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From the Rafter: How I Became a Pro Hockey Player

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Written by Tatiana Rafter, NWHL Free Agent

Tatiana Rafter signing her first pro contract with the Buffalo Beauts, NWHL
Tatiana Rafter signing her first pro contract with the Buffalo Beauts, NWHL
Tatiana Rafter

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of blog posts by 2015-2016 Buffalo Beauts player and current NWHL free agent Tatiana Rafter. If you have questions for Tatiana or particular topics you'd like to see her cover in this series, leave comments or tweet us at @cupofchowdah.

OK, where do I even start?

Let's backtrack to April 2015. I was finishing up some exams at the University of British Columbia and my university hockey career with the UBC Thunderbirds had just come to an end. I was coming off a successful season with the T-Birds and upon graduating the program I left as UBC's most decorated female hockey player as well as attaining league honors along the way. I was starting to think about what I would be doing come September in terms of my hockey and my life in general. This was tough because I knew my options were pretty limited as far as hockey went. I was set on playing a high level and wasn't quite ready to play overseas or hang up my skates. I remember it being very strange that my eligibility was done and I no longer was able to fall back on the idea that I still had another year left. I began to explore the options of how I would continue my career and if so, what did I need to do to make that happen? What happens to my hockey career now that I have hit the end of my CIS eligibility?

I was sitting down and talking with my UBC coach Graham Thomas and he thought I would fit in well in the CWHL, which is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. This league is a professional women’s hockey league in Canada with teams in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Boston and Ontario. I was interested in playing for the Calgary Inferno since it was the closest to my hometown out of all the teams. Graham started some of the communication there for me with the Inferno. It seemed like the organization was interested and I began to make my summer plans around preparing to try out for the Inferno or at least be ready for the season if I was drafted. I wasn't quite sure how the whole process worked at the time.

After my exam period in April was finished I headed home to Winnipeg, Manitoba for the summer. By the beginning of May I had started waitressing at a local restaurant in addition to taking a couple courses online through UBC and had started to set up my training out of Focus Fitness at the MTS Iceplex. I was still weighing out the CWHL option as well as entertaining the idea of just returning to UBC to finish my undergrad degree in September.

From here I want to fast forward to June 8th!

This is when my coach Graham Thomas was sent an email from Becky Saldago about contacting a few of his graduating players in regards to playing in a new league called the NWHL and I was among the list of names she had inquired about. The only information at this point was that I was being invited to attend a training camp this summer for a chance to play for one of the Founding Four teams in the NWHL. What was enticing about this opportunity was that your job would be playing hockey. The CWHL was a well established and high quality league which was a big draw and the opportunity to play in the NWHL seemed like more of a leap of faith. However, the NWHL would provide me with a salary from within my commitment to the sport and this was a really attractive quality. I don't mean this in the sense I would make more money in the NWHL so I wanted to play there; what I do mean is that if I was able to make money by playing hockey this would allow me to dedicate all my time, focus and energy to becoming a more elite hockey player than if my attention was divided between balancing a full time job and my athletic aspirations. I believed at the time that most players in the CWHL had full time jobs to in order to support themselves and then played hockey in addition. I think the main reason I decided to try out for the NWHL was for a chance to commit to elevating my game with fewer distractions. I don't think there was a good or bad choice to be made but I was definitely thinking about my development as a hockey player.

After communicating a little with a couple NWHL representatives, I was invited to choose a skate on the NWHL Canadian Tour which proved a bit of a challenge financially. I didn't have a whole lot of money saved up as I was only home from university for a short while, but my family really supported my dream to play pro. Some of my family members' miles were pooled together to send me to the Toronto skate of the NWHL Canadian Tour tryouts. What this consisted of was ONE hour and a half skate on July 8th which was supposed to be drills/skills for half an hour followed by a scrimmage for the last hour. However, the numbers at the skate weren't as high as anticipated and I believe there was twelve skaters and two goaltenders. This meant more drills and a half hour scrimmage, which turned out to be 4v4 with only one sub! I was convinced one of the girls on my team for the 4v4 was going to puke... I don't think she had been training at all leading up to this tryout (haha). She was currently working as a barista at Starbucks and told me she hadn't gone for a run in a couple months. So she struggled pretty hard. Also, a fun fact is that Devon Skeats was at the Toronto Skate with me and that marked the first time we met. I believe that she signed with Buffalo that day but don't quote me on that! It's crazy to think that a few months later Skeats and I would be teammates, roommates and best friends.

I felt pretty good about the Toronto skate. I had been moving my feet, putting some pucks in the net and having fun out there. After the practice was over, we all headed to the change room and Dani Rylan came in to say a few words. I was thrown into this tryout situation without a whole lot of information and I think this was the moment I learned Dani was in fact the commissioner of the NWHL! She read out a list of our jersey numbers and if yours was called you were to head upstairs. There were some GMs present and they were signing the girls they were already in contact with Prior to the skate. My jersey number wasn't called and I wasn't sure what that meant exactly. I remember thinking that I needed to get my name and my face out there because of all the sacrifices I had made to just get to Toronto for this one skate. When Dani exited the locker room I headed out to the hallway skates and all and introduced myself to Dani. This is kind of funny to look back on because I am already 5'10" off the ice so I was towering over Dani as I shook her hand. I mentioned to her that I had a flight in a couple hours back to WInnipeg and I wanted to catch her before I left the arena. I told her that I would love to be a part of the NWHL and asked what the next steps were? What could I do to earn a spot? There wasn't much information available at this time so these were crucial questions. She asked me, "Would you be able to attend the International Camp in Boston?" I replied yes, which she found a bit funny because she hadn't mentioned the dates yet.

A couple days later I was emailed about my tryout in Toronto and that I had been invited to the International Camp and Beantown Classic in Boston. The dates for this were July 22-25th and it was set up as a skate with all NWHL signees and potential players along with playing on an NWHL tryout team that was entered into the Beantown Classic. I remember when I found out I could go to Boston for another shot I was headed into work to waitress and was pretty excited about the news. I kept smiling as I was standing at the back of the restaurant polishing silverware and a co worker asked me what kept putting a grin on my face. I told them, "I have a shot at being a professional hockey player." They didn't have any idea what the NWHL was or that women's professional hockey already existed in Canada so their response was something along the lines of, "Tat, did you get too much sun today?"

My travel to Boston involved another pooling of air miles. I felt pretty bad using the points again but it just made me even more dedicated to focusing on this opportunity. I also knew that it would be worth the risk! When it was getting closer to my travel to Boston the itinerary was emailed to all the players. The first skate was strictly an international players scouting skate and was scheduled at a rink in a completely different area than the Beantown Classic tournament. This rink turned out to be insanely far from my hotel. I asked the NWHL for some of the contacts of other girls trying out and I ended up getting in touch with Corinne Buie, who later became a member of the Boston Pride and one of my opponents in the Isobel Cup finals! Corinne and her mom scooped me up from my hotel in Marlborough and I carpooled with them to the International Skate. Corinne and I both had no idea what our futures held in terms of playing in the NWHL but we were keen on playing. Corinne worked at a bakery in Boston at the time and was looking to keep her hockey career alive. It's so crazy to think back after playing an entire season against each other.

I found a friendly face in the locker room once we got to the International Skate rink. It was like no time had passed since we last saw each other as Chantal Lyschynski and I chatted in the locker room and caught up. We went to high school together at Balmoral Hall School in Winnipeg, MB and played for the Balmoral Hall Blazers. She was coming off a stellar season for Liberty University and if I am not mistaken cleaned up a couple awards too! She was trying to fill a goaltending position in the NWHL and we decided that we may as well split the hotel costs. She had come to the skate with a girl from France who she met at the Montreal leg of the NWHL Canadian tour. Her friend had driven to the Boston tryouts from Montreal (so far...yikes!) and we ended up being a trio going everywhere throughout the Boston tryout process together.

After the International Skate, Dani pulled me aside to talk about what position I would be playing in the tournament that weekend. She let me know that Chad Wiseman had seen me play and they wanted to watch how I played on the point. Throughout the tournament I played half my games on the point and the others at forward.

I was initially placed on NWHL team black and as the tournament went on I ended up being moved to team white. While on team black we lost a game that eliminated us from the rest of the tournament. After that game ended Dani came into the room and thanked us for being there. It was similar to after the Toronto skate, where she listed off numbers in the room. If you heard your number, you were to come back the next day for a meeting at 11am and were to bring your gear. The plan was to place players of interest onto the remaining NWHL tryout teams in the tournament. Unfortunately my friend Chantal was released from the NWHL tryouts that night and I had continued on. She still stayed in Boston the next day and was a really supportive friend.

While I was on Team Black I became fast friends with Paige Harrington, who is now one of my best friends after having lived and played with her all season with the Beauts. As Dani read out the numbers I was listening closely and was sure she said my number, and was pretty sure that Paige's was called as well. However, after Dani left the room I started to talk to Paige and joked around that we live to fight another day. She replied, "yeah man you'll kill it, good luck!" I was confused by her response and tried to reassure her.. No, no Paige I am pretty sure I heard your number called. She was convinced she had been cut.

So after we showered up I went to the lobby to say goodbyes to some of the girls and what happened next I will never forget. Paige went up to Dani and shook her hand. She said something along the lines, "Thank you so much for the opportunity, I had a blast". Dani responded to Paige saying, "Wait, I'll see you tomorrow though right?" I remember Paige just going with it and saying, "Oh yah, Right! see ya tomorrow!" She came over to me and a few of the girls and was just relieved! We had a couple of laughs..

The next day was July 25th, and it was the last day of the Beantown Classic. I attended the NWHL meeting at 11am and it was a player Q and A. All of the players in the room were already signed minus a few. Paige, myself and a few others. I guess there was a good chance a team was interested in us if we were allowed in that meeting. During the meeting Dani and the Boston GM Hayley Moore talked about the league. Topics were health insurance, visas, practice times, etc. After the meeting Paige and I were put onto NWHL team white.

We played in the semi final following the q and a against NWHL team red. I was actually D partners with Paige that game, which is probably the reason we won the semi final ;). Our next game was later that day against Team Reebok. That squad was essentially the US National Team with some Canadian national team members on it as well. It was actually a really close game and we battled!! I believe Team Reebok scored with ten seconds remaining in the game to come away with a 2-1 W.

After the game we took some photos and went to the dressing rooms to change. I had sat between Nana Fujimoto for that game and it was really awesome to get to know her. A neat thing about the Boston tryouts were that I had the chance to meet so many interesting people. One of those people was Naz. Her name is actually Whitney Naslund, but everyone calls her Naz. She played for the Boston Blades the previous season in the CWHL and she seemed to become a bit of an emotional confident for me during the tryout process. It was a pretty emotionally stressful situation because I am so passionate about hockey and If I didn't make a team in the CWHL or NWHL my hockey career would most likely be over. I was fighting for my career. I was talking with Naz about this after the game and my passion for the game was evident to her. I think I was feeling mildly discouraged in this moment because I had dedicated myself fully to this opportunity and knew that quite a few girls had signed contract during the Beantown Classic. She pulled me aside in the rink lobby and asked if she could pray for me. It was a really touching moment that has really has stuck with me. We joined hands and closed our eyes and I remember her words really washed the weight of the world off my shoulders. She really helped me relax and think that what's meant to happen will happen.

From the rink, I headed back to the hotel with Chantal and her friend from France. We went to Texas Steakout for a farewell dinner and also because we felt we deserved it! Chantal's flight was that night and mine was the following day.

Back in Winnipeg, MB I wasn't sure if anything would come of my experience in Boston but I kept busy and awaited some news. I was sent a contract for the Beauts on August 3rd and upon reviewing it I signed it on August 8th I believe!

I was so happy to have Paige Harrington sign as well and we started looking for a house to live together in. We wanted to get some other teammates on board and we ended up rallying Devon Skeats, Hannah McGowan and Hayley WIlliams to join in. Paige’s mom ended up finding a house and we had our teammate Kim Sass go check it out. She thought it would be a good fit and a couple housing applications later that marked the beginning of the Buffalo Beauts Hockey House. In this house a lot of lifelong friendships were forged and it is so crazy to for me to look back on where my NWHL season began!

And that's the beginning of the story - how I became a professional hockey player!