Shortly after her family moved to North Carolina, Alyssa Gagliardi ’14 was faced with a decision – play all the way up at the Under-16 level with the only girls team within hundreds of miles or give up competitive hockey. Seventeen years later, she’s working toward ensuring that the next wave of great girls hockey players won’t be faced with the same dilemma.
Back in her hometown of Raleigh, Gagliardi has become a bastion for growing the women’s game at all levels. She serves as a board member for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, and she’s now on staff with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes as the Girls’ and Women’s Youth and Amateur Hockey Specialist.
“I’m kind of lucky, because not many organizations are doing that quite yet,” Gagliardi said of her female-focused position, which was created about a year ago. “Some have female ambassadors or a one-off event here and there, but I was very fortunate that the Hurricanes are very committed to growing hockey in general. They don’t care if its girls, boys, adults, kids, whatever it may be. They want more hockey fans. … It’s really a testament to the people there that they’re focused on making North Carolina a good hockey state, and making Raleigh a great hockey town by creating more passion for the game.”
Alyssa Gagliardi competes for the Cornell womens hockey team in a game against Mercyhurst at Lynah Rink in Ithaca, N.Y. (Patrick Shanahan/Cornell Athletiics)Gagliardi’s new position comes within an organization that was once part of the NHL’s advances into non-traditional hockey markets during the 1990s. Once considered a niche sport, the league boldly pushed its footprint into warmer-weather climates. Expansion teams were granted for metropolitan areas like Tampa, Miami, Atlanta, Nashville and Anaheim. Through the decade, three teams also emigrated south – including the move of the Hartford Whalers to become the Carolina Hurricanes.
It was a move that was maligned by much of the hockey world – partly because of the Whalers’ relatively small but loyal fan base, and also partly because the team didn’t get off to a particularly hot start in the Tar Heel State. The Hurricanes had to play home games 90 miles from its base for the first two years in Carolina. Attendance lagged even into the team’s early years at the brand-new PNC Arena until a 2001-02 season that saw the Hurricanes advance to the Stanley Cup finals.
It was around that time when Gagliardi’s family relocated to the Raleigh area from Pittsburgh, where Alyssa was born. She played her first year in the area on a team primarily consisting of boys, but didn’t have that option the following year. The only way to keep playing was to compete with girls that were up to five years older than her at the time. But the establishment of the Hurricanes’ fan base would start to tickle down into all levels of youth hockey.
“It’s really cool to see the growth,” Gagliardi said. “When we moved here when I was 10, there was just boys hockey. Now there are two girls teams for every age level.”
After playing four years at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a renowned prep school in Minnesota, Gagliardi was a preeminent two-way threat on the Big Red’s blue line for one of the program’s greatest four-year stretches. She racked up 87 points on 20 goals and 67 assists from 2010-14 while also accruing an astronomical plus-96 rating. Cornell qualified for the NCAA tournament in each of Gagliardi’s four seasons on East Hill, and she was a second-team All-America selection after a senior year in which she also served as a co-captain.
One of the experiences Gagliardi recalls fondly is the Cub Club, a behind-the-scenes hallmark of the Cornell women’s hockey program. A partnership with the Tompkins Girls Hockey Association, the program pairs local girls hockey players with a “big sister” on the Big Red. Cub Club members and their families are always found at Cornell home games, then they visit with their big sisters in the locker room after the contests.
“I loved the Cub Club. For me and so many of the women’s hockey players that have come through Cornell, it’s really helped spark some of the interest to help the next wave of players,” Gagliardi said. “My experience at Cornell helped stoke that passion a little bit of wanting to give back and be a role model or mentor. I just want to be someone young players can talk to and ask for advice, and then you can share your experience.”
That experience continued into the professional ranks. Gagliardi has the unique distinction of winning league titles in consecutive seasons with two different teams based in the same city – first with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s Boston Blades in 2015, then the National Women’s Hockey League’s Boston Pride in 2016. After three more years with the Pride, Gagliardi is now one of nine board members of the PWHPA – an organization formed in May 2019 to unite some of the world’s best players in an effort to pave the way for a sustainable professional women’s hockey league that can pay its players a living wage.
“It’s an interesting balancing act we’re in right now where you do want to make sure more and more girls are getting involved in hockey across North America and the world, but you also want to make sure they have a better future in the game, too,” Gagliardi said.
The PWHPA has 10 Cornell alumna among its membership. Like Gagliardi, Brianne Jenner ’15 serves on the board. Critics of the movement might say that it’s stunting the growth that women’s professional hockey has seen over the last 10 years – but proponents challenge just how professional the professional teams are. Player salaries have been more akin to part-time jobs, and there have been other contentious issues like health care and dissemination of league revenue.
“For so many people, you work all day and then you practice at night. You’re not really getting better,” Gagliardi said. “That was always so frustrating, especially after coming from Cornell with Doug and the coaching staff that we had and how committed everyone was to getting better. You didn’t have those resources when you left.”
The most likely path to the PWPHA’s goal would be through a partnership with the NHL mimicking what the NBA and WNBA have established over the last 23 years. The progress has been slow, but steady.
“We have a number of NHL teams that are looking to host an event and be a cause for the mission,” Gagliardi said. “To me, it’s just a no-brainer to invest in the women’s game, because it’s more fans and more revenue. It’s no longer just an all-boys club.”
And that’s where Gagliardi’s worlds with the Hurricanes and the PWPHA collide. While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed rollout of some of the programs she is leading, there is optimism that a green light will appear by the spring. It’s a progressive initiative that with success, would likely lead to other NHL teams adding similar positions – thus leading to growth, both for hockey in general and specifically for the women’s game. That growth and potentially direct involvement with the NHL could then theoretically pave the way for the professional league the PWPHA covets.
“No one’s expecting million-dollar contracts, but enough to actually live off of and not have to have a full-time job and not practice twice a week,” Gagliardi said. “It’s something I’m very passionate about for a more sustainable future for the game.”
RALEIGH, NC – Don Waddell, President and General Manager of the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes, today announced that the team has hired Alyssa Gagliardi as its Girls’ and Women’s Youth and Amateur Hockey Specialist.
“We’re excited to add Alyssa to our organization,” said Waddell. “We’re committed to growing girls’ and women’s hockey in our community, and she’ll be a major part of those efforts.”
In her role, Gagliardi will be involved in all aspects of the Hurricanes Youth and Amateur outreach efforts. Her focus will be to organize and run the team’s Girls and Women’s youth and amateur events, including leading the development of a Girls Continue to Play program, as well as new female camps and clinics. She will also teach floor hockey clinics at elementary and middle schools in North Carolina as part of the Industry Growth Fund in-school program and consult with other Female Hockey Ambassadors and Hockey Development Departments across the NHL to advise the club on female-focused initiatives.
As a player, Gagliardi tallied 25 points (3g, 22a) in 65 games with the National Women’s Hockey League’s (NWHL) Boston Pride. Named an NWHL All-Star in 2016 and 2018, she helped the Pride capture the Isobel Cup in 2016. Before joining the Pride, she registered four points (2g, 2a) in 21 games with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s (CWHL) Boston Blades and won a Clarkson Cup championship in 2015. Gagliardi is currently a player and board member with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA), which is aimed at promoting a single, viable professional women’s hockey league in North America. Born in Raleigh and raised in Cary, N.C., Gagliardi recorded 88 points (20g, 68a) in 138 NCAA games with Cornell from 2010-14 and captained the Big Red as a senior.