to. ‘Hey, you’re on the Connecticut Whale – I know who you are!’. Or to be driving down the highway and seeing a billboard, or watching TV and catching replays of their NWHL game on ESPN or the NHL Network. Those are the little things that I want the next generation to have as validation and acceptance. I think mass media often forgets that there is a pro women’s hockey league, and that any given Sunday you can see the best players in the world. Players like Sam Faber. She is a hockey legend! How does a player like her not have a personal sponsor? I don’t want players of the next generation to worry about things like that”.

“As a pioneer you can get a lot of flack, and a lot of hate. You get a lot of ‘what are you wasting your time for?’. Until someone sees the dream, and suddenly says – ‘let me stand behind you instead of against you’. I want as many people as possible who are willing to stand behind me. To stand behind pioneers like Ashley Johnston. And then to say, ‘Wow! Those women really had it right! We were a bit remiss to ever discredit them'”. Battaglino is dead on with this statement. Dead on. The NWHL features the best women’s hockey players in the world. As a hockey community, to not give these players their due props is a travesty in many ways.

“Little girls and little boys in the stands. It’s both. When we go through the autograph line, I am pretty sure it is 50-50. When I look through the stands and I see a little kid that just has that plastered smile on their face, and who at the end of the game comes up to you and says, ‘I wear number-4 too!’. Last year, I had the kids who came through the autograph line sign me an autograph. So I have a little book, and I am going to do the same thing this year at all of our home games too, because I want them to know what it feels like for someone to want their autograph. That is the best feeling in the world. If I could sum up what it means to me to see them in the stands in one word it would just be, ‘overwhelmed'”. It overwhelms my heart to know their little, tiny faces are getting wider and that their horizons are being expanded by knowing that anything is possible. If you dream it, you can achieve it. If you can see it, you can do it. I want to give them a bigger picture so that they can see more things”. Could anybody have said it any better, folks? I mean, this is what hockey is about!

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Anya Battaglino is one of the biggest advocates for growing the game of hockey for the next generation (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

Battaglino considers what she has gained from hockey. Since the tender age of three until today, it has brought an abundance of key values and lessons into her life. What can she pinpoint it down to though? “I think you could give it a couple answers. Does it make me a better employee, or a harder worker, or does it give me time management skills? Yes. Can it make me a better person in the workplace? Absolutely. Did it make me more understanding? Yes. Did it make me better equipped to handle situations that I wasn’t previously prepared for? Absolutely. But I think the biggest thing in playing hockey that it did for me was give me the self-confidence to be unapologetically myself. Standing up to bullies who made fun of me for playing hockey, or made fun of me for because I was a girl who was playing a boys’ sport. It gave me the confidence to come out and tell my teammates, that I lived this lifestyle that was so regularly frowned upon, and that even if it wasn’t understood that they loved me anyway. At the end of the day it is the capability that I can show up somewhere, be myself, and not feel that I have to apologize for it. Hockey gave me the capability of feeling that I could be my own type of person”.

What can one say to all of that? Anya Battaglino is most assuredly herself, and there could never be any need to apologize for that. Hell, I am better because I now know her. I have already assured her that I for one will stand behind her. I want the NWHL to be a success for many years to come. I want people to recognize how special these “pioneer” hockey players truly are. I know a fair amount of people in the hockey community too. I would ask that they also align themselves and stand behind this league and these players. We all can take an extra sip of courage, believe in a new idea, rally around it and foster it to carry on. Be supporters of the NWHL, and what I see as the game of hockey in arguably its purest sense. And maybe learn to be better people from someone like Anya Battaglino. Unapologetically. I for one cannot thank you enough, Anya.

“Good athletes; good people” ~Todd Simon, former Buffalo Sabres forward

I clearly remember him scoring his first NHL goal. In fact, I am 99-percent sure that I still have a copy of it from back when we used to “tape” hockey games onto VHS. The Buffalo Sabres were in the opening round of the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs, squaring off against the New Jersey Devils. The Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey’s Meadowlands housed Game One, and it would not take long for Sabres’ rookie Todd Simon to open the scoring in the series.

“It was late in the first period, and I think we had a 4-on-3 power play. I remember Coach (John) Muckler putting me out on the ice, and telling me that if I win the faceoff, go immediately to the front of the Devils’ net”. It behooved Simon to follow the instructions of his five-time Stanley Cup champion coach. “Dale Hawerchuk got the puck back at the point, and he flung a wrist shot towards the net. I deflected the shot past Martin Brodeur, but ended up getting smoked by Scott Stevens”, Simon laughs. “So I didn’t actually get to see the goal; just my teammates celebrating and swarming me after”.

The 1994 series between the Sabres and Devils would be a rough and tumble one, and Todd Simon would end up being involved in multiple scrums on the ice involving New Jersey’s fabled “Crash Line” of Bobby Holik, Mike Peluso and Randy McKay. And while Simon and the Sabres would take them the distance of seven games, the Devils would clinch the series on Meadowlands’ ice in Game Seven. The opening goal of the series scored by Simon would be the lone NHL goal of his career. But – it would be one of many that he would score as a professional hockey player.

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Todd Simon would play 15-regular season games with the Buffalo Sabres plus 5 more in the playoffs (Photo provided courtesy of Todd Simon).

Speaking to Todd Simon the evening before the first of December, I tell him that what I find very noteworthy about his pro career was that he produced offensively at every level, and in multiple countries across five professional leagues. If you add up the numbers of his entire pro career, Simon scored 1,079-points in only 966-regular season games. But where it all started for him was as a 9-year old in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “I began playing organized hockey with the Toronto Young Nats in Triple-A. Historically, a lot of great players came out of that program”. Including “The Great One” himself Wayne Gretzky, as well as Hall of Famers Eric Lindros, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy. “I stayed on there until I played Midget at 16 or 17, and then I was eventually drafted into the OHL (Ontario Hockey League)”.

Growing up in Toronto, Todd Simon was naturally a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. “I used to love watching all the Leafs game on TV growing up, and then of course going to the games at Maple Leaf Gardens. As a kid in the 70s I idolized Darryl Sittler. And then of course when the Edmonton Oilers came on board in the 1980s my hockey hero was Wayne Gretzky”. Eventually during Simon’s pro career things would come full circle and he would have the opportunity to face off against his idol Gretzky. Though upon being drafted into the OHL he was not as familiar with his new hockey club.

Wrapping up his time in Midget with the Don Mills Flyers, Simon was drafted 73rd overall in the 1989 Ontario Hockey League draft by the Niagara Falls Thunder. “I really didn’t know much about the team I was going to at the time. But it was my dream to get drafted into the OHL and to be able to continue my hockey career”. An interesting side note to Simon’s being drafted in the 1989 OHL draft is that he was selected four rounds ahead of future longtime NHLer Bill Guerin, one of the Devils’ players whom he became accustomed to facing during his playoff run with the Sabres in 1994.

In what would become his forte for many years of hockey to come, Todd Simon absolutely exploded as a scorer during his two full seasons in junior with the Thunder. Playing in all but one regular season game for the Thunder between the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons, Simon would put up numbers of 125 (51-goals, 74-assists) and 146 (53-goals, 93-assists) point totals. Those numbers easily placed him in the top ten in the OHL for goals, assists and points during those two years. Simon led the entire OHL in points during his final season of major junior, thus capturing the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy as the league’s top scorer that season. And while Niagara Falls would lose in the semifinals during the ’91-’92 playoffs, Todd would average a goal per game during the playoffs for the Thunder; 17-goals in 17-games along with a whopping 24-assists to give him 41-points. “Having success for 2-years in major junior was dream come true”, Simon says. “I had two good seasons, and it was more opportunity to play the game that I love”.

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Todd Simon found a role with the 1993-94 Buffalo Sabres particularly during an opening round playoff matchup against the New Jersey Devils (Photo provided courtesy of Nathaniel Oliver’s personal hockey memorabilia collection).

Simon’s accolades would lead towards another dream coming true when he was selected by the Buffalo Sabres during the 1992 NHL entry draft. It is shocking to me that given the numbers that Todd Simon produced in major junior that he was not taken as a higher selection, as Buffalo chose him in the 9th-round of the draft and the 203rd player overall. Regardless of where he was slotted, he had made it to the NHL. “It was a very special moment for myself and for my family. With Buffalo being so close to Toronto and to Niagara Falls, I knew a lot about their organization. Being so close to home, family could come and watch me play. It was great!”, Simon recalls.

Upon being selected by the Sabres, Simon would receive a 3-year entry level contract and he was assigned to Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate the Rochester Americans. With the Amerks, Simon’s scoring prowess continued even though it was his first season playing professionally and he was all of 20-years old. With 27-goals and 66-assists, Todd would finish second overall in scoring for the Amerks behind only Peter Ciavaglia and ahead of AHL legend Jody Gage. The Amerks firepower amounted to 348-goals as a team during the 1992-93 season, and they would vault themselves into the Calder Cup Finals during Simon’s rookie year. “We were a young team. There were 6 or 7 of us rookies. A few guys came in together from the OHL. We had a good mixture of guys, and definitely getting to play with a legend like Jody Gage was inspirational for younger players like myself. Jody was a great influence for me; just a great veteran who was really good for the young guys on the team. We also had Dan Frawley, and he really taught all of us how to be pros too”.

The fact that Simon would lead the Amerks in scoring with 33-goals and 52-assists in only 55-games during his second year of pro brought about the opportunity for him to make his NHL debut. Late January of 1994, Simon would get a one game call up by Buffalo for a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. “It was a neutral site game against the Lightning in Orlando. I was actually quite nervous. Almost shell-shocked. You look around the locker room and there’s Dale Hawerchuk, Alexander Mogilny, and Dominik Hasek”. Unfortunately for Simon and the Sabres, they would be shutout by Tampa Bay 4-0.

Simon would be sent back down to Rochester until the Sabres brought him back up for the final month of the regular season stemming from a March 12th showdown with the Los Angeles Kings up through an April 14th game against the Washington Capitals. For Simon though, the March 12th affair with the Kings would be yet another dream come true. “It was pretty exciting getting to play in L.A. against Gretzky”, he says. Whether he was invigorated by playing against an idol, Simon was awesome during his game against the Kings. In a 5-3 Buffalo victory, Simon would register his only NHL regular season point by tallying an assist and put four shots on Kings’ goalie Kelly Hrudey.

In total Todd Simon would finish his time in the NHL with 1-assist in 15-regular season games and 1-goal in 5-playoff games. Though his time in the NHL was brief there would be many great years to come. After a third and final season with the Sabres organization in which he once again led the Amerks in scoring with 90-points in 69-games, Simon would make the jump to the International Hockey League (IHL) when he signed on with the Las Vegas Thunder. “My rookie contract with Buffalo was over after 3-years, and I ended up getting a pretty good offer to go play with Las Vegas that I took. We actually had a pretty good team. We had a very solid defense with guys like Greg Hawgood and Ruslan Salei. Curtis Joseph was a holdout for playing with Edmonton so he was our goaltender”.

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Todd Simon during his time with the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder (Photo source: Best Sports Photos).

Despite registering a very solid 26-goals and 48-assists for 74-points in 52-games with the Thunder, Simon would end up being traded to the Detroit Vipers. Though it was a change of scenery for sure, Simon would continue his explosive scoring for the Vipers. “Even though it was definitely a big climate change to go from Las Vegas to Detroit, the Vipers were the best organization in the IHL. My time there would finish with a championship too in 1997”. Continuing his scoring ways with 21-goals and 51-assists – placing him second overall on the Vipers for the 1996-97 season – Simon would be surrounded by some familiar faces and some immense talent. “We had Sergei Samsonov who was 16-years old at the time. We had Jeff Reese in goal. We had a lot of veteran talent too like Brad Shaw, Yvon Corriveau, Stan Drulia, and Jimmy Carson. Guys who were well-established and had spent a lot of time in the NHL”. Simon was also accompanied by former Buffalo and Rochester teammates Wayne Presley and Peter Ciavaglia. This high scoring, veteran laden collection of players culminated into a Turner Cup championship after defeating the Long Beach Ice Dogs 4-games to 2 in the Finals.

Leaving as a champion, Todd Simon would venture forth from Detroit after 1996-97 and move onto his longest stay in the IHL when he signed with the Cincinnati Cyclones. “I loved playing in Cincinnati. It wasn’t really a place that I had been to before, but it was a great team with a great coach (Ron Smith). In Cincinnati it was a lot more laid back compared to Detroit. I played with Gilbert Dionne. We clicked right away, and had a lot of success together”. The younger brother of Hockey Hall of Famer Marcel, Gilbert Dionne was already a Stanley Cup champion, having won it with Montreal in 1993, before he came to the Cyclones. Combined with Simon, the two were a scoring machine together for 3-years in Cincinnati. In 466-games together with the Cyclones, Simon and Dionne combined for 529-points as Cincinnati’s top tandem.

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Todd Simon continued his superb offensive numbers through three seasons with the Cincinnati Cyclones (Photo credit: Saed Hindash)

The IHL began to encounter some struggles in the late-1990s and the league would eventually fold in 2001, quite unfortunately. Recognizing the impending issues with the league, Todd Simon pursued opportunities to play elsewhere and ended up heading overseas to Germany. “I knew that the ‘I’ was having some problems and might fold. I thought it would be good to go overseas to play, as I didn’t feel there was a chance to make it back into the NHL as a 29-year old. And actually a lot of the guys whom I had played with in the IHL ended up going over to play in Germany too around the same time”.

Simon would play in Germany for 7-years, and became most endeared with the city of Wolfsburg where he spent of the majority of his time and the final four years of his time in the country. “Wolfsburg was phenomenal”, Todd recalls. “They had a great soccer club, nice parks, nice schools for my kids. And they had some really great hockey fans too that loved their team. It was a full crowd every night. They’d be singing and waving flags. They really knew their hockey too. You’re heroes to them when you’re winning, but if you’re losing they let you know about it”, he ends with a laugh. All the while, Simon’s scoring prowess never slowed up during his time in Germany; in 339-games he tallied 338-points.

The final season of Todd Simon’s career, 2007-08, would be played in Milan of the Serie A league in Italy; the top ice hockey league in the country. “Wolfsburg had changed a lot. They brought in a new GM, a new coach, and they really wanted to weed out all the import players. I wanted to try something different. Milan was interested, and I ended up taking my family there for a year. It wasn’t the best experience playing there, and after that I called it a career”.

Upon retiring, Todd Simon started his own business with hockey development of young players and began the Todd Simon Hockey program. Simon brings his program to the Niagara Region of Ontario and does a remarkable job in fostering and teaching youngsters. It offers a year-round set of instructions designed to highlight and improve every aspect of a hockey player’s development. Better yet, work with the players is done individually, in small groups and through team instruction, thus reaching out to all types of learning for the kids who partake. Todd does not stop there either. “In addition to Todd Simon Hockey, I also coach two teams – a novice team and an atom team”, he says, “I show the kids how it is important to be good people as well as good athletes”.

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Todd Simon would play his final season of professional hockey in Milan, Italy in the Serie-A league during the 2007-08 season (Photo credit: Carola).

Though the Todd Simon Hockey program is by far an elite means of educating and developing young players through Todd’s own expertise and experience, it does not mean that Todd hasn’t been met with some resistance. Minor hockey in the Niagara Region is somewhat monopolized, and a school like Todd’s is viewed in some circles as “competition”. Todd Simon has received dissuading emails from Niagara hockey representatives stating that he is not sanctioned to be at games or to coach at certain tournaments, as Todd Simon Hockey is not  part of their organization. It is disappointing to see that this would be the case and that the local hockey administration would not be more willing to utilize someone of Todd’s credentials to their advantage. Even more so, it is detrimental to the young athletes who are hindered from capitalizing upon Todd’s talents and knowledge of the game.

But it isn’t as if Todd Simon hasn’t dealt with resistance before. He has actually dealt with it throughout his entire career and has always well-surpassed any challenges. “What I have learned is to never give up and to never listen to everything that you hear. I was never a World Junior, I was never a high draft pick, I was never supposed to make it as a professional hockey player. But I didn’t listen to any of that. I controlled what I could; I used it as motivation. Stick it to those who said that I couldn’t make it”.

Todd scored over 1,000-points professionally. He won championships, was drafted into the NHL and scored a goal. Simon obtained scoring titles, including one of the most coveted in that of the OHL. 16-years as a professional hockey player. And now, he is bettering young kids both as players and as people. Todd Simon most assuredly made it.

If you would like to learn more about Todd Simon Hockey please check out Todd’s website at http://www.toddsimonhockey.com . For those looking to help their young hockey players as the holiday season approaches, please consider signing them up for Todd’s hockey clinic January 2nd, 3rd and 4th of 2017. Registration for the clinic can be found on Todd’s website.