Put Me In Coach! Anya Battaglino Returns for Whale

When the Connecticut Whale last travelled to Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center to play the Boston Pride at their home rink, one fan in the stand kept calling for his favorite player to get on the ice. “Put Battaglino in,” he hollered throughout the game, cupping his hands around his mouth at times to ensure the coaches could hear him perfectly.

That exuberant fan is the grandfather of Anya Battaglino, practice player and defender for the Connecticut Whale.

Battaglino just laughed when she heard the story. “That’s so him,” she said.

Unbeknownst to her grandfather and biggest fan, Battaglino was in the press box talking about her team and the NWHL’s inaugural year on the broadcast that would be shown on NESN and ESPN3.

“He honestly doesn’t understand much about hockey,” she said, taking a breather on the bench between drills under Interim Head Coach Lisa Giovanelli Zuba. “Ever since I was a little kid he’d say, ‘All you have to do is go end-to-end and score.’ I’d be like, ‘Okay, Papa, let me just do that with Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker on the ice; I’ll just go end-to-end and score.'” Battaglino rolled her eyes affectionately.

She’s still taken the spirit of her grandfather’s words of advice to heart. When it comes to hockey, Battaglino hasn’t let much stop her from getting on the ice.

When, as a sophomore at Boston University, she found her intense class load interfering with the time she was able to give the Terriers. Moving on from NCAA hockey, Battaglino talked to Commissioner Brenda Andress, who granted her a CWHL Draft exemption, and found herself on a team with Hilary Knight, Kacey Bellamy and other Olympians before she had even finished college.

Anya Battaglino, Chelsea Laden, injured, watch practice from the bench at Chelsea Piers. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

Battaglino took on what she termed an “additional player role”, allowing her to play eight games on the Blades while attending all practices and improving her hockey skills, which she saw improve by leaps and bounds. No longer was she a college player — she was a pro.

“I think a lot of that’s due to when you go one-on-one with Kelli Stack, Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight all day and you’re sitting there watching Kacey Bellamy, Gigi Marvin, and Caitlin Cahow,” said Battaglino. “My team was an All-Star team and it was just the Boston roster that year.”

But after two years on the Blades, Battaglino, like many of the Boston players, made the leap to the NWHL. And instead of heading to the Boston Pride alongside the majority of the former Blades, Battaglino made the decision to head to the Connecticut Whale, where her grandfather might not be able to watch every game, but where she could get a fresh start outside of Boston and perhaps a little more ice time.

“I’m all about paving the way,” Battaglino said. “In terms of transferring leagues, it was more just trying to figure out where we can make ourselves actually have a career, a profession, a lifestyle. The opportunity was there. That was a hard choice for me because I was a really avid member of the Blades; I won the Clarkson Cup, I had a great team…I had so much fun. Nothing but great experiences in the CWHL.

“It just came down to traveling and sometimes money is a huge factor,” said Battaglino. “When you look at what you can do and you start building on the home front, that’s what I really wanted to be. I really wanted to start building that type of lifestyle and curating that hockey world in America. That really wasn’t the motivation I was feeling, going to Canada every single weekend. I’m building it in Boston, but that’s not the entirety of the impact I wanted to have.”

Since joining the Whale, Battaglino has made her mark on the team, boasting the highest Corsi For percentage on the team through much of the first half of the season, despite only playing four games before being injured in an on-ice collision with Devon Skeats of the Buffalo Beauts.

Jaime Leonoff walks out to a crowd of fans at NWHL Buffalo Beauts at Connecticut Whale. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

“It’s different what you do when you’re a player and what you do when you’re on the injured reserve,” said Battaglino. “It’s really hard. You go from…every single game Shiann (Darkangelo) and I sauce the puck to each other when she’s done stretching. So now I get on the bench and I toss her a puck. How do you keep up those rituals and how do you still be that hardworking practice player without even being able to practice?

“How do you still make the team better?” Battaglino asked. “That’s what our practice players and third-liners should be doing, is figuring out how to make the team better and accepting your role.”

Throughout her long rehab, Battaglino continued to attend practices and build rapport with her teammates, as well as help cultivate a fanbase for the Whale and the NWHL through intermission appearances on the local broadcast, creative use of social media, and even leading teams of young players in raucous cheers before games. She arranged helmets on benches, kept trainer Paul Fernandes company on the bench and brought young fans out on the ice for the shoot-the-puck competition between periods.

In short, she more than earned her keep, especially since, as a practice player, Battaglino is only compensated for the games in which she plays.

Last Sunday, Battaglino finally got back onto the ice after being practice-ready for a few weeks. During practices Battaglino went hard, but took care to take breathers on the bench so as not to re-injure herself before she could make a triumphant return.

While Battaglino’s first game back was a challenge for her and her teammates, particularly because Battaglino was asked to step up and play a forward role rather than her usual one on the blue line. Despite the disruption to her season, Battaglino was just excited to be back out on the ice and contribute.

She won some faceoffs for her line and tried to make smart plays while exiting the zone in an effort to generate a strong offensive presence against the Boston Pride. While the Whale lost 5-2, Battaglino came off the ice with a spring in her step.

“I played a role-player’s role out there, and I did it to the best of my ability,” said Battaglino. “Coming back into the game and stepping out as a forward was definitely an adjustment but at the end of the game, I was proud of the work I put in.”

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