Lisa Haley never imagined she’d have a hockey career spanning more than two decades — a mindset the Nova Scotian hopes she can change for future generations.
The 47-year-old from Westville, N.S., returns home from Ontario next month for the IIHF women’s world championship with an important new role at the National Women’s Hockey League in hand.
Haley was announced this week as the NWHL’s senior vice-president of operations, which she sees as making sure the product on the ice measures up to professional standards for the young league.
“You look at the success that’s being had in the WNBA and professional women’s golf and soccer … and why isn’t there a professional women’s hockey league to this stage?” Haley said Wednesday.
“I feel like I can be someone that can help move that needle. And, you know, I think the time is now.”
The job includes everything from organizing the entry draft and player development to rules and regulations, Haley said. They are all skills she’s honed over more than 20 years in university hockey.
After starting out with Halifax’s Saint Mary’s Huskies, Haley’s been coaching the Ryerson Rams for the last decade in Toronto.
She was also an assistant coach of Canadian women’s teams that won Olympic gold in 2014, and a world championship in 2012.
When the COVID-19 pandemic meant the Rams couldn’t play last season, Haley said the break led to amazing opportunities. These included getting behind the bench of Hungary’s national women’s team, and being an assistant coach of the NWHL’s Toronto Six.
It was during the NWHL’s two-week bubble season in Lake Placid, N.Y., in late January and early February that Haley said she got to know league commissioner Ty Tumminia.
Haley said she has was impressed with Tumminia’s work to make the league sustainable, but she was also “quite honest” about operational gaps.
Tumminia welcomed the feedback, Haley said, and they had some conversations about how she could support the league. They landed on her new VP role, which allows Haley to keep her Ryerson coaching job.
Haley joins a league, established in 2015, that is different from where it was just eight months ago, she said. Tumminia moved league franchises to independent ownership, which is the most common model for sports leagues.
Haley said that is a crucial step, as there have been many “trials and failures” with professional women’s hockey in North America.
It’s that long-overdue aspect that Haley cites as a main reason to join the league. Although she’s been able to make a living in the game, she said that’s not the case for many women who want to keep going past university level.
Haley studied to be an athletic therapist, since she assumed that was the only way to stay in sports. It never crossed her mind to be a coach, and “that needs to change,” she said.
Her advice to young girls, especially those coming from small towns like herself, is to look for the female role models behind the bench, on the ice, or in the upper administration, because they’re gaining ground.
“It’s definitely a viable career,” Haley said.
“It’s not always easy … but don’t be intimidated by that if it’s what you want. There’s a pathway there, and there’s lots of women who are ready to be there to support you on your journey.”
Although there’s never been a woman behind a NHL bench, female coaches and officials have been making history in other pro leagues like football and basketball.
Haley said it’s only a matter of time until it happens in men’s hockey as well, and points to Hayley Wickenheiser’s role as assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs as a major step.
Haley’s especially looking forward to the IIHF women’s world championship in Halifax and Truro this May.
She’s coaching Hungary, which is in the top tier for the first time. They may be an underdog, but they have a “huge heart,” Haley said.
The tournament schedule was released Thursday. Hockey Canada said in a release it is working with Nova Scotia Public Health on the possibility of fans in the stands.
If that does happen, Haley knows the seats will be filled with supporters from Pictou County when Hungary takes the ice.
Since the NWHL news came out, Haley said the support from “back home” has been overwhelming.
“Everybody’s just so excited for me, and it feels so good to know all that support is there,” Haley said.
“[I] definitely have always had big dreams, and it’s pretty cool to be able to live some of those out in front of those that matter most to me.”
Hungary first faces off against the Czech Republic on May 6 in Truro.