Kimberly Sass among compelling role models in current landscape of PWHPA

A multi-talented individual whose proficiency between the pipes is only part of a much more profound narrative, the remarkable career of Kimberly Sass involves a cerebral component that is equally fascinating. Distinguished by her trademark round glasses, balancing hockey with an occupation as an Architectural Designer, capable of excelling at both, incorporating the values of practice and preparation in fields that are both highly detail-oriented, Sass embodies the facets of achievement and empowerment, qualities that have established her as an admired competitor in the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA).

Having also added the title of entrepreneur, establishing a coaching-based enterprise dubbed 1335 Goaltending, featured current PWHPA goaltenders, and former Metropolitan Riveters teammates, Katie Fitzgerald and Sarah Bryant. Enhancing her status as a true renaissance woman, Sass, who majored in studio art and geography at Colgate University, continues to display her visual proficiencies.

With a creative vision that has involved fascinating social media posts for her ETSY shop, Rusted Tower Design, she was also renowned for her ability to create emojis during her time with the Riveters. Emulating Keith Kinkaid, a backstop with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, whose tweets, consisting of numerous emojis, gained him a degree of acclaim, Sass’ efforts held the potential to create a strong connection between the two franchises. Undeniably, the result was a tremendous bonding experience with the Riveters fan base, adding an exciting new dimension to the franchise’s footprint on social media.

Additionally, Sass added a new dimension to her own impact on social media, participating in a highly stimulating thread, discussing the concept of professional athletes and brand sponsorship. The result was a pleasant surprise, as Sass issued a tweet geared toward Heinz ketchup, who actually provided a response, mentioning how the name of the university she competed at held the unique connection to another highly revered brand name, Colgate. With ketchup representing a favorite condiment with her staple foods, her creativity resulted in a video, including a very creative hashtag: #NothingGetsBeHeinzMe.

Raised in Western New York, the product of East Amherst, Sass, who also tried figure skating as a youth, followed in her father’s footsteps and stood between the pipes. Starring with the Buffalo Bisons as a teenager, she would remain in her home state to pursue her NCAA career. Making the journey approximately 200 miles east of Buffalo, past Syracuse, aligned with the Colgate Raiders, she quickly impressed. As a freshman, Sass set the program record, (since broken), for most wins in a season with 14, while pacing the ECAC Conference with a .941 save percentage.

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Following such a fantastic campaign, Sass enjoyed a tremendous haul of hockey hardware, amassing the ECAC Goaltender of the Year, ECAC First Team, becoming the first Raiders goaltender to earn the honor, and ECAC All-Rookie Team honors. Additionally, she garnered the program’s Rookie of the Year Award.

With 93 games to her credit after four seasons in Raiders paraphernalia, Sass garnered three ECAC All-Academic honors, demonstrating the perseverance and character required to succeed as a student-athlete. Fittingly, Sass’ career with the Raiders involved a pair of highly prestigious honors. Including the Don Palmateer Award, given in recognition by the Center Ice Club to a Raiders player who combined values such as leadership and inspiration resulted in a profound and positive impact on the women’s hockey program. Complemented by the Marian LeFevre Coach’s Award, a prize that truly commemorates a career which demonstrated a remarkable attitude and dedication to the program, such honors cemented the status of the celebrated Sass as an icon in Raiders lore.

Becoming the seventh player in program history to compete in the professional ranks, joining the likes of Tara French, Mallory Johnston, Kate Wolgemuth, Kiira Dosdall, Samantha Hunt and Evan Minnick, Sass earned a master’s degree in architecture at the University at Buffalo.

Photo credit: Jeff Rider

Fittingly, the Queen City would mark Sass’ return to hockey, enjoying three seasons of professional hockey. Returning to her Western New York roots by signing with the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts, where she served in a back-up capacity to Brianne McLaughlin, she followed it up by a pair of seasons with the Metropolitan Riveters franchise. Highlighted by the prestige of winning the Isobel Cup in 2018, an historic first for the Riveters, Sass also called fellow Raiders alum Kiira Dosdall as her teammate.

Adorned in a Riveters’ championship ball cap, Sass with the Isobel Cup (Image obtained from facebook)

Sass’ final season with the Riveters (2018-19) proved to be her finest. Appearing in 12 games, part of a crowded goaltending picture which included Katie Fitzgerald, who led the team with 15 appearances between the pipes, along with second year backstop Sarah Bryant and Russian-born rookie Maria Sokorina, Sass would also partake in the postseason, marking her final appearance with the franchise.

Before Sass’ career in the NWHL reached its conclusion, there was one more milestone accentuating her time there. Named a co-recipient of the NWHL Foundation Award, recognizing one player from each franchise as role models in the game, demonstrating a dedication to betterment in the community, it was an honor shared alongside the likes of Connecticut’s Sarah Hughson, Buffalo’s Kelly Babstock, Minnesota’s Hannah Brandt and Boston’s Mallory Souliotis.

Embarking on a new chapter for the 2019-20 season, Sass was among a compelling gathering of gregarious group of superlative goaltending talent involved with the Professional Women’s Hockey Player’s Association (PWHPA). Including the likes of fellow backstops Katie Burt, Lauren Dahm, Kassidy Sauve, Emerance Maschmeyer and Alex Rigsby, among others, Sass, classified as a Tri-State Player, established herself as part of a remarkable movement in sporting equality dedicated towards positively transforming the game’s status, while heralding an emboldened new era involving a living wage.

Also a significant part of Sass’ focus involves her place on the PWHPA’s Board. With standing as a representative for non-national team (NNT) players, Sass holds a highly significant role, as the vast majority of competitors in the professional game hold such status. Taking into account how NNT players are the true backbone of the game, possessing a significant talent and enthusiasm for the game, a difficult reality is the fact that said players also work second jobs, the game sometimes a secondary priority due to financial obligations.

While the goal has long been allowing players an opportunity to transition from the collegiate to the professional ranks without the concern of a second job, a plight that plagued many men’s professional sports leagues for more than half of the 20th Century, wages not reaching lucrative amounts until the 1970s and 80s. Sass certainly ponders the future with optimism, hoping that she can be part of overcoming this next major challenge for the game.

”I am honored to have been selected for the PWHPA Board! As a player with multiple careers myself, I take pride in being able to advocate for those who have found themselves in this position of having multiple jobs to support hockey. I enjoy the opportunity to make Professional Women’s Hockey a better place for NNT players and those players currently with second jobs, but with the end goal of having players earn a livable wage so that they can progress straight from college into professional hockey. I think we will all be ecstatic the day that a college graduate player secures a livable wage in her next season in a truly professional league.”

Having first appeared at the Dunkin’ Showcase in Hudson, New Hampshire, the first American stop on the PWHPA’s Dream Gap Tour, Sass played with Team Stecklein, its nomenclature recognizing team captain Lee Stecklein. With an offseason filled with worry for many players, the opportunity to return to the ice brought with it a feeling of euphoria, providing an aspect of relief that helped evaporate any tensions or concerns, replaced by a jovial innocence within the parameters of the frozen surface.

With Team Stecklein enjoying a 6-3 victory over Team Flanagan in their opening game, Sauvé, like Sass, also competed in the ECAC, leading the Clarkson Golden Knights to the 2019 NCAA Frozen Four, gained the start in the championship game. Backstopping Team Stecklein to a highly thrilling 5-4 decision over Team Knight, Sass enjoyed the milestone of the first PWHPA Showcase championship on American soil.

”It was great to be back on the ice after an off season of A LOT of planning, and thrilling to take part in the first Showcase event. I played in the first game, and our team, Team Stecklein, ended up the champions of the weekend! It was amazing to play with/against players that were not in my college/professional league. The energy was great as we all were excited to kick of the season of spreading the PWHPA mission.”

Before the complexion of the sporting realm was drastically altered due to a devastating pandemic, the essence of competing in the PWHPA was poised to take on a global impact. Earlier in the season, the Korean national women’s team faced off against a group of PWHPA players in Montreal.

Scheduled to reciprocate, as the PWHPA was to cross the Pacific and grace the ice in Japan, intending to ice a team to challenge their national team, one that qualified for the 2018 Winter Games, Sass was named to the contingent of PWHPA players. Although the event would have raised the international profile of the Association, growing concerns over the pandemic resulted in a visceral cancellation.

In spite of the devastating decision, the fact that Sass was part of the group named to play in Japan represented a proud highlight of her inaugural season of PWHPA hockey. Just as revelant was the treasured chance to play at Madison Square Garden, one of the world’s most famous sporting venues. Taking into account that the venue never hosted professional women’s hockey, the brush with history represented a fascinating hallmark in Sass’ athletic journey.

“Being selected to represent the PWHPA overseas, as well as at such a historic and professional facility like MSG are opportunities of a lifetime. I believe in our goal of creating a sustainable professional league with a livable wage and am happy to spread the word through my play and presence!”

Before participating in the Dunkin’ Showcase, Sass enjoyed another thrilling milestone, setting the tone for the season to come. Named as an AAAS IF/Then Ambassador for her work in the STEM field, which reflects an educational approach encompassing both, academic ideas with real-world scenarios. Utilizing academic disciplines such as science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics as learning tools, such fields paint a picture filled with breadth, blending classroom and business situations in a melange poised to reach professional growth.

Featured in a video series for Lyda Hill Philanthropies, Sass enjoyed a degree of celebrity status appearing on the CBS television show, Mission Unstoppable. Targeted for an audience of young girls, the episode profiled Sass’ double occupations, from empowering employment as an Architectural Designer, to breaking barriers in hockey.

Balancing a Career in Architecture & Hockey | Mission Unstoppable

Kimberly Sass is a fierce professional women’s hockey goalie… but she’s also a skilled architectural designer. Learn more about her exciting double life. M…

Gaining the opportunity to share the red carpet with the likes of actresses Geena Davis and Miranda Cosgrove as part of a screening of Mission Unstoppable in Los Angeles, which also saw Sass participate in a panel afterwards. Worth noting, Davis holds her own unique connection to sport as her acting resume includes a starring role in the 1992 film “A League of their Own.” Directed by Penny Marshall, the film paid homage to the All-America Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), whose formation filled a sporting gap in World War II. Founded in 1943, an All-Star Game was not only held at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, the league, which eventually featured 15 different teams, persevered until 1954.

With the PWHPA representing a new chapter for women in sport, building on the legacies of the AAGPBL, Women’s National Basketball Association and other leagues, the opportunity for Sass to be featured in Mission Unstoppable represented more than a crossover into popular culture. Allowing a landmark moment for women’s hockey during the 2019-20 season, the red carpet treatment served as a defining moment, spurring the feeling of accomplishment, simultaneously generating the encouragement that the game continues to be on a winning path.

“The opportunity to meet Geena Davis and Miranda Cosgrove came about when I was selected as an IF/THEN Ambassador and simultaneously casted for the CBS TV show called Mission Unstoppable. The IF/THEN Ambassadorship is a STEM initiative through Lyda Hill Philanthropies which aims to increase visibility of women in STEM careers.

Mission Unstoppable is produced by Litton Entertainment in collaboration with Lyda Hill Philanthropies’ IF/THEN initiative. The Executive Producers are Geena Davis along with the host of the show, Miranda Cosgrove. The show features real life female STEM role models with the targeted audience of middle school girls. I am featured in an episode about my job as an Architectural Designer and a Professional Goaltender, where I discuss ice rink design and take to the ice!

I was selected to fly out to L.A. to the premiere screening of the show, where I was able to meet Geena Davis and Miranda Cosgrove, watch my episode on the big screen, and speak on a panel afterwards. It was both surreal and empowering to be included in photos with both of those stars. I think women are fighting a similar visibility/inclusion battle in both STEM and sports, and it was satisfying to see celebrities recognize this and advocate for us!”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

#staysassy

Ailish Forfar’s “The Dream Gap” documentary a declaration of the game’s hopes

While a key focus of the PWHPA has involved, understandably, the players and the collaborative goal of heralding a golden age for the game, the feeling of teamwork is certainly just as impactful off the ice. Such an impact goes beyond the number of dedicated volunteers and sponsors. The definition took on a more profound meaning, enhanced by a highly creative visual production, representing an amazing assembly of talent by the affable Ailish Forfar that put its finger on the pulse of the raison d’etre of the PWHPA.

Through her academic obligations, working towards completing her studies in Ryerson Sport Media, it served as the portal, which provided Forfar with a creative vision to engage in a film project that would incorporate her appreciation of hockey, stimulating a sense of mission to raise awareness about the PWHPA and its collective goals. Dubbed “The Dream Gap”, the title paid homage to a key staple of the PWHPA’s first year of events, as a barnstorming tour throughout North America also featured the same name.

Realizing the concept in late summer, Forfar saw the potential to incorporate the best of both worlds. With the current state of professional women’s ice hockey in a type of somnambulism, there was a strong sense of inspiration to provide a visual narrative. Finding a heightened sense of purpose, it was a project perfectly suited to bring out Forfar’s passion for the game. Preserving the persistence among those in the game that is poised to stand as a template for future generations to emulate.

“The Dream Gap film/project was my final practicum for Ryerson Sport Media – the four year program I have officially just graduated from (virtually!). I was working with some classmates who I had formed a great relationship with over the years and had similar interests in covering women’s hockey stories. So I pitched the idea to them late August before classes started up to do something on the new PWHPA movement as I was joining and was personally motivated to help tell our story.

It was a perfect meshing of my academic and athletic passions. With the access I would have as a player/teammate to the PWHPA, and with my classmates’ incredible skill sets, I knew we would be able to create a really meaningful and personal project that would help tell our story.”

Having called the likes of Erin Ambrose and Laura Stacey as teammates with the PWHL’s Toronto Jr. Aeros, Forfar later starred at the Ivy League level with the Dartmouth College Big Green, playing alongside Stacey once again. Forfar’s university odyssey would conclude with a tribute to her Greater Toronto Area roots, skating with the Ryerson Rams, whose home ice at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, based inside the former Maple Leaf Gardens, helped maintain a proud hockey legacy in the city.

Serving as team captain of the burgeoning program, excelling under the tutelage of Lisa Haley, enjoying the prestige of a First-Team OUA All-Star, complemented by the privilege of wearing the Maple Leaf at the Winter Universiade, Forfar’s skills and acumen for the game established her as a top prospect for the professional ranks.

Selected by the defending Clarkson Cup champion Markham Thunder with the ninth pick of the 2018 CWHL Draft, a team that serendipitously featured Stacey on its roster, Forfar remained associated with the Rams program following her eligibility as a player. Serving dutifully as a member of Haley’s coaching staff; the experience ran parallel to her inaugural season of professional hockey, marking a highly eventful time for the product of Sharon, Ontario.

Although Forfar’s first season with the Thunder proved to be the last in franchise history, she remained highly occupied during 2019-20, as the path taken was one spurred by a highly unforeseen announcement. As the Thunder no longer had a league to play in, the franchise thrust into stasis, the result was a shift in focus.

Maintaining her role on the Rams coaching staff, Forfar provided a welcome presence. As an alumnus not far removed from her glory days in Rams colours, she combined elements of empathy and friendship, providing an approach that maintained her proud legacy as one of the program’s finest leaders.

With a highly talented roster featuring Kryshandra (Krash) Green, who followed Forfar’s example by serving as team captain, Lauren Nicholson and Erica Crouse led the team in scoring with 26 and 25 points each. The season culminated with a sweep of the Brock Badgers in the opening round of the McCaw Cup playoffs as former OUA All-Rookie selection Brooklyn Gemmill scored the series-clinching goal. Enjoying their first-ever semi-final victory, as Nicholson logged the game-winner in a 3-2 opening game triumph against cross-town rival Toronto Lady Blues. Although the program was unable to reach the McCaw Cup Finals, the transfers of Laurier’s Jamie Watson and All-Canadian Annie Berg are poised to ensure that the run of momentum continues.

Worth noting, Forfar’s duties during a highly eventful, yet exciting, time involved another unique endeavor. While engaged in her studies through the Ryerson Sport Media curriculum, Forfar also established a remarkable online presence as a reporter for Yahoo Sports, covering NHL hockey with a highly entertaining weekly program during the 2019-20 NHL season. Currently working with Steve Dangle on NHL Chatroom, which debuted during the 2020 NHL Playoffs, Forfar’s on-air proficiency was evident two years prior. At the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, Forfar was an online video blogger for Samsung. Additionally, Forfar contributed a written piece to Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Hooked on Hockey prior to enrolling at Dartmouth, demonstrating a positive attitude and a profound maturity that would serve her well.

In committing herself to the project of “The Dream Gap”, such values were highly evident, as it also resulted in Forfar accepting her competitive limitations. Sacrificing a season of play, withdrawing from any PWHPA exhibition games, the focus of the documentary allowed her to maintain a heartfelt association with hockey, a highly satisfying facet. Indubitably, the sense of teamwork that encompassed Forfar’s on-ice career remained essential behind the lens. Fittingly, Forfar would find a muse in a former Thunder teammate.

Liz Knox, the franchise’s all-time winningest goaltender, was a member of the PWHPA’s Board during the filming of the documentary. In addition, a volunteer firefighter in the town of Whitchurch-Stouffville, which includes footage during the documentary with Knox in uniform, she graciously stepped down from the Board in September 2020 to allow Sarah Nurse a place. Remaining in the capacity of advisor, her reputation for strong leadership and revered standing as a model teammate shined through during Forfar’s labours. Among the interview subjects, Knox’s highly articulate and poignant insights added significantly to the documentary’s tone.

“My teammates were supportive of this idea and appreciative of the fact I would have to cut back on my involvement on the ice. I was balancing being a full time student at Ryerson, a part time coach with the Ryerson Women’s Hockey team, all while having a full time job as a Reporter and On-Air host at Yahoo Sports covering the NHL. I basically knew by September, I could not add in 2-3 practices a week in the evenings up in Markham, plus games/travel on weekends with all of that, while also producing the documentary for my program.

The decision to step off the ice and focus on this storytelling passion was necessary for my sanity too! Any teammates I reached out to for help were always so supportive, especially Liz Knox, who I frequently bothered. My Ryerson group had a great time working with the players and staff and helping tell this story and wish we could have had more time to do more (Ryerson semester only allowed us to complete the project from mid September – end of November for grades).”

Billie Jean King in the PWHPA jersey

As production ensued, Forfar’s passion and focus on strong production values were evident. Considering that a key aspect of the documentary would involve interview footage, she was determined to feature people of prominence, providing a sense of importance to the current state of affairs in the game, while enriching the compelling story unfolding. In addition to the aforementioned Knox, other iconic hockey figures that were interview subjects included Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, also the all-time leading scorer in Thunder franchise history and current Operations Consultant of the PWHPA, along with Hilary Knight, a gold medalist from the 2018 Winter Games.

Of all the individuals that provided their commentary to the documentary, perhaps none held as much influence as the legendary Billie Jean King. Having become a household name in 1973, the same year that she founded the Women’s Tennis Association, when she opposed Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis challenge at the Houston Astrodome, she was also named Sports Illustrated’s Sportswoman of the Year in 1972. Also founding the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974, King’s effect not only extends beyond the hardcourt but also remains relevant to this day.

Determined to ensure a voice for women in sport, another aspect of King’s mission involves ensuring that female athletes know their value, embodying the sentiments shared by the PWHPA and the likes of Alex Morgan, who remains highly vocal in the US national women’s soccer team’s fight for pay equity. Considering how King’s influence has transcended generations, her presence in women’s ice hockey resulted in coverage from The Wall Street Journal and NHL.com.

Undeniably, the opportunity for King to appear in front of the camera and share her insights on the current mission of the PWHPA provided Forfar, who drove to Chicago with her colleagues, a tremendous feeling of achievement and validation. Decked out in the white jersey with sharp red and blue trim, also worn at the PWHPA Magellan Showcase in Chicago, of which Billie Jean King Enterprises also provided financing for the event, her vision for the future of the game involves three key pillars. An emphasis on ensuring women have a place to compete, gain appreciation for their accomplishments and earn a living wage. One of King’s comments in the documentary included the very well stated, ‘…we will no longer settle for crumbs.’

“I set our sights very high initially in the planning stages of production, knowing that big names and support from icons for women in sport would only help with the validity and storytelling of our documentary. Luckily, I knew Jayna (Hefford) personally from the CWHL and she was eager to help with our story and to help us get access to our players and others that supported the PWHPA’s movement. She was helpful in securing an interview with Billie Jean King in Chicago, which was one of the coolest career moments of my life so far.

Billie has lived through almost exactly what is happening right now with women’s hockey, and is a leader and an inspiration for most female athletes regardless of which sport you play. Interviewing her was one of the most inspirational conversations I have ever had; being able to see and feel her passion for equality and empowerment and to know that she was hearing our own wishes and our own vision was huge.

She is also a firecracker and hilarious and so generous with her time, and we could have talked for an hour and still wanted to hear more. I’m proud to have been able to pull that interview off – we drove to Chicago and back just to meet with her (all of this entire production was paid out of pocket by us, as students!).”

In conjunction with the PWHPA’s first event of 2020, a weekend affair spanning from January 11-12 in Toronto, highlighted by the Secret Showcase, featuring an unprecedented six teams, the Saturday night festivities included the first screening of The Dream Gap. Representing a major milestone for the assiduous Forfar, highlighting a new chapter in her hockey journey, a flood of emotion overtook her.

“The entire documentary screening night was definitely a blur of excitement, nervousness and high expectations – kind of like a hockey game – and one of the proudest nights of my life. We had two incredible panels before and after the documentary (audio is available on Homestand’s PuckTalk page) to provide context, to get the audience thinking and help bookend our story.

When the documentary started playing, I looked around the audience and saw a packed crowd fully engrossed into a project we had poured our heart and soul into, and I felt really proud of my entire team and everyone involved. After it ended, and the audience started clapping and standing on their feet… I had tears in my eye and a lump in my throat because I was overwhelmed with emotion, gratitude, exhaustion, excitement, relief and champagne.

The response after, the messages we received, the amount of people who wanted to see it again and show their friends, teammates, co-workers, families, and more, just proved that we had a story worth telling. Admittedly we are in talks to get it shown on TV very soon, but even if that does not work, we will keep trying to get it seen by many because we do believe that it is necessary to show and help that next generation understand what we are fighting for.”

Following the screening, Forfar hosted a Player’s Panel with the likes of Knight, Knox and Marie-Philip Poulin, whose golden goals at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games placed her in the same stratosphere of Canadian hockey mythology as Paul Henderson. Their collective presence was not only a source of great interest for the audience; it added a feeling of both, importance and endorsement for the documentary itself.

Sharing the common thread of having all played in the final CHWL season, Forfar and Knox aligned with the Thunder, while Knight and Poulin were garbed in the tri-colore of Les Canadiennes de Montreal, appearing in the last Clarkson Cup Finals. Definitely, the sense of mutual respect and shared love of the game set the tone for a fascinating discussion.

“It is always a weird feeling to just casually say that these legends are… my friends? I am so lucky, really, to know and be surrounded by such passionate, influential, bad-*ss women who are leaders in everything they do.”

Certainly, the Dream Gap documentary represents a …. With a tremendous admiration for the game and its players, Forfar’s focus

I respect all female hockey players, across all leagues, organizations and countries, for their dedication to a sport and a cause that often does not provide everything we desire, and frustrates us, exposes inequalities, and makes us question the future of that next generation.

Because without girls like these, or stories like ours, we will never move forward and make a change that will last. I am so proud to have started a conversation, to have sparked debate or helped new perspectives form. It is important to keep women’s sports in the spotlight, because we deserve to have people want to tell our story not only when it is convenient or when it is necessary, but always.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”