In one of her early her early hit songs, Katy Perry refers to California girls as being undeniable. Well, Cetacean Nation knows one who certainly is. When our Whale’s defender #14 Elena Orlando was a young girl, she dreamed of becoming a professional hockey player. .And over the past three years Elena has patrolled the blue line in the NWHL, the dual sport, dual career woman fulfilling the dream of her younger self. Elena recently took some time to converse with Cetacean Nation about how that came to be, and gave Whale fans some great and fun insights.
But before we chatted about hockey, Cetacean Nation brought up another favorite subject of Elena’s: her “other” sport rugby. We actually started our conversation talking about another defender, recently retired Metropolitan Riveters icon, Ashley “ Stretch” Johnston. Cetacean Nation has found Stretch to be as nice a person off ice as she is a fierce competitor on it, and was not surprised that Elena had similar feelings. “Stretch has been a good friend of mine since the first season” she said, “ She's a tremendous competitor, no matter the sport. I was lucky enough to have played with and against her in both sports (hockey and rugby). Cetacean Nation knew of course that Elena and Ashley were teammates on the Rivs in year one, and “frenemies” as Elena put it, for the past two while she’s skated for our Whale.
And Cetacean Nation has also noted, that Elena and Whale teammate #10 Sophia Agostinelli are both ruggers, and play for the New Haven Old Black Women”s Rugby Football Club. And we also understood they played against Ashley’s Knickerbocker Sirens RFC. But how did they end up in the same jerseys on the pitch? Elena cleared that up with a story about her team playing against Stretch’s squad in Albany, NY, when some of the New Haven players were running behind schedule, She added “The club I play for was short players that one game and Stretch was gracious enough to help us out. It was lots of fun being able to play with her! “
Elena actually began her rugby career in college. Elena attended Quinnipiac as a hockey player with a major in Nursing (Elena’s off-ice profession). That would seem to be a pretty full schedule, so we asked her to explain how rugby suddenly appeared on her radar. She told us “After my sophomore year, I was contacted by the school's varsity rugby coach, Coach Carlson, about potentially playing. I was very hesitant at first because I knew nothing about the sport, and wasn't sure how it would fit in with my hockey and nursing schedules. I spoke to Coach Carlson about my concern of having no knowledge of the sport and she said 'don't worry, I'll teach you'. So I took a chance and started as a dual sport athlete my junior year.” This brings up an interesting aspect of collegiate athletics, as “dual sport” is official NCAA terminology. A dual sport athlete competes in sports with overlapping seasons, in this case, rugby and hockey. Elena continued “Playing rugby was one of the greatest decisions as Coach Carlson was one of the best coaches I've had. She really took time to grow us not only as a player but a person.” Elena played rugby for three seasons at Quinnipiac, competing in her fifth year as she took classes for an MBA in healthcare management. Her impact on the Bobcat’s program grew as she gained experience, and she set the school record with six assists in one game.
When we asked how the two sports meshed, Elena made this observation: “Rugby helped my hockey skills develop because they use a lot of the same skills. Speed, agility, finesse and quick decision making are some of the main components of both sports. They really do complement each other well and I still play both to keep developing my skills.” Elena’s hockey coach at Quinnipiac, Rick Seeley, told the Quinnipiac Journal at the time “Elena has exceptional athletic ability, Her speed, quickness and fluidity apply to all sports. She has a great attitude and is open to change and adjustment. These attributes have all contributed to a smooth transition to the rugby team”.
If you have ever watched Elena Orlando play hockey, one of the first things you notice is her selfless commitment to the team’s defensive philosophy. That has always been the case, and has continued in her career with the Whale, typified by her shot blocking skills. Last year she raised the risky business of shot blocking to a new level, leading the entire NWHL in that department. That does not happen by accident, so after complimenting Elena on her shot blocking, Cetacean Nation asked how she developed that skill. She told us “I’ve always been taught the importance of blocking shots since I was a kid. One of my coaches growing up always would say 'don't flamingo!' and then going to Quinnipiac, shot blocking was such an integral part of the culture there. Laying it all out on the line was something everyone did and practiced so it's easy to make that a huge part of one's own game. I think that the Stanley Cup finals showed how important shot blocking is to the game. It can really help to build momentum for your team and can even save a goal when needed.” Or as Elena put it so eloquently “The sting of blocking a shot is not as bad as the pain of letting a puck go into the net:” The applause you hear in the background is coming from every goalie ever, for that philosophy.
Elena comes from the curiously named Winters, California, a place that averages zero inches of snow per year. In fact, Elena told us that snow was a rarity and related ”It did snow one time but it was more a dusting that barely stuck to the ground and all evidence of it was gone within an hour.” But the fact that there was no snow in Winters, did not stop Elena from eventually finding the ice. Cetacean Nation was curious about how it all began and she replied “I started playing hockey when I was five. They started a roller hockey club near our house and my big brother Dominic, wanted to play. I was the little sister that wanted to do everything he did, so I started as well.” Elena eventually traded in her wheels for some blades, again following her brother, this time onto the ice. As she tells it: “A year or two later they built an ice rink nearby, and Dominic made the transition to ice hockey, so of course I switched over too.” Not in a girls program, but for a boys team. When asked why, Elena explained “I played boys hockey from mites through peewee because the closest girls program was almost two hours away.” It was a fortuitous decision, and led to the next step her hockey evolution. Elena continued, “At one of the various tournaments I'd gone to with my team, I was lucky enough to be scouted by Shattuck-St. Mary's. I committed to play for them starting in high school so I had one more season before heading to Minnesota. That season I chose to play my first year of girls hockey, to get used to the speed and finesse of the girl's game.”
Cetacean Nation was familiar with Shattuck - St. Mary’s, a boarding and day high school in the heart of hockey country in Faribault, Minnesota about an hour south of Minneapolis. An impressive number of great hockey players were either Elena’s teammates at Shattuck or same era alumni. The list includes Amanda Kessel, Alyssa Gagliardi, Brianne Decker, Courtney Burke, Lexi Bender, Rebecca Russo, and Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux among others. We asked Elena what it was like to experience playing hockey in a school with that type of tradition and culture. She answered “Shattuck was an amazing experience! I was fortunate enough to play with some amazing players (some of which play for Team USA and in the NWHL). We won a national championship in 2009 and had a runner-up finish the following year.” When we asked Elena about a Cali girl adjusting to the Minnesota cold, she readily admitted that “One of the biggest transitions for me moving away to Minnesota was the weather. I went from growing up with practically no snow to below zero temperatures and huge accumulations of snow. I remember one time my parents came out to watch one our tournaments in Michigan and I think it was something like -50 with the wind chill. My dad ran out to get the car and when he pulled up he said: 'I didn't know if I was going to make it, I thought I might die out in there in the parking lot'. It was so cold he felt like he was having a hard time moving, like his body was freezing solid (he even had some icicles on his mustache!).”
Having acclimated for four years in Minnesota, the weather wasn’t an issue by the time Elena chose to attend New England college. She agreed and explained “From Shattuck I was recruited by Quinnipiac. I knew I wanted to go there the second I stepped onto campus. It was gorgeous campus, surrounded by nature with the Sleeping Giant backdrop. The facilities were brand-new, the team was so welcoming and they had my (nursing) major, so it seemed like the perfect fit.” Elena thrived at Quinnipiac during her eighty-two game career, where she skated with current Whale teammate, our #8 Kelly Babstock. After completing both her hockey and rugby careers at Quinnipiac, Elena got a chance to play some international hockey overseas.She explained she was “presented with the opportunity to finish out the hockey season with IF Sundsvall. over in Sweden. That was another amazing experience as I was able to see a new part of the world and get my first taste for playing professionally.” Just as her Quinnipiac hockey coach commented on her rugby career, her rugby coach Becky Carlson had this to say about Elena’s next step, moving into the NWHL. "Elena's selection does not surprise our program or our staff. Her dedication to rugby was just a small portion of her impressive and diverse athletic resume. I have no doubt she will be a vital asset in this next endeavor in professional ice hockey and I couldn't be prouder of her continued achievements as both a person and athlete." Cetacean Nation thinks that the mutual respect and admiration that Elena and Coach Carlson display is a testament to them both as role models.
Cetacean Nation may be a little biased, but we think that nurses are pretty remarkable role models too, and literally everyday heroes. As you now know, Elena is one of those nurses, and has worked in the particularly challenging field of care for HIV and AIDS patients. As we were discussing this, we asked Elena why she chose nursing in the first place. “I picked a career in healthcare because growing up I knew I always wanted to do something medically related” she said. Adding “I wasn’t really sure what exactly until I was in high school. I loved the concept of nursing because it is still so medically focused but you also get the patient interaction that I found a calling for. I love what I do because I feel I get to work one on one with my patients to truly make a difference in their lives.” Elena possesses great communication skills, which she displayed while talking with Cetacean Nation, and that skill has to be a key tool in serving those in her care, both her patients or the girls on the U12 hockey team she coaches.
As we wrapped up our conversation, Elena talked a bit about the thrill of playing as a professional before large, enthusiastic crowds (Like the fans of Cetacean Nation!) “So far in the league I have nothing but positive experiences with fellow players and fans. Everyone is incredibly friendly and supportive, even if you aren't on or cheering for the same team. I believe that is incredibly special because too many times you can see animosity between different fan bases and players, but I have yet to see that here.” Cetacean Nation agreed and acknowledged the passionate but welcoming fan bases of Rivs Nation and Beauts Battalion that help make away games fun for both the visiting fans and players. Elena continued her thoughts with an additional stick tap to the fans saying “I think everyone can see how special what were doing is and everyone has bought into that. The excitement of the a fan base is also such an amazing thing to experience. The fans are just as important to the success of the league as the players are. You guys are on the ride with us, so the dedication the fans have for the sport is beautiful.” And so are those sentiments from from our undeniable California girl, Elena Orlando. Fins Up #14!