In the inaugural season of the National Women’s Hockey League, the Connecticut Whale showed tactical precision, uncompromising grit, and an inimitable style. Goalie Jaimie Leonoff sat atop the league in save percentage (.936); forward Shiann Darkangelo netted 10 goals in 13 games; Shannon Doyle blocked, like, 40,000 shots; Micaela Long became an impromptu enforcer in a tilt against New York; and Anya Battaglino became synonymous with leadership. The team’s impassioned play drew energy from NWHL fans, and emblazoned the hockey community with a sense of excitement. At the forefront of that movement was Whale player Anya Battaglino. From the league’s opening salvo, the former Boston University Terrier’s unwavering integrity, work ethic, and genuine elation for all things hockey was both infectious and inspiring. Because of her values, talent, and humor, Battaglino is one of the most beloved, respected, and well-known players in the National Women’s Hockey League – she can also run a mean social media account. In wanting to know her take on a myriad of different topics, we interviewed the Connecticut Whale player about everything from impending contract talks to Dunkin’ Donuts (take that, Tim Hortons).
Rob Patrick: During the course of the season, you have been, arguably, the face of the National Women’s Hockey League. From interacting with fans to providing a positive presence on both social media and on the ice, you have been essential to the growth of the league. Without a doubt, you were deserving of being nominated for the NWHL Foundation Award, a decoration recognizing “the player most actively applying the core values of hockey to her community as well as growing and improving hockey culture.” What drives your contagious passion for the sport, fans, and fellow players?
Anya Battaglino: Passion is a hard thing to define or find the root of, but for me, specifically, I think it just comes from hearing the word no. I was never in a position to succeed. I never went to prep school. I wasn’t on the best teams growing up with the best coaches. I was a nobody from a community outside of Boston. I was told that women were not athletes. We did not get the best ice times. We didn’t get any fans at our games. When I was growing up I heard I “would not” and I “could not” more times than I can even count. I made the B team because I was a girl. I was cut from my middle school hockey team because girls weren’t allowed to play at that level with the boys. My passion in driving the hockey culture forward is so that when a kid looks up at their coach and says, “I want to play college hockey” or “I want to play pro” they don’t get slapped in the face with a no, but instead they hear that its possible. I may be the extreme example of perseverance, but I was cut from my college hockey team. And instead of losing faith in myself and my sport, I worked my way on to the Boston Blades and won a Clarkson Cup along with 9 Olympians. My passion to include everyone: fans, fellow teammates, youth – that comes from years of feeling really left out.
From ESPN on, coverage, almost immediately, grew exponentially for the league. Media wise, what are you looking forward to in year two?
I think in year two I am just excited to see what opportunities we have. I think, as a whole, coverage has been great for some players. And I think getting companies interested in featuring ‘hometown heroes’ and the brick layers will really drive exposure. We need to remember that we are all amazing athletes and community ambassadors and have to put our names out there as well as use our new found ‘fame’ to speak on platforms that are important to us.
Dunkin’ Donuts has to be the best league sponsor of all-time. How is it like working with them?
I live by a very important rule that my college roommate and I made up one day: I eat one donut from Dunkin Donuts every day. Why? Because they make me happy, and it motivates me to go to the gym and take the stairs and do all of the things that I should do. But that one donut really does kick my day off to a great start. Selfishly speaking, I couldn’t be more happy about the sponsorship! But they are also a great company with a huge grass roots feel and I love working with a company that invests so much time effort and money back into the community, so for that reason I am also honored to be working with them!
A movie is made about the NWHL: who plays you, and what would the movie be called?
In a movie about the NWHL, I want to say that Jennifer Aniston would play me… but that is only because I have been in love with her since Rachel in friends. I would be played by Mila Kunis because she’s funny and sporty and has a deep voice like I do. The title of the movie would be “Against All Odds”, or something inspirational like that.
Besides Shannon Doyle, who is the best defensive player in the league?
Kacey Bellamy. Hands down. No doubt in my mind. She really has been the best defenseman in the country in my opinion for the last eight years. She makes the sport look so simple and so effortless. She has been a role model and friend since I saw her playing at UNH.
Last week, we interviewed a Vanity Fair writer that went to Boston College. He immediately told us “sucks to B.U.” Obviously he is now banned from the site. What’s wrong with BC, though?
Sadly, there must be something in the water over there in CHESTNUT HILL, not Boston I might add. But Boston University’s Marine Program is doing a lot of work on the Muddy Water Project in efforts to clean the water in the Charles as it runs through CHESTNUT HILL, not Boston, so hopefully that helps them out!
If there was a NWHL hockey video game, and players were rated from 1-100, what overall rating would you give yourself? And what would be your highest rated ability? #OnTheSpot
I would have to give myself an overall player score of 64. And my highest rated ability would be chirping, and all around hysteria.
How important is music to the fabric of a team, whether it be collegiately or professionally, during the course of a season? And, on a related topic, what is the best post-game victory song ever?
Music is one of the most important things in life. It is the tie that binds all strings. There are so many different dynamics, but once there is that one song that everyone is bobbing their head to, the team is in sync. Teams eventually adopt a winning song, and once that has been established all bets are off: it pumps the team up and it gets everyone going toward the same goal! The best post game victory song was “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” by Celine Dion.
The resiliency, courage, and heart of Denna Laing is inspiring on more levels than can be expressed here. What does she mean to you, personally?
Denna is to me what she is to most everyone that has ever known her or has gotten to know her since this tragedy: she is an inspiration. She is a ray of light that brightens dark hallways. She is the most gracious person I have ever met, and she deserves all of the praise she is getting. Like me, Denna is a work-hard spirit that is completely and utterly motivated by the love of the game. She will forever be pressing the envelope and striving for success, and she is in my prayers every night. Hopefully the road gets easier and the burden gets lightened, if anyone deserves it, its Denna.
You must be watching free agency pretty closely. Shiann Darkangelo, Kelli Stack, and Kelly Babstock were all point machines for the Whale this year. With Babstock re-signing with the team, just recently, how important is it for you that the Whale close a deal with Stack as well?
The Kels play a HUGE role to the Whale. They both are such massive players for us in different ways that having both KellY and KellI would definitely build the infrastructure for another huge year for the CT Whale. Kelli Stack is going to continue to be one of the most important and influential players in the league and she is a turnkey re-sign that might tip the scales for players like Shiann Darkangelo and some other huge players. Not just size-wise because I said Shi… but I mean like impact players…
You have a fan club. Tell us about your fan club!
My fan club is awesome. They send me messages when I need a lift and they follow my missions in terms of giving back to the community! My fans are all my friends and I love them all dearly! I have people reach out to me with stories or with questions or with inspirational messages, and I am so blessed and honored to have all of them in my life! They make Monday mornings not so terrible… So that’s just a little indication on how much I love them!
And, finally, what is something inconsequential that you can tell us about yourself that your teammates don’t know about you?
That’s hard! I am a very outgoing person so a lot of my teammates know A LOT about me! I guess what a lot of people don’t know about me is that I am actually really sensitive. Almost every game I spent, like, 5 minutes crying in the bathroom because it’s hard to believe that this is my life. Maybe that’s something they don’t know.