North Carolina has hockey throughout many levels: the Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League, the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League, the Fayetteville Marksmen of the Southern Professional Hockey League, the Carolina Thunderbirds of the Federal Prospects Hockey League and multiple college teams highlighted by the nationally competitive NC State Icepack.
All of these teams have two main similarities. They are competitive cross-state adult leagues and they are all for men. North Carolina lacks a competitive team for women, and that is exactly what the NC State women’s club hockey team is aiming to change.
Club president, sophomore Emily Petersen, hopes the club will provide opportunities for others like herself to be able to play at the collegiate level.
“Growing up, you would always see at least some girls around the rink,” Petersen said. “Obviously the guy’s team here has its reputation that it’s built as a nationally recognized program, and then you have the Hurricanes, but there isn't really anything for women. So to have an opportunity to grow the women's game down here is not something we take lightly. We do realize that it's something we have an opportunity to do, and hopefully, we’ll take advantage of that.”
Petersen said the idea to start the club was a collaborative effort with current NC State men’s head coach Mike Gazzillo.
“I was at a practice around last Christmas, and Mike happened to be there, and one of the coaches who I’m good friends with was like ‘Oh, that’s Mike Gazzillo, he coaches the guy’s team, you should go talk to him,’” Petersen said. “I walked up and introduced myself, and he was like ‘If you are interested in trying to start a girls’ team, I would love that, and I’ll help you out. I’d love to get that going if we have enough interest.’”
Gazzillo and Petersen aren’t the only ones excited about the potential of a women’s club team right here in North Carolina. Former Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’s Hockey League All-Star and Champion, Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association leader and fellow Raleigh native, Alyssa Gagliardi was just as excited.
“It’s so awesome that NC State is putting together a club team on the women's side,” Gagliardi said, in a phone interview. “When I was growing up, there was only one girls’ team, a U-16 team comprised of girls from Virginia all the way down to Florida. It was pretty spread out, but to know now that there are at least two girls’ teams at almost every junior level, it’s just so incredible to see.”
Another famous onlooker the women’s club has garnered the attention of is ESPN anchor John Buccigross. Buccigross, who has been an ESPN anchor since 1996, is a huge supporter of college hockey and frequently offers his support to various teams throughout the country.
Buccigross made a generous $2,000 donation to the NC State women’s club hockey’s GoFundMe. As of Nov. 2, their GoFundMe has raised a little over $4,000 of their $5,000 goal.
Both have shown tremendous support for the team, but a lot of the buzz was first generated by the local communities here in Raleigh.
“I think people down here just appreciate good hockey regardless of what gender it is,” Gagliardi said. “They love the atmosphere and being able to support something. I think with the Hurricanes making the playoffs last year for the first time in a decade, it’s going to do such great things for the continued growth of the sport down here.”
While Gagliardi was already a known figure in the hockey world, Petersen got a moment in the local spotlight herself, being one of the Hurricanes’ Siren Sounders on their Girls’ and Women’s Hockey Night as part of the Hockey is For Everyone campaign on Oct. 11.
“People are really excited for us,” Petersen said. “It’s really cool to see that it’s not just something that if someone doesn't continue it, it will die. People really want this to succeed, and they really want to see women's hockey down here.”
A women’s club team is about more than just women’s hockey in general. It's an opportunity, like with any other club, to form connections and bonds, meeting people with similar passions, but also, more uniquely, to have that college athletic experience.
“College hockey was really great,” Gagliardi said. “I loved my time at Cornell. I made friends that are still my best friends today, and I got to play with girls that were on the Canadian Olympic team. I got to improve on and off the ice in so many areas thanks, in part, due to a great coaching staff that really helped develop me as a person and my confidence on and off the ice. I look back and pretty much everything in my life is somehow related to hockey, so I’m really grateful for the experience I had there and afterwards.”
“It’s such a great opportunity,” Gagliardi continued. “I think, for one, girls can continue to stay local. If they grow up playing hockey here, they can still continue to play through their college careers, and I think that is really special and unique. People have family down here, and if they want to stay in state or stay somewhere warm, they have the opportunity to do that. You see the support that the NC State men's team gets, and I think the women’s club can be another avenue that people can use to expand their college athletic experience and provide new opportunities and new friendships.”
Currently, the club looks to have 16-20 members of varying degrees of experience. From members who have played hockey for many years to those who simply like hockey and want to try their hands at it. The club is looking to get in some games for November and December and is still working on the logistics of those, but say they will be playing in games come February with a women’s tournament in Winston Salem and a match against Virginia.
“We have to start somewhere,” Petersen said. “We do have some people that are brand new, but we have a core group of players that have played before. It will be a challenge to balance that, but I’d say we will grow to be more competitive in the next few years. For this season, we are just trying to get things started. In the next two years though, we hope to start getting much more competitive.”
With still a long way to go, these women are breaking the ground for something truly special in North Carolina. With NC State setting an example, the hope is that more women around the area will be inspired to start women’s teams at other colleges, and that, soon enough, the game will be flourishing in more than just men’s leagues.
“It’s amazing what they are doing,” Gagliardi said. “I’m sure there will be problems early on with starting a new program, but they have the support from the school and the area and that’s what they need to really make it successful. Despite there being so many challenges that are involved with starting a new program, there are going to be so many more successes. Just continuing to embrace that and embrace the journey and, above all, to make sure you are having fun because they are getting to play the sport they love. It’s really incredible what they are doing, and I can’t wait to follow along.”
*Editor's Note: Edited to correct the spelling of NC State women's club hockey president Emily Petersen.