Aisha Visram was thrilled when her phone lit up with screenshots and text messages from friends and family who had seen her on TV at a Los Angeles Kings game in January.
The 36-year-old Toronto athletic trainer was behind the bench for the Kings – still rare for a woman in the NHL – for their Jan. 13 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. She recognized the significance of the moment, but failed to realize the impact it would have far beyond her circle.
“I got a lot of messages from parents who said they saw the game and their daughters thought it was cool,” Visram said via video chat while on the road with Ontario Reign, l affiliate of the Kings in the American Hockey League. “I got messages from women who are still in school saying, ‘That was my goal, but I didn’t think it was possible. But I saw you up there and that means it’s possible. It’s so overwhelming, and I want to honor that.
Visram’s journey to the NHL began in Toronto, where she was born and raised in a close-knit family with roots in East Africa. She and her brother Farooq grew up watching “Hockey Night in Canada” with their parents and both played house league hockey as kids. Visram acknowledged that she might not be good enough to play professionally, but thought about how to merge and focus on science and health (partly inspired by her pharmacist parents) with the work in sports.
“She had the focus and the dedication. It was exactly what she really wanted to do,” said Farooq Visram, who works in finance in Toronto and is three years younger than her sister. “She felt the healthcare side was her path to staying in the game she loves and never deviated from that.”
After earning degrees in human kinetics and exercise psychology, Visram became an athletic trainer for NCAA athletes at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY in 2012. She spent three seasons as a coached with the Adirondack Thunder in the ECHL before joining the Reign for a bit. over a year ago, and was named head athletic trainer within six months.
Reign’s assistant coach Chris Hajt says Visram’s dedication to working closely with injured players and his constant communication with players and staff play a major role in determining the roster. team, and notes that these skills have not gone unnoticed in the NHL and AHL.
“She obviously talked about having this opportunity but, at the same time, she thinks so much about other people,” Hajt says. “For us, one of the biggest things throughout this process was just the amount of class she brought to it…and all the positive things she does on a daily basis.”
When some Kings staffers came down with COVID-19, Visram was asked to work the Jan. 13 game. “I started working and kind of pushed (the excitement) out of my mind for a little while,” she said. “And then I went over there during warm-ups and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is Sidney Crosby. It’s crazy. It is happening.
“I was trying not to get too emotional about it. But during the anthems, when it quieted down, that’s when it really hit me. And I started thinking about all the things that I had been through to get here, and to everyone who had helped me along the way – like all my classmates or friends – everyone who always said to me, ‘You can do it.’ It was amazing to know that what I wanted to do was possible.
Initial reports said Visram was the first woman to play an NHL regular season game behind the bench in any capacity, but Jodi van Rees, then an assistant athletic coach for the Montreal Canadiens, was the first to do so. to do in 2002. nonetheless made sense, especially as a woman of color.
Although Visram is used to being behind the scenes, she recognizes that visibility is important at a time when more and more players and staff are speaking out against discrimination in the hockey world, including through the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone campaign.
“I think representation is important, especially in hockey – which is still a very male and white-dominated sport,” she said. “When you see people who look like you doing things you want to do, it helps you see that you can too. So if seeing me helps someone realize they can do it, well, I guess that I will make peace with attention.
Visram, who returns frequently to visit family here, credits the cultural diversity of the Greater Toronto Area with helping him develop this understanding of the power of representation. She notes that while she has been blessed not to face much racial or gender discrimination during her career, the fact that she remains one of the few women to break into the big leagues is frustrating. She began a doctorate at Florida International University during the pandemic and plans to explore the lack of women leading professional sports.
“There are so many qualified women, so why aren’t we moving forward? I think we have to … figure out how we can open up more opportunities for women.
After his time in the spotlight with the Kings, Visram wants to continue breaking down barriers – and eventually achieve his ultimate goal of becoming the NHL’s head athletic trainer.
“I am the luckiest person in the world. I have so many people cheering me on and telling me I can do it,” she said. “When people have a dream and are encouraged to achieve it, it makes such a difference.”
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