By Sylvia Gappa
Assistant Girls Varsity Hockey Coach
Growing up, I was a Montreal Canadiens fan. On Saturday evenings, my family would sit and watch Hockey Night in Canada, listening to Don Cherry during the intermission talk about the new, up-and-coming NHL players, all of them boys. As a young girl, I admired the many talents of the players—they were fast, strong and creative, and I knew growing up that I wanted to be just like them. My love of hockey came from watching my dad and older brother play. My parents always brought me and my brothers ice skating when we were younger, so when I was five, I naturally wanted to play hockey. I spent the next 11 years as one of only a handful of girls in my area playing on otherwise all-boy teams.
I was fortunate that the girls game grew in Canada, so when I was sixteen, I tried out and was chosen to play for Team Nova Scotia. Only once before had women's hockey been included in the Canada Games, and this would be the first time that I was surrounded by girls who shared the same passion for hockey. Yet the players we looked up to as role models were limited to NHL players, all of them men. This remained true as I made my way down to Middlebury College (VT) where I played collegiate hockey for four years.
BELLAMY '05 AND COYNE '11 AT BERKSHIRE
Starting in 2000, I began working at Berkshire School where I soon became an advisor for the first time. Kacey Bellamy '05 was among the members of my amazing first group of advisees. It's hard to believe that the young girl who I met as a freshman would be such a big part of women's hockey history. Kacey was a talented young player—she was wise beyond her years when it came to seeing where the play was going and could easily put the puck on the tape of a forward driving the zone. She was physically strong on the ice, and during her time at Berkshire, her natural ability to lead began to flourish. Her leadership was evident to then head coach Lori Charpentier as well. "Kacey was clearly an accomplished player, and she led by example," Charpentier recalls. "She worked hard day in and day out. She never took anything for granted and worked on getting better every day. As hard as she worked on the ice, she also focused on being the best leader she could be for her team."
Kacey hoped to one day play for her country, a dream that came true in November 2006 when she laced up for Team USA at the Four Nations Cup in Ontario. Like so many young girls before her, Kacey's interest in hockey came from watching her older brother play. Fortunately for Kacey, hockey had grown and become a popular sport among New England prep schools, allowing her to use the sport to pursue an excellent education as well.
In 2010, while serving as the head coach of the girls hockey team at Berkshire, I met Kendall Coyne '11. Kendall had come to Berkshire as a post-graduate, to spend more time in a structured classroom before heading off to college. When she arrived, she was already involved in USA women's hockey. Kendall's early playing career, however, was a familiar story. She picked up the game after watching her older brother compete, yet was forced to play among the boys. Growing up in Chicago, she cheered on the Blackhawks and idolized Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios.
At Berkshire, there was not an athlete—boy or girl—who worked harder on and off the ice to accelerate their game than Kendall. She spent hours in the gym, doubling up on practice time whenever she could attend both the girls and boys varsity practices. As a result, her speed and creativity on the ice was unmatched. Opposing coaches would often tell me how they encouraged their fans to come out to watch games against Berkshire to catch a glimpse of a world-class player, even if she was on the opposing team. In her one year at Berkshire, Kendall scored 55 goals and tallied 22 assists in 25 games. There was not another player in the league that had her speed, her ability to find the net, or her strength. And like Kacey before her, in 2010 Kendall made her debut with Team USA at the Four Nations Cup.
CHANGING THE FUTURE OF THE WOMEN'S GAME
After winning several gold medals in international competition as teammates, Kacey and Kendall were together again for an historic moment in women's sports. They were among the 23 players on the women's national team who, in the spring of 2017, threatened to boycott the IIHF World Championships in Plymouth, Michigan over equal pay and treatment. According to Kendall, "The negotiations (with USA Hockey) were 14 months long. The decision to boycott wasn't just an idea that surfaced a few weeks ago. It was our leverage that we realized that we were going to have to exercise in order to make significant progress."
In their negotiations with USA Hockey, the players focused on three areas: compensation, programming for current and future players, and marketing. Despite a busy training schedule and promotional commitments, players were not compensated during the three and a half years leading up to an Olympic year. In addition, the nine games they played during an off-year was significantly less than the U18 men's development program. When the women did play, USA Hockey was not marketing the games, and as a result, their fans and future young players were not able to see women play at the highest level. In addition, many of the female players had to support themselves with at least one other job while training full-time, a difficult task since the team played internationally.
In the days leading up to the World Championships, USA Hockey made attempts to get the team to play. When the players held strong to their commitment to boycott unless changes were made, USA Hockey tried putting together a replacement team. But in a powerful statement that did not go unrecognized in the sporting world, all 500 potential replacement players said they would not play and supported the #BeBoldForChange initiative that the women on the national team had put in motion.
On March 28, 2017, three days before Team USA was to face off in their first game of the World Championship against rival Canada, the players and USA Hockey reached a deal.
"It was an iconic moment for women's hockey and women's sports in general," Kacey says. "We knew we needed to take a stand in order to make a difference."
"The agreement that was made was not put in place to benefit the 23 players on the 2017 Women's World Championship roster," Kendall says. "The agreement will impact the entirety of girls' and women's hockey in the United States, and possibly across the world."
Team USA finished the tournament 5-0, beating Canada 3-2 in the gold medal game.
"Winning the gold medal on home soil meant a great deal, but I think with the negotiations and seeing all the support flow in to Michigan for us, it was more meaningful in that aspect. I also felt our team come together after it was all said and done, and we wanted to play and show the world our appreciation for the support," says Kacey.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Antonia Matzka '17 (Mödling, Austria) appears to be in line to continue the push forward for women's hockey. Prior to graduating from Berkshire in May, Matzka represented Team Austria at the IIHF Division 1A Women's Hockey World Championships. "I think what the women of the US National Team did was amazing, brave, really inspiring, but also necessary for change." Matzka says. "I have so much respect for the US women, and I hope that it will be the start of revolutionizing women's hockey and reaching equal treatment for equal accomplishment, performance, and sacrifice."
Today, 17 years after I started coaching hockey at Berkshire, I can finally say there has been a shift in women's hockey. While some girls are still starting out on boys teams, there are many more high quality opportunities available to young girls interested in the sport. While the women on the current national team, like myself, grew up wanting to be like the men we saw playing on TV in the NHL, today's young players get to watch more games that feature that talents of our best women players. Many of today's generation of young female hockey players choose to wear #22 like Kacey, or #26 like Kendall.
It was with great pride that I sat with my daughter and son and cheered on our two Berkshire alumnae at the world championships in Michigan. After the team's win over Canada, my six-year-old son picked up his plastic knee hockey stick, turned to me and said he was trying to score goals like "that girl did," a reference to Amanda Kessel, who scored the game-winning goal. To him, a hockey player is a hockey player.
Sylvia Gappa grew up in Stellarton, Nova Scotia and is a graduate of Middlebury College. She played for the Panthers during their six consecutive ECAC Division III Championships and led them to the DIII National Championship in 2000. Middlebury's all-time leading goal scorer, Sylvia was named National Player of the Year her senior year. She has coached girls hockey at the varsity level since her arrival at Berkshire in 2000 and teaches math and psychology. Sylvia lives in Birchglade with her husband, Jason Gappa, and children Katy (10) and John (6).