IN THE BEGINNING THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE

In sports, just like in the Highlander, in the end, there can be only one. Part of what defines sports competition is the defeat of the many by the few, and finally the defeat of the few by the one. But just as in the end there can be only one, it is true in some beginnings as well. Like the NWHL for example. In the beginning, there was only one team to win the first ever game: that one was our Whale. And there was only one player to serve as Captain of that squad: and that one was Jessica Koizumi. And in the beginning, there can be only one player who scored the first ever goal in NWHL history: and that one is also Jessica Koizumi. In the last few weeks, Cetacean Nation has looked back st season one with articles featuring the insights of former Whale #5  Dr. Kate Buesser, as well as our Captain, #28 Sam Faber, #6 Shannon Doyle and #26 Jordan Brickner. And we have added to their voices here, that of our #56 Jessica Koizumi. As an OW (Original Whale) Jess also skated for the last time for the Pod in that inaugural NWHL season, closing out her stellar on ice career as a member of the Whale.In a beautifully written retirement letter (https://www.nwhl.zone/news_article/show/697314-a-retirement-letter-from-whale-captain-jessica-koizumi), Jessica explained her decision to hang up the skates at that point,  after a 15-3 season, the Whale’s most successful to date, and accept a coaching position at Ohio State.



Because we have so many rookies joining the Pod this season, one of the first things that Cetacean Nation wanted to know was how the team chemistry developed that first year. Technically everyone was a “rookie” in the NWHL in 2015, but Jessica explained it wasn’t an issue in reality. She revealed “In season one several of us on the team had already played together in a variety of settings whether that be through national camps, the Boston Blades, or college. It wasn’t necessarily 20+ rookies coming together. We were all experienced and grateful we were able to play at this level. I did not believe that a women’s professional league would be a possibility in my lifetime.” And the Whale had a strong first Captain in Jessica, well aware of the responsibilities and opportunities of her role. She said “It’s always an honor being named in the leadership core of your team at any level. Being one of the oldest on the team that first year I tried to lead by example and for the youngsters make note of the strides women’s hockey has made. The first several years of the (previous) league I was a part of, we paid $1,000 to play, bought our own gear, and paid for our own expenses on the road. We also never practiced as a team. Now, here we were so blessed to be getting paid to play the sport we love, getting all new equipment and expenses covered, and paving the way for the future. “ Cetacean Nation thinks the situation is somewhat similar here with the Whale rookies this year, as noted in our article “ Getting The Band Back Together”. If the OW’s could draw on their collective experience to put together that first run at Isobel, our current edition of the Pod can do the same.

 

Jessica has compiled as impressive a hockey resume as you can find, both prior to and after her year with the Whale, as both coach and player. As a coach, Jessica was an assistant at Yale for six years, before accepting a position at Ohio State after her retirement. Jess next returned to New England, this time to coach at the University of Vermont. She currently serves as Associate Hesd Coach, and continues developing collegiate hockey players for the Catamounts. As a player, Jess captained powerhouse University of Minnesota-Duluth for two years during her college career, netting 84 goals in her four years there. She also earned All-WCHA honors there and played for Team USA in 2008, winning a gold medal at IIHF Ice Hockey World Women’s Championships. Jessica also played for six years in the CWHL for both Montreal and Boston, capturing two Clarkson Cups, and playing on the runner-up in the first Clarkson Cup Championship in history as part of the Minnesota Whitecaps. And Jess even had a stint with the Minnesota Whitecaps. And of all the goals she scored over her career with those teams, the first one in her final season with the Whale was the most historic.



Before we delved into any other aspects of her careers, we had to ask Jessica about that first goal in that first game in the NWHL on October 11. 2015. Jessica told us “The first goal certainly wasn’t the prettiest goal that I have scored, but it was top 2 most memorable. It’s hard for me to even put into words the feelings that I had when it happened because that whole game was a blur to me. The goal happened very early on in the first period. I can’t take much credit for it since Kelli Stack gave me a perfect open net rebound from her shot. I remember scoring and then everything including the rest of the game sort of went blank for me. It was one of those moments that you just wanted time to stop. But I do remember how emotional I was during the national anthem. I didn’t realize what that goal stood for until I had checked my phone after the game. There were tweets, messages, and footage on the news about the goal being the first in the NWHL. It’s definitely a fun fact I will always treasure, but I treasure it with my teammates and other pioneers that have paved the way to make professional hockey for woman a reality.” Jess continued “The NWHL marketing did such a remarkable job filling that arena that the atmosphere was incredibly special for us players. Tickets were sold out including standing room. There were numerous media in attendance including friends and players I have coached. I focused on taking it all in and to enjoy the many moments during that day. I currently have the puck in my office at work and my stick was requested by the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.”

 

Cetacean Nation asked how our young Jessica got started in the sport of hockey in the first place. Jessica explained “I actually was born in Hawaii and when I was 7 moved to Silver Bay MN and began skating almost immediately. Minnesota is a hockey hot bed and that’s where I built my hockey roots. I moved to California when I was 11 and joined a boys program in Simi Valley. It was from there that I continued to develop with boys and girls travel programs. The hockey culture in California is actually well advanced. Players like Angela Ruggerio, Kerry Weiland, Chanda Gunn, and most recently Cayla Barnes are all California US Olympians. There are several others that have played at the National team level and are Division I college standouts. We take breaks from the beach and sun and hit the rinks in California! “When we asked about her other athletic interests in her youth, Jessica stated “I played every sport imaginable growing up, besides lacrosse and field hockey. I was an athlete first and I truly believe that helped me make the national team. I can attribute my success to my off ice training efforts. I focused on being one of the hardest and most disciplined workers since I knew that these are things I could control. I would tell myself to do everything I could and trust in the process.”

When it came time to choose her college, Jessica explained that process like thisSince I lived an hour north of Duluth (Silver Bay) from age 7-11, Duluth was home to me. I grew up wanting  to be a Bulldog and even told my parents I was going to play for them as a little girl. They didn’t even have a women’s team then!. When I came on my visit I knew where the McDonalds was that  I would go to or the mall. It was so comfortable and homey to me. Plus they were the best team in the country at that time coming off of 2 national championships. They also won a third the season I signed”. After a very successful hockey career through to her graduation from Minnesota-Duluth, continuing her career in those pre-NWHL days was not at the top of Jess’s list. She told us *Coming out of UMD I actually planned to focus on getting my masters degree and coaching. I had a graduate assistant coaching position lined up at UMD in the fall and I thought my hockey career was over. I was fortunate to have a good postseason run that led to some attention with USA hockey’s national program. I was the only player invited to their June off-ice camp that wasn’t at the world championships that year. It was only during this time I began thinking about a post collegiate career in hockey. Several of the players in the national team pool in the Minnesota area were on the Minnesota Whitecaps and that’s when I decided to join that team. We paid $1000 each to play and no free equipment!” Jessica continued *The NWHL was something I had heard about in 2014 and helped as much as I could behind the scenes with the team that upcoming year. I had previously been playing for the Boston Blades in the CWHL for the past 5 seasons prior to the NWHL inaugural season. Since I was coaching full time at Yale University in Connecticut, the location of the Whale was the biggest draw for me. The excitement surrounding the idea of the first paid professional league in North America was also a dream come true to be a part of. “

Since Jessica’s coaching career has been as rich and varied as her playing career, Cetacen Nation wanted to hear a little more about how that started, and about Jessica’s coaching style. Jess revealed *I knew when I was 10 years old I wanted to be a college hockey coach. I started doing private lessons when I was 14 and had my own off ice clinics and hockey schools when I was 17. I just loved teaching the game. However, I thought college hockey coaches show up to the rink just for practices and games. Little did I know that the amount we actually coach is a small percentage of our job. I still love what I do, but it is a lifestyle versus a job. We are constantly on call and the majority of our time is spent building our team through recruiting efforts. My favorite part of coaching goes along with my philosophy of servant leadership. Through this, I am able to instill values of a selfless environment, humility, and respect to incredibly talented athletes. Coaches help their players be their best self in all realms of life and to me that is the greatest feeling.” Cetacean Nation thought the philosophy of savant leadership was especially compelling. Jessica continued “Going from college to the national team to the different semi-professional and professional teams I played for my role changed. I was a more offensive minded player early on in my career. As I started to coach, especially towards my last couple seasons playing,  I grew a passion for defensive responsibilities like shot blocking, penalty kill, being the high player in the offensive zone. It certainly helped that I played on a line with Jillian Dempsey and Rachel Llanes with the Boston Blades who both were speedy. I remember the first game we played together we were all chasing a dumped puck since we were all used to being F1 (the first person in the zone to hunt the puck). One of us had to let up and since I was the old lady at that time playing with two young guns I didn’t mind letting up. I also enjoy coaching the penalty kill and defensemen in college so certainly throughout the years I began to see the game through a different lens.”


Stepping back to season one again, Cetacean Nation also wondered is the success of the WNBA was an inspiration to those early NWHL pioneers. Jessica replied “The WNBA is a league that had been well established along with the NWSL prior to our inaugural season with the NWHL. It was an inspiration knowing college all stars had a place to play post collegiate that they could make a living out of. When I played for the CWHL I know several players wondered why the NHL on the mens side hadn’t shown interest in helping a womens league develop. The NWHL doesn’t pay nearly enough money for most to not have a secondary job, but it’s a start. The future of women’s hockey is limitless. Just looking at the record number viewing statistics from the last Olympics in women’s hockey shows how much interest our sport is garnering around the world. Hopefully more investors will believe in its value because we do put an amazing entertaining product on the ice. Every year the leagues get better whether it’s the CWHL or NWHL and for some of us older pioneers it’s comforting to know that the future generations have these opportunities. The NWHL was a start but that’s not the whole story since we all need to give credit to those brave women who played on boys and men’s teams since they didn’t have any girls programs offered. Many of whom tucked in their pony tails to fit it. They are the ones we can all say “thank you” to. “

Jessica added these thoughts on the circumstances of her retirement and her life after the NWHL. “Retiring was an extremely tough decision since I quit my full time job coaching at Yale University to focus on what I thought would be my last season playing. I trained in the spring and summer preparing for the upcoming season and towards the end of summer I started to feel like I was lacking the motivation for season to begin. In early September I received a phone call from Ohio State to work on staff there and a couple days later accepted it. This was extremely uncharacteristic of me to drop all of my commitments and move my entire life with no concrete plan. “ Jessica concluded “I walked away from a sport I had been playing for 24 years and also (what some may not know) a new job opportunity in sports testing. I played competitively in the CWHL and NWHL 10 years after I graduated from college. I never thought I would have played that long, but when I walked away I knew I was ready. No one but yourself should be the guiding force for retirement. Play as long as you love it. I was given ultimatums and asked why I was still playing from several people and it was a personal decision that I simply was not ready to give up. I do not regret my decision to retire when I did. I miss being around my teammates, blocking shots of course, and the competition piece:But coaching is a career passion of mine and I am not sure what my life would be like without hockey” .

 

In conclusion Jess added “ I try my best to follow the league whenever I can. Thank you NWHL for the risks you took to create history for the first paid league in North America.And thank you fans for the ongoing support, and thank you hockey for being the greatest sport there is!  I will forever be thankful I was a part of it! And Cetacean Nation will be forever thankful and mindful that since in the beginning there can be only one, ithat one was our #56 Jessica Koizumi. Once a Whale, always a Whale, Fins Up Coach Jess!