Column: Kings’ Aisha Visram proud to make NHL history and hopes more women will follow
Aisha Visram expected her family and friends to become emotional when she told them she would be filling in on the Kings’ athletic training staff Jan. 13.
They had supported her unlikely dream, offering encouragement when her job applications were rejected and taking it in stride when she was too busy to answer their calls and texts during hockey season. When the national anthem played before the Kings’ game against the Pittsburgh Penguins that night, she said, “I felt like they were all there with me sharing in the moment.”
But Visram, who is the head athletic trainer for the Kings’ American Hockey League farm team in Ontario and was called up to The Show when the Kings’ training staff was thinned by COVID-19, didn’t expect the torrent of publicity she received for simply doing her job.
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Toronto-born Visram, 36, unknowingly made a splash when she became the first woman to stand behind the Kings’ bench and the second confirmed to have worked behind an NHL bench. The Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society initially said she was the first woman to have worked a regular-season NHL game behind the bench in any capacity but later amended that to say Jodi van Rees was the first, as an assistant athletic trainer for the Montreal Canadiens in 2002.
Good for Visram. Like the players whose health and fitness she monitors, she had to move up through the ranks, starting with St. Lawrence University before she spent three seasons with Adirondack of the ECHL. She was hired by the AHL Ontario Reign just over a year ago. She earned her NHL promotion, which extended to the Kings’ game against Tampa Bay, on Tuesday. The fuss that it caused, though, left her with conflicting emotions.
Women have made inroads in the major North American professional sports leagues as assistant coaches and scouts and in front office positions that for decades were exclusively filled by men. Progress has been slow enough that firsts — or seconds — are noteworthy because they aren’t fifths or sixths or far enough down the list to be considered business as usual.
“If people can’t remember the last time there was a woman on an NHL bench it’s clearly been too long.”
— Aisha Visram
“This story has received a lot of attention, which is overwhelming, but it is in some ways disappointing that it has,” Visram said. “I mean, a woman stood on the bench for an NHL game and it felt like the entire sporting world took notice, and that’s obviously not what we want.
“If people can’t remember the last time there was a woman on an NHL bench, it’s clearly been too long. There’s no easy answer as to how to move forward, but I hope some point soon that it’s no longer news.”
Visram said she learned after the Reign had practiced last Thursday that she’d be needed to work at the Kings game. Because the Kings and Reign work closely together, she knew the personnel. “Here, it’s based on who is deserving of that opportunity and who’s the next person up. And I was fortunate that that was me,” she said. “That’s how we’ve always treated things here. You earn what you get, and I got fortunate and got the opportunity to move up and fill a role.”
She called her parents and alerted them to watch the game, which was broadcast in Canada on Sportsnet. As much as she tried to convince herself it was just another workday, it became much more than that as game time approached.
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“I had to hold back tears a little bit during the anthem, which was not something I’m used to. It was pretty cool just to see,” she said. “Working with the L.A. Kings organization, I’m used to seeing our superstars every day at the practice facility. At first it was exciting to see all the superstars, then you get used to it. But then when you get on an NHL bench and we’re playing the Pittsburgh Penguins and you see Sidney Crosby standing there and all the rest of them, it was definitely a ‘Oh, wow, this is happening.’”
The response to her appearance struck her when people beyond her family and friends reached out to say she had made an impact merely by being visible.
“Honestly, the things that meant most to me were people that I didn’t even know were sharing personal stories. I got a lot of messages from parents talking about how their kids saw me on the bench and how they thought it was so great and so inspiring,” she said. “And I got other messages from people who are in school and said that seeing me out there made them think that they could do it, too. That stuff was very overwhelming and very emotional as well.”
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Visram was unaware of Van Rees’ trailblazing work in 2002. “I believe that representation matters and I am sad that I didn’t know she had done this in the past,” Visram said. “I wish it had been a story then and I wished I had known and could have looked up to her from the start.”
Now, people will be looking up to Visram as she continues to pursue a full-time training job with an NHL team. She’s making it easier for the third, fourth, fifth or 55th women to follow. “As much as all this attention has made me uncomfortable, at the same time, if it helps to show others that you can do this too, then I can make my peace with the attention because I know that’s important,” she said.
“When you’re a kid, your dreams are so pure and you should get to believe you can do anything. You should honestly pick something you think you want to do and really believe you can do it, and if seeing me on the bench did that for anyone, then I mean, that’s an honor for me.”
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