There was a point when Mia Filardi wondered if it was going to happen.
The timing was just bad luck. Right before the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, Filardi and Fanny Metsa-Tokila had decided to start a women’s club hockey program at Washington. They missed playing hockey, and the university had a men’s club program.
Once the pandemic struck, interest waned. Metsa-Tokila wasn’t able to make meetings in person. Campus was closed, and sports weren’t happening.
That all seemed so far away this month, when the program had 27 skaters in a practice at the Kraken Community Iceplex at Northgate, preparing for its first scrimmage Dec. 4.
“At least once a practice I just stop and look around and am like, ‘We did this,’ ” Filardi said. “We had so much help along the way, but we basically got ourselves here.”
Montana State was scheduled to scrimmage against the Huskies but had to withdraw. Filardi said UW still will scrimmage that day against a team to be determined.
It’s just another challenge of building a club. Filardi, a senior, began the mission as a freshman. She had played club hockey in the Boston area and missed it.
The NHL awarded Seattle a team in 2018, and that created some buzz around the city. Women’s hockey support also began to emerge. Filardi and Metsa-Tokila thought, why not us?
“It was challenging in the beginning. We encountered so much stuff like, before anything happened in person it was really hard to represent ourselves as a club and get funding and support,” Filardi said. “No one knew we existed. Existing alumni and people didn’t want to give money to something that wasn’t real.”
It felt impossible to pitch a tangible product for more than a year, yet that’s what they had to do. And now, through their efforts, women’s hockey will happen at UW.
“We didn’t have any roots established around the school,” Metsa-Tokila, a junior, said. “Coming back and being on campus, it makes me more motivated to go harder getting things going. We want to get the culture off the ground.”
The project went from making a space for women’s hockey players to fighting for funding, building through a pandemic and becoming part of the growing Seattle hockey scene. Filardi estimated they’ve raised around $10,000, and that number is expected to increase every season to cover jerseys, travel fees and ice time. Most of that money should come from player dues, she said.
The Kraken’s arrival has helped spike interest for men’s and women’s club hockey and youth hockey. Part of that is due to the construction of the Kraken Community Iceplex — the first ice rink in Seattle.
Before the women’s team had players ready, the men’s team had negotiated ice time at the rink. Coach Matt Cleeton is among four coaches who have assisted the women’s program, and he helped the women’s team get ice time.
Getting the ice rink was vital, because a team must establish home ice to join a conference. The Dec. 4 scrimmage and consistent practices are part of the next step toward making a bid to join the American Collegiate Hockey Association within a few years.
“I’m just making sure they can get things like practice jerseys, ice time at the rink and the leadership meetings,” Cleeton said. “We couldn’t have in-person meetings from the get-go, so trying to convince people to join us — some people had never played before, and we’re meeting them over a Zoom. That made it tricky.”
At the club level, there’s always going to be a talent disparity. Some played high-school, junior and club hockey, and others are figuring out the equipment and are at a different skating level.
For now the club wants all interested people to join. Cleeton estimated that seven or eight players could play now in the ACHA.
That won’t happen soon. They need a few different classes of players, and that happens over time. This year’s freshmen could be seniors by the time they’re ready to join a conference.
The Dec. 4 scrimmage is expected to be the first measuring stick.
“We have a lot of girls on the team brand new to the sport,” Filardi said. “We want some sort of game experience that’s in a safe environment for them so we can get them ready for competitive games.”
After that the group hopes for scrimmages with other area women’s teams.
Students’ return to campus this year provided an opportunity to get the club off the ground. Filardi and Metsa-Tokila were nervous; outside of the die-hards who already had committed, how many students would join a club that wasn’t even in a conference?
As it turned out, a lot.
“We had so many people coming up to us and filling out the interest form, and that helped us a lot,” Metsa-Tokila said. “We had so many girls coming up to us. We had a first in-person meeting, and maybe 35 girls showed up, and a good chunk didn’t come back, and that’s because hockey isn’t super accessible for everybody, and we acknowledged that. It’s a hard thing to get girls to commit to, because it’s an expensive sport.”
Metsa-Tokila estimated they had about 10-12 freshmen and a few sophomores, and they’ll be future leaders as the program builds.
“We had no experience founding a team at all,” Filardi said. “We didn’t know how to reach out to sponsors or community members and interview coaches; all of that was learning and planning. We were figuring it as it goes, writing emails and just kind of always going.”
The Kraken’s arrival also gave them a blueprint on how to create interest in hockey, even though the resources for both teams are different.
“It’s not where we thought we’d be in the first couple of years,” Metsa-Tokila said. “When we were finding coaches, some reached out to us on Instagram just looking for an opportunity. They kind of came to us, and that was really great.”
That’s how they found Mel White, who has been in a head-coach role among the group of four, coming from coaching lacrosse at Seattle Prep High School.
Building a program, especially at the club level, involves adjustments. To do it within a school and city that had barely been exposed to women’s hockey was another challenge.
The university has promoted the men’s program, and though it took two students to bring women’s hockey to the city, the support from the men’s program, the school and the Iceplex has helped make women’s hockey a part of Seattle sports.
“We’re in a good place to say, ‘This is what we’ve done now in the past,’ ” Filardi said. “We’re seeing what went wrong and what we could do better, and now we’re on track to go a lot smoother than the start of this year.
“We got lucky with everyone here, they’ve thrown themselves into this, and they believe in us.”