Mikyla Grant-Mentis reflects on becoming highest-paid player in women’s hockey

Mikyla Grant-Mentis during her tenure with the Toronto Six. (Nathan Fernandes/Toronto Six)

TORONTO — For the second time in as many years, Mikyla Grant-Mentis has made history.

Rewind back to the spring of 2021, and the Brampton, Ont., native was busy stockpiling awards. A dominant debut with the Premier Hockey Federation’s Toronto Six had earned her MVP honours, Grant-Mentis becoming the first Black player in the league’s history to reach that lofty summit.

Now, the 23-year-old standout is seeing the rewards of her on-ice emergence — earlier this month, Grant-Mentis put pen to paper on a landmark one-year, $80,000 USD deal with the Buffalo Beauts, making her the highest-paid player in women’s hockey.

News of the deal caused quite a stir around the hockey world, the pact becoming the new benchmark for elite talent in the PHF and beyond. But for Grant-Mentis herself, the weight of the moment took her by surprise.

“I don’t think I really knew that all this would come about from it. I honestly had no idea when I was signing,” she said in an interview Wednesday. In fact, Grant-Mentis didn’t learn of the historic significance of her new deal until everyone else did, when the terms of the contract were first reported on social media.

“Someone posted it on Twitter and that was when I found out. I was like, ‘Oh snap, I didn’t even know that,’ to be honest,” she says with a chuckle. “It kind of just blew up after that. And then when Buffalo did announce it, it just got even crazier.”

The deal came about as free agency opened in early May. The Beauts got a jump on the competition, pitching Grant-Mentis early and with an undeniable offer, intent on securing the reigning MVP.

“Buffalo was the first to contact my agent at that time, and it kind of was something that I couldn’t pass up,” she says. “The offer was just too good to be true. You know, I did some thinking about obviously having to leave Toronto, pretty much leave my whole family behind and go to Buffalo. But it was too good to pass up.”

Dollars aside, the decision was still a tough one given the opportunity her two years in Toronto gave her. Talk to anybody who’s spent time around Grant-Mentis and you’re bound to hear about the limitless passion of her family, who pack an entire cheering section for Six home games, who cherished the chance to see her take the ice at home after her four years away in North Andover, Mass., suiting up for Merrimack College.

“I really was torn between the two teams,” she says of that decision to move on from the Six. “Toronto was an amazing spot to play. It was a dream of mine to play in my hometown again. … I accomplished so much here, the team accomplished so much. It’s definitely an experience that I will never forget.”

In the end, it was the support of her family, friends, and teammates that pushed her to take the leap and sign on with Buffalo, the magnitude of the opportunity making a new chapter worth the gamble.

But the jersey swap is more a journey coming full circle than a move to unfamiliar territory. It was the Beauts who gave Grant-Mentis her first shot as a pro back in early 2020, when she was still wrapping up her college career — a whirlwind few weeks that saw the young forward spending weekends driving and flying to Buffalo and the cities the club was playing in, before racing back to North Andover in time for class on Monday.

Now, she’ll return to Buffalo as the face of the franchise.

“You know, that’s kind of like the cool thing about it,” she says. “My career started in Buffalo and I basically got paid absolutely nothing because I was coming out of college and wasn’t able to. And now I’m the most paid in the league.

“It’s kind of surreal to think that, just in four years, that was able to happen.”

Mikyla Grant-Mentis finished her NCAA career as Merrimack College’s all-time leading scorer. (Jim Stankiewicz/Merrimack Athletics)

Of course, that shift is bound to bring a pressure unlike any Grant-Mentis has faced in her young career, that landmark deal bringing with it a certain weight of expectation.

But in her eyes, it’s an opportunity more than anything else, she says. A chance to focus on her craft more than she ever has before.

“I won’t have to work anymore,” she says. Those familiar with the schedule the young phenom kept this past season will understand the significance. Grant-Mentis’s gameday performances in 2021-22 came amid a daunting weekly routine: 5 a.m. shifts working at FedEx, team practices, multiple workouts each week with teammates, and even more workouts before those workouts, with her own personal trainer.

Moving forward, all her energy, all her focus, can be directed towards her game.

“I’ll be able to put more time into hockey, working out, and taking care of my body. I think it’s just going to be easier for me to perform with this money,” she says. “And I hope everyone can have this opportunity, where they don’t have to work, where they’re just able to play hockey.”

It’s an important moment not just for Grant-Mentis, but for all those who came before her, and those that will come after. It’s an important moment for her family, for mom Sandra and dad James, whose dedication to their daughter’s career is unending — and who’ve seen her passed over and looked past from the very beginning.

“Everybody used to come out to watch everybody else,” James had said when we spoke earlier this year, as he reflected on his daughter’s younger days on the ice. “But she just continues to work hard and puts up numbers and just does things to be positive. She says, ‘They can’t keep me down forever.’”

Said Sandra of seeing that trend continue even as her daughter made waves as a pro, only to receive little interest from the national program: “She was so disappointed. Because, this is something you’re working hard for, you know? You do your extra this, your extra that, you do all these things, and you still are not being recognized.”

Grant-Mentis’s greatness is being recognized now, surely — that historic contract evidence enough of the fact she’s made herself undeniable. But regardless of what comes next, and of what this moment means in the grand scheme of her journey, she isn’t changing the mindset that got her here.

“I’ve been overlooked basically my entire career,” she says. “And honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if people still don’t see me, or still look over me, just because, you know, I don’t have the Team Canada [experience], I didn’t have the Wisconsin school behind me and stuff like that.

“But at this point, I’m playing for myself and my teammates, and just doing whatever I can to make sure I’m the best hockey player. And make sure I’m doing my best for the team that I’m playing for.”

Grant-Mentis led the Toronto Six in scoring in each of the past two seasons. (Nathan Fernandes/Toronto Six)

Whether the national program’s decision-makers come to appreciate what Grant-Mentis’s new deal says of her potential, and of her place in the game, one thing is clear — others around the sport have taken notice.

According to Sportsnet colleague Jeff Marek, multiple players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association reached out to PHF teams about opportunities to join the league in the future after seeing the news of Grant-Mentis’s new pact.

She’s all for bridging that gap any way she can, she says.

“That’s honestly absolutely amazing,” Grant-Mentis says. “I think what everybody wants is just to be one, strong women’s hockey league. That we can all be playing, living just by playing hockey, and not have to worry about really anything else. Hopefully this deal did move some people around. And maybe, in the next year or two, we’re just all one, and we can just keep going from there.”

For now, her focus is on preparing for the 2022-23 season, on turning the page and starting a new chapter in Buffalo. But as has always been the case with Grant-Mentis, she still has one eye on that bigger picture, on the hope that the work she’s putting in now might move her sport forward when all is said and done.

“Not many people will get to do this, and I’m glad I’m the first one to get it. But there’s so much more that we need to do, to make sure this is the minimum,” she says. “That this is not even talked about anymore, because we’re all making way more than this.

“So, I mean, I feel good. But there’s still so much work for women’s hockey to do to make sure everyone’s making the same.”

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