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Kimberly Sass Talks PWHPA, balancing careers off the Ice

Ice hockey player/ JWS
Ice hockey player/ JWS

Kimberly Sass is a professional women’s hockey goalie who helped found, and now plays for, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). Sass played collegiate hockey at Colgate University and has previously played for the Metropolitan Riveters in the NWHL. Below, Sass talks with Just Women’s Sports about the PWHPA’s partnership with the United States Premier Hockey League, how COVID has shaped her perspective on sports, and the future of the PWHPA. 

[Editor’s note: this interview took place the day of the PWHPA New Hampshire Hub’s first game against the Islanders Hockey Club of the USPHL]

How are you feeling coming back to play after so long?

Yeah, of course everyone hasn’t been on the ice for awhile. We just held tryouts last weekend and had one practice on Wednesday. We are trying to get acquainted with each other and just figure out who our teammates are. We are so happy the PWHPA has partnered with the USPHL this season — it’s offering us so much more competition and training. It’s so important right now especially during COVID because there are so many more options for teams we could play in just the Northeast alone.

It sounds like such a great opportunity.  

Definitely. I recently watched Billie Jean King’s documentary on HBO. It reviewed her Battle of the Sexes match and it made me think of this weekend and our partnership with the USPHL. For us, we are not trying to treat this partnership as a “Battle of the Sexes” but as a training opportunity and a way to get extra competition throughout the season. I do think it’s hard, though, to not want to try and prove yourself, you know what I mean?

What do you think it will be like competing against the men’s teams? 

A lot of our players grew up playing on boys teams. I played with boys for one year when I first started and then I actually played on my high school’s boys JV and Varsity teams. Overall, I think we are familiar with skating with men’s teams here and there. In terms of competing with them in more of a season formate, I think that might be new for some players. I’m sure there will be a transition period, but I think we will be fine.

This weekend will be the first of five Regional Training hubs to play this year. Can you explain more about that model and why the PWHPA chose it? 

Sure. Last year was the first year of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) and we had seven regions for training. This year, two of the regions were eliminated because we moved towards a model where each region would have more of a team feel. So the five regions were selected based on the number of players that lived in that area. Most players lived in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Minnesota and New Hampshire. There are going to be some floater players who can’t relocate to those regions, but for the most part, we have enough players in those regions to hold high-level, high-tempo practices.

How has COVID-19 impacted the PWHPA’s mission and operations? 

When COVID first hit, we were waiting to see how it would all play out in terms of partners coming back for the second Dream Gap Tour. We were trying to figure out the logistics of travel and when we could actually play again. We were pleasantly surprised with how many of our existing partners returned and we actually have some new partners who jumped on board, too. In terms of the Dream Gap Tour showcase events which are typically hosted by NHL teams, we are shooting to begin those in January. Up until then, most teams will be selecting their own rosters and practicing in their hubs.

What are your expectations for game play given how much time players had to take off due to COVID?

It really depends on every player’s situation and if they had access to rinks or gyms. I think, for the most part, people were okay with the COVID break and just jumped right back in. As female athletes, we are used to high pressure situations. A lot of us work, too. Like, for this game tonight, I am working an entire day before I go step onto the ice. I’m on my lunch break right now. I’m in a hotel room working from home as an architectural designer. I found this quote once, and I forget who said it, but they said, “Pressure is a privilege.” I think we all just try to appreciate every time we are able to get on the ice.

I really like that. How has quarantine been for you? Do you have access to a gym?

I started doing a lot of home workouts, for sure. I actually moved from Jersey City back to my hometown in Buffalo, New York. Luckily, a local gym there called Revolution Buffalo started doing outdoor spin classes, circuit training and strength training so I try to do as many of those as possible. I purchased an indoor cycling bike, I have my TRX strap and my chin up bar. I got a slide board for my apartment to try and work on my lateral movement as a goalie. But it was definitely not as traditional as my usual offseason training. We all just made it work and now we’re going to put in that much more work to get to where we need to be.

What are some of your personal goals for this year? 

Just to enjoy every moment that I have on the ice. I’m getting older, I guess, in terms of ages of female hockey players — I’m turning 30 in November. I just want to give it my all this season in terms of training and really cherishing the moments because we don’t know how much longer we’re going to get these opportunities.

Has COVID made you appreciate playing more? 

I think, for certain players, the COVID break made them contemplate retiring. Some people considered not playing this season. I know that crossed my mind a little bit. I think that reflection and that realization that you don’t know when you are going to play next motivates you when you do have the opportunity to play.

How have you personally managed your architecture career with the PWHPA over the past few years? 

I graduated from Colgate University in 2012 and went right into my masters of architecture program in Buffalo. There were no paid professional hockey opportunities in the United States and I did not want to delay my career by moving to Europe, so I just went right into grad school. In my final year of the architecture program, I played in the NWHL. I just knew that I wasn’t finished with hockey. I ended up moving to New York to pursue an architecture job and I also played for the Metropolitan Riveters for two years. In 2019, many of us players decided to leave the league and form the PWHPA in hopes of creating a truly professional, sustainable league with a livable wage and plenty of resources.

I haven’t answered the question, but I think I’m just used to juggling all these things. I think being a student athlete teaches you that balance and, for me, stepping on the ice is a way to clear my head. I also think my personality is to just get things done. And I’ve always tried to be a leader in terms of women’s hockey, so I really appreciate my position on the board for the PWHPA.

What does the PWHPA need to do to advance its goal of establishing a viable professional league? 

I think we need to treat these exhibition games as opportunities to always be improving our skills and level of play. Once we do have that big stage to play on, we have to be able to prove to everyone that we deserve this.

After these regional exhibitions, is there a next step? What is the PWHPA going to do after? 

The next step would be to have a full Dream Gap Tour season. Usually the tour runs from October to March, but with COVID, we are hoping that the showcase tournament weekends start in January. And then, ideally, we want to create more of a partnership with the NHL and create more of a structure of an actual league with pay. That’s what we’re shooting for.

What would a successful season look like in your eyes? 

A successful season for the PWHPA players would look like players not having to work a full time job before going to a game. It would look like players being able to train on the ice whenever they choose and having access to workout facilities and full-size arenas. You know, the pay has to be there in order to attract the top talent. We’re shooting for a broadcast deal and just a total professional atmosphere with medical staff and equipment managers.

Do you have anything else you would like to add? 

I think the most important message is that we’re striving for something better. We’re trying to keep the movement going. The goal is a future professional, sustainable league for women’s professional hockey. We deserve it. We’re going to continue to prove ourselves over and over again in these games. So join us, watch us, follow us and look forward to great things happening.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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