Jessica Koizumi and Meghan Fardelmann take the first ceremonial puck drop with Commissioner Dani Rylan. Photo By: Troy Parla
On October 11, 2015, History Was Made as players from the Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters took the ice for the first NWHL game. The impact that those players made is immeasurable in words, though it must be mentioned that players on all of the Founding Four teams are trailblazers who have laid the groundwork for future generations of women’s hockey players to build upon.
“Hockey was everything to me growing up,” said Gabie Figueroa, who played for the Riveters in that game. “My adrenaline for the first NWHL game was the highest it’s ever been. Not only was I playing in front of a sold-out crowd for the first time, we were making history and creating something that young girls can aspire to be a part of one day.”
Figueroa played every game in season one and sparingly during the second NWHL season, but her impact on the sport, every NWHL player’s impact goes much deeper than any stat sheet will ever tell.
“The first NWHL game will always be extremely special to me. I knew we were making history, and to be a part of that in my lifetime was a dream come true,” Jessica Koizumi, who was captain of the Whale that inaugural season told us via email. “The league did a great job marketing opening day. 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. Some of that day is fuzzy for me since it was surreal, but I do remember how emotional I was during the national anthem,” she recalled. “It was a time of reflection for me where I thought about the pioneers before us, the people that supported me, and the work that it took to get there.”
It took just 2:28 of playing time for Koizumi to further etch her name into the history books forever when she netted the first goal in league history; and just like a true hockey player, she deflected the praise and accolades to her teammates.
“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,” said Koizumi. “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.”
So what kind of physical memento would a player have from such a historic moment in time? “I currently have the puck in my office at work,” she said, “and my stick was requested by the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.”
“I just feel extremely blessed and I am sure one day when I am older there will be more moments of reflection about the enormity of it all. For now, I am enjoying giving back to the game whenever I can. Coaching is a career passion of mine and I am not sure what my life would be like without hockey. Thank you NWHL for the risks you took to create history for the first paid league in North America, thank you fans for the ongoing support, and thank you hockey for being the greatest sport there is!”
After that inaugural season, Koizumi was preparing for another season when she got a phone call that changed her career path, but her love and enthusiasm for the game still burns brightly inside of her. “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 the season to begin.”
Jess Koizumi and her teammate Jamie Leonoff after the inaugural season game. Photo By: Jessica Koizumi
That’s when things changed and why she would painfully walk away from the Whale and the NWHL. “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.”
Jess Koizumi blocking a puck in a game vs. the Riveters Photo By: Troy Parla
“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 for 10 years after I graduated from college,” she explained.
“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. I try my best to follow the league whenever I can. I will forever be thankful I was a part of it!”
For Gabie Figueroa, Jessica Koizumi and every other woman who has put on a jersey or helmet with the NWHL logo — the impact they have left on the sport won’t be finalized for quite some time, but none of them will ever be forgotten as History Continues into Season 3 and beyond.