Dani Rylan

Dani Rylan

former Division One player TALKS about playing in an all-men’s league, the lack of professional opportunities for female players, and her ultimate goal: to bring a women’s PRO team to New York City.

How’d you get into hockey? Is it a family affair?
My dad used to work for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa’s pro team, doing marketing and advertising, so we had free passes to go to the hockey rink. I was five, my older brother seven, my younger brother three. They asked them if they wanted hockey skates but asked me if I wanted figure skates, and I was insulted! I was like, “Did you hear my brothers? I want what my brothers want, c’mon!” We learned to skate and started playing on teams that fall.

So since then, it’s just been this natural part of your life...
Definitely. I played on a kid’s team, the Tampa Bay Junior Lightning. And then when I started high school I moved to Southborough, Massachussetts and played for my school’s team, St. Mark’s School, and for the Assabet Valley Girls Ice Hockey team. Then I moved to Denver and played on the Metropolitan State University of Denver Division II men’s team. I was the only woman in the ACHA D2 out in the West at the time (American Collegiate Hockey Association). When I graduated in 2010, I still had some NCAA eligibility so I went back to the East Coast for my Master’s in Sports Leadership at Northeastern University. I was captain of the women’s team during the 2011-2012 season. We won the Beanpot that year in overtime against Boston University, 4-3! 

So what brought you to New York two and a half years ago?
I got a job at the NHL Network but that same year, the lockout happened so I essentially had a lot of time on my hands. I was walking dogs, working for my older brother, basically doing anything to make ends meet. My older brother owns a storefront in East Harlem. So I decided to open a coffee shop there called Rise and Grind on 2nd Avenue between 111th and 112th. We opened about a year and a half ago. My younger brother manages the shop and I’m more of a silent owner.

Where are you playing now?
I skate at City Ice Pavilion in Long Island City, Queens. Both my brothers and I are on the same men’s league team. They call it a beer league, or an “adult league.” We’re sponsored by a bar, The Irish Rover, and my coffee shop. So the name of the team is The Irish Rover Grinders. 

Are all the leagues in the city men’s leagues?
There is one female league that just launched this summer at Chelsea Piers. I heard they have two teams, so they’re still working on making it a full-fledged league. Mostly there are men’s leagues with women scattered throughout.

What’s it like playing with men?
Well like I said, I started skating when I was five, and I was always playing with the boys, so I never thought of myself as anything other than a hockey player. Every once in a while, I’ll think, well you’re either a lot bigger than me or your shot’s a lot harder than mine or whatever it may be, but I never really think of myself as a female on the ice. It was funny last week, we played a team with a bunch of tall guys and in the locker room afterward everyone was saying, “That team was really tall!” And I was like, “I feel like I’m looking everyone in the eye!” And I’m 5'3" and definitely the shortest person on the ice, but in my mind there’s no difference. Everyone’s just a hockey player out there. 

So you don’t feel the difference, but do you think everyone treats you exactly the same?
When I first started playing in this league, they would see my ponytail and they’d be like, “Oh I’m gonna slow down before I go in the corner or not be as physical,” but I think once you prove yourself of being able to keep up, everyone is just as competitive against you.

For some reason I just imagine this sort of movie-type scenario where the guys are like, “You’re a girl? Well, welcome to the School of Hard Knocks!” Or something equally absurd and chauvinist.
Well, when I was younger and people realized I was a girl, and like, a “cute girl,” I guess puberty age, even my own teammates would start joking with me about it and then I realized, “Oh! I’m different from you now!” We all realized it at the same time kinda. 

Do you remember hearing about Michelle Wie back in 2007, and how she wanted to play in the PGA against men even though she hadn’t won anything in the LPGA yet? Her big goal was to play in the PGA Masters Tournament, and that stirred up a good amount of controversy. What are your thoughts on that…how some women prefer to compete amongst men, rather than their female contemporaries?
I do remember that. I think golf is different though. Because your strokes are your strokes. You could have a better score then the men even if you played in the women’s tournament. 

There is something there, I think, with women’s leagues versus men’s leagues. Women’s leagues have less popularity on a larger viewership scope. Think WNBA, or women’s soccer—and I mean, I don’t know why. What was pretty interesting about Michelle Wie was her choice to play with men, almost like she was making a larger statement, sort of discounting the level of talent in the LPGA, as if it was somehow inferior. Some of the criticism had been, well, why don’t you win an LPGA tournament first? Why don’t you want to be the best in the women’s league? It seemed dismissive.
Could have been a publicity thing to get her name out there, to say, “Why can’t this all be the same tournament?” I think golf is a level playing field though. You could be three under par…the golf course and the game never change, whereas hockey has more challenges.Things that differentiate the game. 

You mean there are a lot more variables, depending on who you’re playing? And team versus solo performance too.
Right, and there comes a point when the women’s game does drop off and it isn’t as competitive.

I mean after college, there isn’t really a place for women to keep playing. Whereas a lot of guys, thirty to forty year-old guys, and they’re still playing at a higher level. They could be playing semi-pro after, or whatever it may be, but the guys seem to keep playing. But with women, when they’re done with their college career, they’ll start their other careers, life careers, start a family, instead.

Why doesn’t it keep going for women?
Well part of it is a place to play. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to start a professional women’s team. 

So this is your response.
Exactly. I still play, but there are women who are way better than me. Northeastern is a Division One school and I was never a top liner; I was a third liner, but I worked really hard every week. There’s a professional women’s league, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and right now there are five teams total: four in Canada, one in Boston. And it’s where all the top line D1 players try to go. They draft for it every year. It’s where all the Canadian and US Olympians play. So while I wasn’t quite good enough to make that top percentage, I still care about hockey and want to give back to the game. So I’m trying to put everything in place for a team to come to New York in 2015.

What does that entail for you, work-wise?
There’s literally nothing in place right now, so it’s soup to nuts. It’s finding a rink, it’s finding a coach, players, it’s finding funding. The whole league is set up as a nonprofit so it really depends on what we call “hockey angels,” people who care about the game and who want to give back and really believe in the women’s game. Because the women’s game has grown a lot since 1998, the first year for Women’s Olympic play. From the Olympic teams this past year, one of the goalies played semi-pro in a men’s league and a lot of the top players talk about playing in a men’s league because there just isn’t an outlet set up for them. With the CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) there are five teams but that’s only a hundred players and if you want to live somewhere, it kind of handcuffs you into picking one of th0se five cities. Especially if you want to stay or train in the US.

When did you start working on this?
February, at the beginning of this year, is when I got the idea. I play in a women’s team for the top players around the city, and we play in a tournament called Empire State Games, which is just all the New York teams playing against each other. So we’re the New York City Division and there’s Hudson Valley, the Buffalo area, etc. We were all talking about a women’s team in New York and starting a league here and they were talking about the one in Chelsea that has the two teams in it. So that’s what they had envisioned and when they said it, I was like, Oh! Well this is what I’m gonna do. You guys should definitely do that league but my vision is to bring a pro team to New York. 

Bigger picture stuff.
Yes. And actually, I thought somehow that I could get a team together for this year. The draft was this past August. When I did my coffee shop, I did everything in a month and a half. It was a blank space, there wasn’t flooring in, so in my mind I thought I could get a project done quickly. So I was like, February to August, I got this. But there’s so much involved. Even little things, like a logo and a team name, which may seem minor, but there’s so much to consider: marketing, fundraising, actively recruiting, getting people to move here if they don’t live here already…

Are you doing this by yourself?
I have a Board of Advisors. So they’re definitely helping me. But as far as the direction…

It’s all you. You’re the mastermind!
Haha, yea.

So your short-term goal is to start this pro team, but what’s your long-term goal, for your life in hockey?
Just to stay involved in the game as long as I can. My role on the women’s team would be general manager. That would be full-time and if the team was around forever, that would be something I could do forever too. Besides that I don’t really have long-term hockey career aspirations I guess. I kind of just like rolling with the punches. When things present themselves, they present themselves. I’ve set myself up for an independent lifestyle. I work for myself. So the career goal is to remain working for myself, I guess. I coach hockey as well, an adult camp at Chelsea and private lessons at City Ice. And then this fall I’m coaching a U14 Girls Team. I could see myself coaching, giving back to the game, educating. Watching other players grow and develop, you see yourself becoming the coaches you had admired growing up. I can only imagine that in my whole career, hockey will always be involved.  •