For National Women’s Hockey League defenseman Kaliya Johnson, hockey has long been a part of life. Spending her formative years in Arizona, Johnson was part of the sport’s boom – for both girls and boys – throughout the state and it went on to fuel her passion at the collegiate level for Boston College.
Now in her second NWHL season, her first season with the Boston Pride, Johnson has become a force on the blue line, shutting down some of the league’s elite players. And Johnson does all of this while balancing another full-time career – working for a non-profit company in downtown Boston. We recently got a chance to chat with Johnson about how she’s adapted to life in the NWHL, some of her pregame superstitions and her boyfriend, a pitching prospect in the New York Mets organization.
Dirtfork: What was it that fostered your love for hockey?
Kaliya Johnson: What fostered my love of hockey was The Mighty Ducks. I watched it when I was about two-years-old and I was obsessed with Julie and the fact that she was the only girl on the ice – and I wanted to be her.
DF: The state of Arizona has become a hotbed for hockey. Can you talk about Arizona’s evolving hockey landscape, especially for a female athlete?
Johnson: When I first moved to Arizona I was playing boys hockey and they started to really develop the girls program – the Lady Coyotes. Over the last few years, you could really see the girls program getting more involved across the country – and traveling more – and now you’ve got [Arizona State University], which has a girl’s program that’s trying to go Division I and I think that’s amazing! I grew up with a few of the girls that are playing there currently and, so, I think having them as role models in the state of Arizona is really going to go a long way in terms of encouraging more girls to get involved in hockey.
DF: So, you started out on a boys team – are there a lot more girls teams at the younger levels now?
Johnson: Yes, there is – there’s a few gir
ls programs that are really evolving in Arizona.
DF: What was it like to transition [from Arizona] to Boston, a town where hockey is deeply rooted?
Johnson: It was definitely interesting. I mean, there was a lot of younger girls that just really looked up to us at [Boston College], so that was new for me – in terms of people looking up to me. I really enjoyed that and I really took on that role of just encouraging younger girls to stay in hockey and to continue to be motivated at the fact that one day they could be playing in college. So, that was something that I really took on, coming to Boston, and I think Boston being a hockey town is just amazing for the sport in general.
DF: Does that kind of fuel your passion for the sport a little more, knowing that they’re die-hard hockey fans – a lot of people there live and breathe the sport? Does that just add fuel to the fire?
Johnson: I love the fact that people are so into hockey there. It definitely makes you want to keep playing and the fans are amazing – especially at Boston Pride games. And I love how dedicated they are, because you don’t really see that around the country everywhere. It’s amazing to see that in Boston, at every home game we have.
DF: Were there many differences transitioning from the college level to the NWHL?
Johnson: A little bit, in terms of like team dynamic. You’re not completely with your team 24/7, you’re not going to class with them, you aren’t living with them – so, that’s a little bit different and a little bit of an adjustment. I think, in terms of hockey, it definitely got better. The game is faster – I mean, you were looking at the best-of-the-best in college hockey and it shifted and only got better in the NWHL.
DF: Without being around your teammates as often at this level, does that make it a little more difficult to build team chemistry – do you have to work a little harder at that?
Johnson: I definitely think you have to work a little bit harder. Chemistry is very important on any team in whatever sport you’re playing, so you really want to make sure you have that chemistry. I think the fact that we aren’t all going to class together and we aren’t all living together makes it a little harder, so we’re trying to make sure we find that chemistry and that we’re working hard to get there.
DF: Are the bus rides important for that – for building chemistry? I mean, Buffalo is several hours away, so that would kind of give you ladies a chance to connect on a different level.
Johnson: Yeah, it definitely helps with going to Buffalo this past weekend. The bus ride is eight hours – eight hours there and eight hours back. There was definitely more bonding happening on the bus than you can get in the locker room right before practice, so that definitely helps a lot.
DF: What was it like personally when you made it to the NWHL? It’s been around for about two years now and it’s still finding its way – but what did it mean for you
to be a professional hockey player?
Johnson: It was just very exciting. It was mostly exciting to be able to continue to play and the fact that we even have this league is huge for many girls to continue their careers. And that was the biggest thing. I didn’t realize how amazing it was going to be until my first game with Connecticut and there was such a huge fan base and people were really dedicated to our league in general. I love being in the NWHL!
DF: Can you take me through your pregame routine – what it’s like leading up to the puck drop?
Johnson: Yeah, I usually arrive at the rink and then I’m just hanging out and talking with everyone. I re-tape my stick in that time and then we usually – the Boston team – do our own thing for warm-ups and I’ve got my headphones and I’ve got my hacky-sack and so I go out, I’ll do some stretching and a little bit of running and sprints – that sort of thing. And then, I’ll actually hacky-sack for a little bit. Hacky-sacking is actually something I picked up in high school and now I’ve just been hacky-sacking before games ever since. I like to do that to kind of get my feet moving and get my hips a little bit loose – because I need that as a defenseman.
DF: Have you gotten many of the other girls on the team involved with hacky-sack?
Johnson: They’re more into soccer. I think soccer is just a universal thing in hockey. For them to be like, ‘well, it’s a hacky-sack, why is it so small?’ I think it’s a little bit different in terms of I like to do it on my own because it challenges me and I’m not the greatest at it, so I’m moving a lot more. But in the past years, I have hacky-sacked with teammates.
DF: So, it’s almost more of that quiet time beforehand to get in your head and do your own thing.
Johnson: Exactly. I’m able to listen to music, relax and just take a moment for myself before I go back into the locker room. That’s when I’ll usually start getting ready – 60 minutes before the game – and that’s when I can kind of focus and hang out with the girls and get ready that way.
DF: What kind of music are you listening to this season to help you get prepared?
Johnson: I’m really into rap and hip-hop – anything that’s got a good beat and that’s upbeat. I would say mostly old school – definitely a big fan of [Notorious] B.I.G. I usually listen to that twice before I go out, I really love the old beats and what they’re talking about. It’s just nice and mellow. The newer hip-hop can be a little bit crazy but…
DF: Is your playlist kind of standard – with like 10 or 15 go-to songs?
Johnson: I actually go through my playlist and I just keep adding to it. I have a pretty big playlist and there’s probably about 100 songs in there but there’s definitely some go-to songs I listen to.
DF: Then you’ll find one song you haven’t heard in a while? Like, ‘oh Prince, I haven’t heard this in a while’ – and then it’ll get rotated back into the list?
Johnson: Yeah, exactly, and it just gives me another boost of energy because I get excited that I have 3,000 songs on my playlist. I love it when that happens.
DF: Now, you mentioned taping up you stick. Do you have any superstitions before a game?
Johnson: I always have to have Starburst. I always have one red Starburst while I’m warming up off the ice and then I’ll have one pink Starburst on the ice. And in terms of my stick, I just need to have it done before I get on the ice. I like, after warm-ups, to be able to sit and not do anything. It’s definitely something that I prefer to do before – I’m trying to think if I have any others.
DF: Where did the Starburst thing start – has it been over years, or is it something recent?
Johnson: That actually started in college. Our coach would always get snacks like clementines, bananas, peanut butter and she’d always buy a bag of Starburst and put them on the table. I just started – I loved red and pink Starburst – so I just started eating the Starburst and before the Starburst I was eating Werther’s candy. I would eat a Werther’s candy – I know, (laughs) it’s so random. I eventually ran out of the Werther’s and the Starburst were there, so I kind of picked up the Starburst and I’ve been eating the Starburst ever since.
DF: You need to tweet them before games, there could be a nice little sponsorship there.
Johnson: That would be nice (laughs)! It would definitely save me some money on buying a pound of red Starburst and a pound of pink Starburst.
DF: What’s life like outside of hockey? I have spoken to NWHL players in the past and they spend just as much time working as they do playing hockey.
Johnson: I work at a non-profit [in downtown Boston] called Building Impact. We specialize in working with companies and brining volunteer services into their companies on site and we also do corporate in-service. We’ve done corporate in-service for TripAdvisor – a lot of big pharmaceutical and healthcare companies in the Boston Area, especially downtown. That’s my 9-to-5 and I absolutely love it. I’m all about finding ways to give back to the local community. I really got into that when I was at [Boston College], when I was in the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. I really found my niche there and I wanted to help other people give back to their local communities. I actually, technically, have three jobs (laughs). I also coach but that’s more just for fun to give back to the game. I coach with the New England Pride. I have a 12-U girls team and I coach Saturday morning with their 8-U kids – so I have fun with that. It’s an early boost of energy with those little guys though (laughs).
DF: That’s awesome. Is it a little tough balancing all of the hockey and life?
Johnson: Yeah, so I’m starting to get back into my hockey routine and my work routine and finding ways I can work out. I’ll do boxing in the morning and workout at the gym there, then I go to work and then, if I have practice at night, I’ll go, whether it’s coaching or my practice with the Pride. It’s definitely a little bit harder in terms of balancing my life. It’s definitely easier than it was in college, because I don’t have to come home and do homework, so that’s a positive – but sometimes work carries over a little bit. I’ve found a way for it to work out.
DF: Before I let you go, your boyfriend is Justin Dunn – a prospect in the New York Mets system. Do you guys work out together? And if so, is it vastly different preparing for your respective sports?
Johnson: We actually haven’t gotten a chance to work out together. He’s from New York, so we’re doing the long distance thing and he’ll come down over the weekend – he’s actually here now. And then he’ll go back during the week to work out. I know that in terms of work outs, we always talked about the different things he’d do – he’s definitely doing a lot more shoulder-specific stuff, because of his pitching, but there are some similarities, in terms of squats and deadlifts and that kind of stuff. So, we do talk about that every once in a while, and how bad it sucks (laughs), but we’re both trying to live out our dreams.
DF: Was he a fan of hockey before you two met and were you a fan of baseball before you met?
Johnson: I was not a fan of baseball before we met. I actually didn’t understand the game, it made no sense to me and it was just, to be honest with you, a little bit boring. But, since we’ve started dating, he’s definitely explained different things of how it’s more of a trust game, so I’m figuring that out – and I actually enjoy it now, because I understand the actual logistics of it. He was a hockey fan. He came to my games in college and his roommates in high school played on the hockey team, so he was always at those games – he was very supportive of his high school games and then the BC women’s hockey team.
DF: Have you gotten him to start eating Starburst yet?
Johnson: No (laughs). He’s not a Starburst person – he’s Five Gum before the game. He buys me Starbursts and I buy him gum, so we kind of do a little bit of a trade-off there but he’s always been chewing gum, well since high school, so I don’t think I’m going to be able to get him to switch.
DF: Everybody’s got their thing.