“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.

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