Fresh off a record-breaking season for the Boston College Eagles, one that saw the club enjoy an undefeated regular season, the first in Hockey East play to do so, blueliner Kaliya Johnson signed a one-year offer worth $13,000 with the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale. Of note, Kaliya Johnson becomes the first African-American player to sign with the Whale.
During the NWHL’s inaugural season, Blake Bolden became the first African-American to appear in a regular season game, doing so with the Boston Pride. Not only would she become the first African-American to appear in the league’s All-Star Game, she would also become the first to capture the Clarkson Cup.
The New York Riveters also featured an African-American player on their roster. Despite being assigned as a practice player, Cherie Stewart, who also played with the US national ball hockey team at the 2015 ISBHF Worlds, managed to see some ice time in the regular season. Johnson, who was raised in Arizona, now adds to a growing legacy in NWHL hockey, as visible minorities, both male and female, continue to make significant inroads in the game.
Johnson already brings a solid hockey resume that includes more than just four sensational seasons with the Eagles. Having competed with the US national team at the 2012 IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds, she would capture a silver medal. In the same year, she would win the North American Hockey Academy win the JWHL national championship.
With a Whale roster that lost Kaleigh Fratkin, the league’s leading scorer among blueliners to free agency, Johnson shall be a welcome addition. Considering that the Whale also signed blueliner Cydney Roesler from the ECAC champion Quinnipiac Bobcats, their blueline shall be significantly bolstered for the upcoming season.
Having graduated as one of the top ten career scorers among Eagles blueliners, she would display remarkable consistency and durability in her final season, appearing in all 41 games, as career benchmarks were set for points, goals and assists. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was the fact that she helped the Eagles set a program record for most shutouts in one season with 14.
As a sophomore, Johnson came into her own as she did not miss a game with the Eagles. Leading the team in plus-minus rating (+29), while ranking sceond with an impressive 43 blocked shots, she was also named to the Hockey East All-Tournament Team, displaying an ability to excel in high pressure situations.
Statistically, her senior season would be her strongest, registering a career-high 17 points on the strength of 13 assists. Among her goals, one would prove to be the game-winning tally against Northeastern on November 20, 2015 while another was scored in the Beanpot against Harvard.
Recording at least one point in 15 regular season games, her final goal as a member of the Eagles came against Clarkson during the Frozen Four, advancing to the national championship for the first time in program history. Although the club would lose to the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the national championsnhip game at the Frozen Four, the efforts of seniors such as Johnson will be sorely missed.
Throughout her exceptional Eagles career, Johnson showed tremendous leadership on campus. Not only was she a representative for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at BC, she was also on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for the Atlantic Coast Conference, attending conference meetings twice a year in North Carolina. The focus of said meetings included rules and regulations, the welfare of student athletes and community service.
Such service was definitely a part of what defined Johnson’s efforts, for she was just as dedicatred to giving back to the community and setting a positive example on and off the ice. In addition to helping Boston College Athletics raise money for programs and academic services, she was also trained as a team health representative to assist students in need. Majoring in psychology, Johnson displayed a heart of gold, helping guide student athletes to different resources available on campus.
As a side note, she also served as a student teacher in Boston Public Schools. Among her efforts in such a capacity, she worked in classrooms teaching English as a Second Language.
Although the Whale have definitely signed a promising talent with a fundamentally sound game, the most important aspect may be that they signed a person with great character. In September 2014, Johnson underwent brain surgery after suffering from concussion related syndromes.
Returning on November 8, 2014, she would log an assist against Northeastern. The momentum would continue the following day, as she notched her second point in as many days, another assist, against the Vermont Catamounts. Her first goal that season would also take place in November, scoring on the 22nd against Connecticut.
While Johnson defied the odds and made a heroic comeback, concussions have proven to be a tremendous point of concern in the game, as the injury has brought an abrupt end to many careers. Hopefully, the strain that Johnson endured shall become an example of addressing the need for concussion research and preventing such injuries from plaguing these exceptional women.
As Johnson stated in her own words on the Eagles website, the presence of a Chiari malformation, which meant that her brain was sitting below the base of her skull, applied pressure on her spinal cord. Such exposure was causing many of the headaches that plagued her in the previous offseason.
Despite being unable to start her junior season in 2014-15 due to brain surgery, Johnson would be back on the ice by Christmas, a heroic return for an individual who took on adversity with remarkable courage and dignity. Not only did a return to the ice make Johnson learn to not take the game for granted, it allowed her an empathic approach to other players that are injured, understanding the emotional strain that takes place. It is a somewhat reciprocal experience for Johnson as she saw the true meaning of teamwork when teammates, coaches and her mother showed their support, believing in her abilities and the strength to come back. It is that type of strength and maturity which not only makes Johnson a role model, but is poised to make her one worth watching when the Whale return in the autumn of 2016.