UMass graduate Paige Harrington achieves dream of playing professional women’s hockey

  • Paige Harrington, a 2015 UMass graduate, is shown playing for the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League. COURTESY PAIGE HARRINGTON

  • Paige Harrington, a 2015 UMass graduate, is shown playing for the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League. COURTESY PAIGE HARRINGTON

Friday, January 13, 2017

Her’s is not the vision that comes to mind for a professional athlete.

During the week Paige Harrington chases tips as a waitress at Betty’s, while on the weekend pursues the puck into the corner against some of the best players in the world.

Harrington, a Mansfield native and 2015 UMass graduate, is a member of the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League.

The fledgling circuit is in its second year. Harrington, a traditional defensive-minded blue-liner, has skated in all but one game the Beauts have ever played.

Balancing work and workouts isn’t easy. Sometimes just hours separate a shift delivering Betty’s famous vegetarian dishes and a shift delivering hits on opposing forwards. But Harrington’s path to her newfound hockey dream has never come easy. She’s relishing the opportunity to still chase it.

“When I was a young girl I wanted to play in the NHL,” she said. “There wasn’t a pro league for women’s hockey.”

Harrington went to Mansfield High School, which, like most public schools in Massachusetts, doesn’t have a girls hockey team. So Harrington played with the boys.

She held her own and always felt like she was good enough to play at a Division I program, but she said most women’s recruiting happened at girls prep school games where a coach could see several prospects against comparable competition instead of one girl playing against boys.

Harrington enrolled at Penn State the year before the Nittany Lions club program was elevated to varsity status. She’d hoped to make the transition with it, but when that didn’t work out she decided to transfer.

UMass doesn’t have a varsity team, but its club program in the American Club Hockey Association is one of the nation’s best and Harrington thrived.

As a senior in the 2014-15 season, she had 10 goals and 16 assists and was a first-team All-American. She was selected for the Team USA squad at the World University Games.

Playing in that tournament helped her get an invitation to a NWHL tryout, where she played well enough to earn a spot on the Beauts. She’s one of very few former club players in the league.

“At first it was pretty intimidating. I was just excited to get on the ice,” Harrington said. “The level of hockey was incredible. The skill level was a jump, but I was ready to play at that level.”

The NWHL is a four-team league based in the Northeast. In addition to Buffalo, there are teams in Boston, New York and Hartford that play a 20-game schedule and playoffs. It features several national team players, including Westfield’s Kacey Bellamy, who plays for the Boston Pride.

In the United States, new sports leagues fail far more often than they succeed. The WNBA was helped by its affiliation with the deep-pocketed NBA, which allowed it to get on its feet financially during the make-or-break early years. While the NWHL has a relationship with the NHL, it doesn’t come with financial backing.

In 2015-16, each team had to fit its entire roster under a salary cap of $270,000, but the minimum salary per player was $10,000.

This season, the league demanded its players take a significant pay cut in November to help the league stay afloat.

To help counteract that, players receive bonuses for every game that attendance is over 500. Players also receive 15 percent of the revenue from jerseys sold with their names on the back. On the Beauts’ online team store, Harrington’s No. 2 jersey is one of two featured.

While that salary represents the first time women’s pro hockey players have been paid, it’s not enough to live on.

“Our salaries aren’t too high. Most of the girls in the league are working extra jobs, working hard. If we put in the extra hours now it’ll be worth it in the long run,” she said. “There are going to be setbacks in the first couple of years, but it’s going to improve. I see good things from here.”

The biggest challenge for the league is getting fans to give them a try. The players are an important part of its promotion. They’ve done events at Buffalo-area Dunkin’ Donuts’ and many players volunteer at hospitals and youth clinics.

“We’re trying to get people to be aware of the league and get more followers,” she said. “Buffalo is such a hockey city. People that come to the game end up loving it. We just want more people to come. Once they’re in the door they want to come back. We’re trying to make a dream come true here. We’re working hard. If we can have supporters get to know us a little bit, that helps the league.”

Being in the league has erased the frustration of not getting recruited to Division I.

“Everything happens for a reason and I made it here even with the path I took. It validated me as a player,” she said. “I always knew I was strong. This was the perfect fit. I’m really starting to reach my potential.”

She thinks the league has potential down the road, too, and is proud of her pioneering status.

“We’re trying to inspire young girls that there’s somewhere to go after college,” she said. “To get paid to play the game you love, there’s nothing better.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage