“One of the Boys”: Finding an Equitable Future in Women’s Ice Hockey

Side by side through Collegiate, Professional, and National Women’s Ice Hockey, Haley Skarupa and Dana Trivigno have made huge strides for women and girls across the US together.




With several gold medals from Finland, British Columbia, and Sweden under their belts, it seems like this duo has done it all. And while competing at such a high level has been extremely rewarding for them, they know they deserve more, which is exactly why Haley and Dana, along with hundreds of professional women’s ice hockey players, have joined the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). You’ll soon discover how these remarkable women have helped advocate for the growth of US women’s ice hockey for the next generation of female athletes. It was a pleasure to speak with these inspirational athletes and I hope by the end of this piece, you understand why.


To kick us off, it would be great to hear about your upbringing and the moments in your life that have led you to the place you are today.


Dana: My dad played hockey and he was a big fan of the Rangers, so he wanted to get me into the sport of skating in general. Being a girl, it was either ice hockey or figure skating. I went to a preschool that taught you how to skate and I liked it. I ended up trying out hockey, and then I just kind of went with it from there. I also have a younger brother who plays and he's five years younger than me so I also got to compete against him. But, it was ultimately my dad. He was the biggest proponent of playing hockey.


Haley: I’m originally from Rockville, Maryland, and I started playing hockey because my older brother played. We played roller hockey with our neighbors and his friends since there weren’t that many ice rinks, and when he decided he wanted to play ice hockey, I wanted to follow him there. So, I played for a couple of boys teams until about U12 before switching over to girls hockey. My parents were both hesitant for me wanting to play hockey since I was a girl technically playing a “boys sport” and they didn't know much about the sport, let alone know any girls who played it, so it took a lot of convincing but it was very much so worth it. I don't think anyone has any regrets with the decision to allow me to play.

Recently, you joined the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) boycott against the National Women’s Hockey Association. Can you explain what issues you wanted to change and why this needed to occur?


Haley: The National Women's Hockey League has been going on for about 5 years and we both participated for a few of them. A lot of the national team players decided that it was more of a short-term type of league and that we would need to create a more sustainable professional women's hockey league where players don't need a bunch of other jobs to compete. We want players to be able to compete at the highest level while making a living. Along with the Canadian National players (because their league folded the year before), we thought now would be a great time to create the PWHPA, to create this structure, this foundation, where in the future, a league would be able to support us and create the infrastructure that we need. We won't ever see the rewards of what we're doing. It's more for the next wave of players who come after us, so they're able to play high-level hockey without needing to have another job. That could be the career that they pursue, even if they’re not on Team USA or Team Canada. That’s the goal, though, to have an elite professional league where girls can make a living playing hockey.


Dana: Showing up to our rink with the locker rooms and bathrooms locked had become the norm with the NWHL. Most of the time, that was the case, which is why the league was more of a short-term solution. Over the years, it's gotten better, but I still don't think it's where it needs to be. I think having players run a league, like the PWHPA, or a union to start a new long-term solution is the best way to do it because we are the product. We know exactly what it needs to become to be sustainable.


Can you speak about the hardships of getting paid at such a high level?


Haley: I think we are two great examples. We’re 26 years old and on the brink of having to retire from playing because we have to have a job to sustain our lives. If there was a league where we can play professional hockey, there's no doubt that that's what we would be doing, but we can't make that work. We know that we need financial stability in our lives, so we’re willing to put our passion for playing hockey aside to make a living. Living it firsthand, I think that's the issue in itself. It's fun to play after college and after you graduate and to have that opportunity to continue playing, but that's not good enough anymore. All of the players who came before us set the stage and have done so much for us to continue playing. There has to be a moment where people say, “They deserve more playing professional hockey.” We know we’re not going to make millions of dollars playing hockey, and that’s not the point, but we want to make this change so girls don’t have to retire at the age of 26 from playing professional hockey.


Dana: I think what’s important to remember is that the only way we were able to try out for the Olympic team that Haley made was because her parents allowed us to live in their home in Boston. We didn't have the resources coming right out of college to even pursue that without the help of her family. There may be female players out there who are good enough to play in a league but just aren’t fortunate enough to have those resources and aren’t able to even try out because they can’t continue training in the right place. I think the league will also help with that and continue to help women develop.


How else has your gender impacted your ability to successfully compete in your sport? What specific situations stand out to you?


Dana: Growing up on Long Island, there were no girls teams. If there were girls teams, they were really bad. So, I played on an all-boys team through my 9th-grade year until I went to prep school and then repeated when I went to Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. When I was playing on all-boys teams, it was hard. Some people were totally on board with it and said, “Hey, she’s a good player. Let's have her on the team,” and then there were other people who could not stand it. I was teammates with these kids, and I don't know if it was the kids or their parents, but I’d get hit in practice, absolutely blindsided, because they didn't like that a girl was playing on the team. They wanted to try and prove that I couldn't handle myself. For me, I would always turn it into okay, I'm just going to work that much harder and I'm going to find ways to always constantly be better. There were just some people on my team who didn't like that I played. And, when I played against other teams, there would always be kids who would say, “Look, there’s a girl! Let’s body her, hit her.” I learned to just continue playing through it, and it made me better which is why I continued playing with the boys. And it wasn't everyone who thought that, but there were a lot of people who didn't think the girls should be playing with the boys.


Haley: I would have played on those boys teams, but my parents didn’t think it was worth it. So, I played on those really bad girls teams throughout the year, but I would try to find a balance by training with the boys in the spring and summer. I liked the challenge of having to hold my own because the boys are fast and they’re strong and they definitely challenged me, but socially, I experienced a lot of the same things that Dana did. I remember when I was 8 or 9 years old, and there was a boy on our team whose parents had him switch teams because there was a girl on his team. It’s like there was something wrong with me. That was eye-opening for me to hear; that actually existed and probably still does somewhere. It was just the little things like getting dressed for practices and games in a closet that would get to me. At the time, we were just so driven and tried not to notice it, but now, if you peel off the layers and look at what girls have to go through to play a “boys sport,” it can be a pretty lonely and difficult experience.


Dana: I vividly remember being at New England Sports Center, and I had to get dressed in the bathroom since I was on a boys team. There’s a chair in there right by the hand dryers that I had to get dressed on. Just by myself.


I know you spend a lot of your time coaching children of all ages in the sport that you love. What approaches do you think should be taken to spread the game?


Dana: I think creating those opportunities for girls from all over the country to come together and play hockey at a very high level will help. There’s this assumption that girls hockey just isn’t that good, so people think you have to play boys hockey, which is true, but there’s also a lot of really good girls hockey players out there. If you can bring those girls together and bring in female coaches who have competed at a high level, like Haley or Megan Keller, it can show these young girls that they can make it to the Olympic level too. These opportunities for girls are super important so they can have role models in the sport they love.


Haley: Dana works a lot with the elite players and a lot of the girls that are the best in their area, but growth also starts at the grassroots level. Having female coaches like us to look up to rather than someone’s dad coaching the team can go a long way. I always think about when I was younger and if there had been a national team player who is coaching my practice, that would have been incredible. We had a guest coach once named Jamie Hagerman who was an ‘02 Olympian and that was the coolest experience ever. I had never even heard her name before, but she went to the Olympics to play women's hockey, so I thought that was so incredible. I think girls need to see female hockey players at every level because that will get them more into the sport and inspire them to keep playing.


Dana: I agree and I think a big part of the PWHPA is just letting girls see professional female players on TV, which can go a long way. We want young girls to see Kendall Coyne on the NHL Skills competition and say “I see her on TV and I want to be just like her'' and know that they can do it; they can be the next Sidney Crosby of Women’s Hockey.

There are so many ways that women are overshadowed by men in sports, especially on the professional level. What do you think is the first step to changing how female athletes are portrayed in the media?


Haley: Yes, even the answers too. In an interview, say a woman answers a particular question as opposed to a male athlete, the woman has to be careful. I’ve personally experienced this where my answers are scrutinized because I don’t want to come off as certain negative things in the media. Male athletes have guidelines, but they have a lot more leeway than if we were to answer the same question. I never really thought of that question, but it’s a great point to bring up. Obviously, female athletes aren’t as strong and aren’t as fast as men, but off the ice and the court, there’s a huge gap between the way women and men are perceived.


Dana: If you look at the US Women’s National Soccer Team after they won the World Cup, they celebrated and they were scrutinized by a lot of people. If you look at other male sports teams that celebrated pretty similarly, it wasn't as scrutinized. Meanwhile, the females celebrate and it's just looked at a little bit differently. I think it's going to be a slow process. I think we're working on it. I think there are female athletes out there that should be considered “equal” to their male counterparts, like Serena Williams. I think as women’s leagues continue to develop, like the soccer league and the WNBA, we’ll see those stereotypes go to the wayside. It's a matter of just pointing them out and saying, “Look, this is an answer that a male athlete could have and if I wasn't female, I might not be scrutinized.”


Haley: The NBA has done such a good job because their players support the WNBA players so much and they’re so outspoken about it. Recently, the WNBA hoodies came out and so many of the top NBA athletes have been wearing them around the bubble, which is incredible to see. They’re watching the WNBA games and respecting them as players, not because they’re trying to check a box off, but because they care. I think part of it is a lot of those players have daughters who are expressing interest in the sport and they know how important it is to support female athletes because they want their daughter to have these equal opportunities as well.


You have both achieved so much throughout your collegiate and professional hockey career, but could you tell us about some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced and how you overcame them?


Dana: I think the turning point in my career was when I reached a point on Long Island where I couldn't go any further. I had almost reached playing at a ninth-grade level on a club travel team and I couldn't go that much further, so I had to leave home. I looked at some boarding schools in New England, but I ended up at Shattuck which is halfway across the country. There are many different paths, but I had to leave home at 14 years old. And yes, there's tons of support from Shattuck and I wouldn't trade my experience for the world but having to move that far just to pursue my dream of playing for Team USA is just absurd. Girls should have these opportunities to play hockey where they live. Hopefully, as the game continues to grow, we can create that and girls won’t have to be away from home, but leaving home was the hardest part of my career.


Haley: My experience was the complete opposite in the sense that I was able to stay home at my public high school and I played for the Washington Pride, which is a travel team in the Junior Women’s Hockey League. We were not a good team, which was great because we got to play against all the best players and I got a lot of ice time and a lot of reps. Regarding challenges, I would say given that I was playing on a team that was not as skilled and I almost always had the puck, I had to find a different role once I went to college and started playing on national teams. I'm not always going to have the puck and I had to learn how to make the transition. I loved my high school team and my college team, but when you go to the next level with Team USA, it’s a completely different space and everyone is the best of the best. I had to learn how to set myself apart because if I’m just like everyone else, I can be replaced.


In your life, have you had any icons who have inspired you?


Dana: My dad was the one who got me into the sport and he wasn't the best player but he instilled his passion for the game into me. As far as someone to look up to, when I was a freshman at Shattuck, Brianna Decker was a senior. She was obviously pretty intimidating, but she was a really good player, and I always wanted to be able to play like her. She moved on to the Olympic team and played with Team USA, so she kind of opened me up to the Women’s Hockey World. When I had a chance to play with her on Team USA, it was a cool experience. Being 4 or 5 years younger than her, it was amazing to see her play as a senior at a prestigious school and to be able to play at the same level of hockey as her.


Haley: When I was younger, it was definitely my brother. I thought he was the greatest hockey player ever… he was very average. He played club hockey for a year in college and then decided to join a fraternity, but I always idolized him and his teammates. Around my first year of playing professional hockey, I looked up to Alex Ovechkin. I didn’t try to emulate my style of play after him, but it was cool watching him evolve as a player and leader. I actually didn’t watch my first Women’s hockey Olympics until 2010 because I didn’t know it existed. I didn’t have those female hockey role models and I wish I did.


And lastly, do you have any advice for younger female athletes?


Haley: My biggest piece of advice is just to enjoy playing. That’s when I had the most success with my career and playing hockey, like genuinely enjoying it, having fun, looking forward to going to the rink, hanging out with my teammates. Those are the things you remember, not if you scored a goal or beat Assabet Valley. It's just about having fun and enjoying it, and everything else will come with time.


Dana: I think it's obviously “have fun, work hard,” but what’s important to me is being able to look back and not have any regrets. I obviously didn't make the Olympic team, and even my dad was concerned about me and waiting for me to break down, but I was okay with it because I knew that I had done everything that I could do. I look back on my career and I'll be honest, I didn't want to leave home to go to Shattuck, but my parents knew I should take the opportunity and so I did, and I don’t regret it at all. I made a ton of friends and had a ton of fun along the way, and I have no regrets. So, my advice would be wherever you end up, which will hopefully be at a high level, you can look back in and be happy with your career and everything you've learned along the way.


A huge thank you again to Haley Skarupa and Dana Trivigno for taking the time to chat with me. To see more of what the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association is up to, please visit pwhpa.com.


Written by EH*V Womxn in Sport Member, Caroline Grady.


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