Aisha Visram reflects on impact of her NHL moment: 'Representation matters'

Head trainer for the AHL's Ontario Reign Aisha Visram pictured behind the Los Angeles Kings' bench on Thursday, January 13. (Photo LA Kings Twitter)

It was when the lights went low and the anthems rung out within the walls of the Los Angeles Kings’ arena that Aisha Visram truly felt the weight of her big-league moment.

Thrust into the spotlight last Thursday with her presence on the bench making some NHL history, it was in that near-darkness that Visram was granted a quiet moment to reflect on the path that had brought her there.

“I had to hold back tears a little bit during the anthems, which was not something I'm used to,” she said with a laugh Wednesday. “Working with the L.A. Kings organization, I'm used to seeing our superstars every day at the practice facility. … 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, you know, 'Wow. This is real. This is happening.’”

The opportunity came as the Kings navigated the continued chaos of the pandemic, the virus leaving the club’s training staff with holes in need of filling on game night. They turned to Visram — the head athletic trainer for the team’s AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign — to get them through.

In doing so, she became the second woman to ever work an NHL game from behind the bench, following Montreal Canadiens assistant athletic trainer Jodi van Rees two decades prior.

But standing there as the anthems played, Visram’s mind wasn’t on how she slotted into hockey’s history books. Her thoughts instead drifted back to all the people who’d helped her along the way as she pushed forward towards her dream.

“I worked really hard for a long time, made a lot of sacrifices. My friends and family have made a lot of sacrifices,” she said. “And to get to that point where I can work [an NHL] game, it was great for myself, my family, my friends, all my classmates from everywhere I've been. When the anthems were playing, I felt like they were all there with me sharing in the moment.”

They got the chance to share in the moment more directly earlier that day with Visram receiving the news after practice wrapped up around 1 p.m. Thursday that she would be working the Kings game. Her first call was to her parents, whose response on the other end of the line was predictable.

“Just excitement. They know how hard I work and the sacrifices that I made,” she said. “And the ones they made too — I mean, the season's busy and there's plenty of unanswered texts and missed calls when they try to contact me during the season. So it was nice to kind of [say], 'Hey, it's all been worth it, because I'm going to get a chance tonight.' Everyone was really excited. I did also text a couple of my friends and luckily Sportsnet was carrying the game, so all my friends and family in Canada got to watch it, which made it even more special.”

Historic as Visram's arrival on that bench might’ve been, it wasn’t the novelty of it that prompted the Kings to call her name on Thursday. The opportunity simply went to the one who’d proven most deserving, who’d made clear over hours, days, weeks and months that they were ready.

“That's how we've always treated things here. You earn what you get. And I got fortunate and earned the opportunity to move up and fill a role,” Visram said. “Obviously, you don't want to lose staff members, that's not the ideal situation. But it was just a perfect combination of right place, right time and then a good track record of proving that I had the skills and experience to work at this level.”

It was the culmination of a journey that started a decade ago in the NCAA, where Visram made her first foray into the athletic training world with St. Lawrence University. From there, it was on to the ECHL with the Adirondack Thunder as head athletic trainer and strength coach, a position she held for three years.

She took a role with the Reign in early 2021, amid the tumult of the pandemic and its ever-unpredictable impact on the hockey world, earning the head athletic trainer role with the AHL club six months later.

After wading through the grind of the minors, wondering if she’d get that next shot, continuing to work her way up through the ranks, standing on that NHL bench surrounded by some of the game’s most prolific stars was validation enough for all those moments she refused to give in to the uncertainty.

“At every level, there's challenges. It takes a lot to work up to the professional level,” she said of that journey. “And, you know, there are definitely things that happen along the way that can discourage you — you can keep applying for jobs and not get them and give up. Or you can you can keep trying. Looking back now, I'm really glad that I kept going.”

Visram’s presence on the Kings’ bench took over the internet Thursday night, with the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society initially believing her to be the first woman ever to be behind the bench for an NHL game, before offering a correction Saturday. In the moment, though, with that milestone seemingly reached, Visram’s accomplishment was raised up and lauded, her barrier-breaking taking centre stage throughout the hockey world.

The reaction was, more than anything else, a reflection of just how much progress is still needed.

“This story has received a lot of attention, which is overwhelming, but it is in some ways disappointing that it has,” she said Wednesday. “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.”

On the other hand, with the hockey world still far from that goal, it wasn’t lost on Visram just how impactful her arrival on that bench, in that game, on screens across the continent and beyond, was for so many. The importance of it was made abundantly clear by the messages that rolled in one after another following the game — parents who said their kids were inspired by the sight of her, students who said watching her do her thing at the sport’s highest level made them believe they could reach those same lofty heights. It was those messages that have stuck with her most in the days since, she said.

And she hopes it’s that sentiment, above all else, that’s taken away by young people who finally saw themselves in the sport they love through Visram’s arrival.

“I hope that they realize that you really can do anything,” she said. “I think representation matters. I think that when you see someone who looks like you doing something that you want to do, it helps you believe that you can do it too. And I think as much as all this attention has made me very 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 that's important. That when you're a kid, your dreams are so pure and you should get to believe that you can do anything.

“If seeing me on the bench did that for anyone then, I mean, that's an honour for me.”

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