The more is revealed about the NWHL’s start, the more Jessica Koizumi’s name comes up.
Koizumi is cited by a number of teammates and players as someone who first alerted them to the possibility of a paid league. She even introduced NWHL founder, who would later become its commissioner, Dani Rylan, to Joel Leonoff, the father of a future player and one of the league’s investors.
To top it off, Koizumi was named captain of the Connecticut Whale before the first season officially began. Today’s Slapshot spoke with Koizumi on her return to the Whale, the cultural changes Connecticut is facing, and her role in the nascent days of the NWHL.
Kate Cimini for Today’s Slapshot: Every time I learned more about the Whale and the NWHL and how it got started your name constantly came up. You had more fingers in more pies than I had really thought possible. Sam Faber, for example, said she learned of the league because you called her, and I know you had the same effect on Jaimie and Joel Leonoff.
Jessica Koizumi, Connecticut Whale: Yeah. [Laughs] I wanted to make it work.
Why was it important to you that it work?
Well, hockey’s been one of the most, if not the most, important area in my life that has led me to so many different avenues. I was at the point where I didn’t want to give it up and it was getting pretty difficult to play for the Blades because of the travel and my full-time coaching job. So when I did hear about this league and the possibility of there being a team in Connecticut, I wanted to try to do everything I could to make it work.
I’ve looked at Connecticut as my home for the past six years now, at that time, five, and I know I have a lot of connections in the area too, so it kind of all came together at a really good time for us to be a part of this new venture, this new league. I wanted to do anything I could to help out.
How did the league’s founder, Dani Rylan, connect with you so early on?
Through mutual friends. I contacted her first. There was a lot of talk about the league early, two years ago, before it started. Back in December of 2014.
Just hearing about it I wanted to reach out to her and see what was going on, and make sure it was a real possibility. I was in a crossroads in my life about what I wanted to do next.
My job is year-to-year, coaching college hockey, so a lot of my decisions were based around if I was going to still be playing hockey full time, would I be playing for the Blades, in this new league. It’s really scary when you don’t know what you’re going to do next and it helped me just to have conversations with her about where the league was progressing.
Back to the Whale and your re-signing. You took a pretty large paycut to do that. Were you comfortable with that?
I did. It’s never really easy to discuss money in any setting. We were in discussions, me and our GM, Lisa [Giovanelli] and I know she wants to bring in some new players and change the culture of our team, which I do think is important, considering the disappointing ending to our season last year.
For me, I look at it from a different perspective even though it is frustrating and disappointing. I look at it moreso from the years that I’ve been playing in both the CWHL and this. And I, my first three or four years, paid to play.
I paid, like, a thousand dollars our first couple seasons and each year I’ve seen it progress and get better. This league is headed in the right direction but right now it’s nowhere near paying what the guys make in the NHL.
It’s not even close. Like, their signing bonuses are way more than what we get in a single season.
[Author’s note: Signing bonuses for big-name NHL players are a higher dollar amount than all four NWHL teams’ salary caps combined.]
This is not an everyday thing [for us] like the NHL guys have. They play 80-plus games in a season. For us, it’s a limited amount and we’re just fortunate that we get paid to do what we love. I’m excited that I just get to be a part of it for another season.
I’m looking to play hockey for one or two more seasons so to me, it’s…what’s six thousand dollars? It’s grocery money for the year. I can’t play hockey forever and I’m just so fortunate that I get to play at this level, at least for another season.
When you discussed where the Whale was going with your GM, Lisa Giovanelli, what did you see as the most important thing you were going to add to the new iteration?
I would say my work ethic and leadership. I’ve always done everything I could and left everything out on the [ice] with every team I’ve been on. It hasn’t changed at this level. No matter how old I am I want to make sure I can do my best for the team. I’m probably one of the few that has been playing in this league and the CWHL since its beginning. I think I started in the CWHL when it started.
I can hopefully bring out team together next year. Hopefully there are fewer distractions. I think we had a lot going on last year that was pretty unnecessary and hopefully we can just focus on the hockey piece this season. That’s what I’m mostly looking forward to, probably that then all the other factors that kind of affected our team.
How did your team deal with that?
Talked about it mostly, but there’s only so much you can do when there’s things happening on a weekly basis. We’re changing coaches, we’re changing GMs, people aren’t happy about this or that…
Hopefully in year two there’s a bit less distractions, where we can just focus on ourselves and our team.
It was a very interesting season you guys went through and it seemed like there were two factions within the team. A core group of younger girls who, if they didn’t like something they were pretty vocal about it.
And then there were also some people, who, like you, had paid to play and were looking at this and saying, listen, this is terrific and I don’t know that you get that.
Yeah. It’s tough to talk about it. Because it did happen, but at the same time, when you’re getting paid…I can understand these young girls who have just graduated from school coming in with all these expectations when they haven’t been through the grind of all the little things we had to do prior to getting paid.
So it’s just different but it’s not an area I feel super comfortable talking about because it’s, it’s frustrating to me.
Every grandma today is probably frustrated with how teenagers are these days. [Laughs] ‘Super ungrateful!’
So you’re the hockey grandma.
Exactly, I’m the hockey grandma, I guess you could say. I just feel really lucky to be a part of it and see the growth of women’s hockey. I know a lot of the kids – the girls – will compare the way we get treated to the NHL and they think it should be the same. What they need to compare is what we used to have, and where we’re going, versus what the guys are getting.
When I recruit at Yale, this is one of the things we talk about. You’re getting treated like a professional athlete here. In college you do. You get three full-time coaches, full equipment, all your apparel, you get a full-time trainer that travels. Literally everything.
I think there’s a difference between college hockey and the professional league right now and I think that’s where the girls are coming from. They’re used to getting this kind of high-class treatment in the DI level and then they come to play for this league and they’re like, ‘Woah, this is not what I’m used to.’
It’s a process. I believe it’s going to get there but there are difference. Full-time coaches [in the NCAA] are getting paid six figures, some of ’em. Some of their assistants are getting paid a lot more than our head coaches in our league. It’s a big difference so once we’re able to get more funding and more sponsors and people believe in us…I think we’re finally going to get there. Like I said, it is a process.