For Jessie Eldridge, her rise to prominence in women’s hockey has always been about more than just herself.
Giving back to the game she loves and paving the way for those young girls hoping to follow in her steps has always been important for the Barrie native.
“It’s always been what she is about,” said her father Duane, who coached her in the Barrie Sharks women’s hockey organization. “As a young kid, she was always worried about her teammates and what was going on and was always engaged with everything going on within the organizations."
Jessie was also active in school on many fronts.
"I think when she went to Colgate University, you saw it step up again where they have a couple of unique programs there with housing projects," added Duane in an interview with BarrieToday. "Hamilton, N.Y., is a bit of a depressed area. She was involved in working with some developmental challenged adults. There’s all kinds of stories and stuff.
“People ask, from a parent’s standpoint, you must be proud of all the records she set at Colgate. I think being nominated for NCAA female athlete of the year by their head coach speaks volumes for the type of person she was," he said. "That has nothing to do with hockey. That’s identifying who she was as a person.”
When the talented forward signed a two-year deal earlier this month with New York in the upstart Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), it was not only a dream come true for the girl who began playing hockey with boys, but a giant step for those young girls who will follow her and their hockey dreams.
“We’ve had certain professional leagues in the past that we know have been unsuccessful, but I think these last couple of years we’ve had the right people in place to build it,” said Jessie, the 25-year-old Canadian National Women’s team member who was drafted 16th overall by New York in the new six-team league that will drop the puck in January.
“The main goal is for us to have dream day jobs and also the young girls coming up being able to see this and hopefully have our games on TV," she added, "and be able to have those teams to cheer for so they can not only dream about making the Olympic team or international team, but now also a professional team to do that as a way of living.”
New York get excited, we’ve been waiting for this one! 🤩— PWHL New York (@PWHL_NewYork) November 7, 2023
We are so thrilled to share that Colgate University’s all-time leading scorer and Team Canada forward Jessie Eldridge has signed a two-year contract! pic.twitter.com/cHV3AmO8Lz
The average salary for a first-year PWHL player is set to be around $55,000 with six players required to have salaries above $80,000 or more.
For young girls whose dream has always been to play for Canada, they’ll now have the opportunity to make a living in the game they love.
“We kind of get caught in the moment that this has been an everyday fight for the last couple of years,” said Jessie.
She was one of the top scorers in the now-defunct Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association last season and graduated from Colgate in 2019 as the school’s all-time points leader with 74 goals and 89 assists.
“It’ll been nice to go home to Barrie and the surrounding areas and actually see what it means to the young girls and their families as well," Jessie added. “It makes the lower moments worth every second.
"The national program is so hard to crack, and they only take a certain amount of girls and we’ve lost a lot of girls’ hockey careers because of that, but this will be an opportunity to keep more women in the game and more girls will have a realistic chance of making that dream come true.”
Duane is obviously proud of everything his daughter has accomplished on the ice, but it isn’t lost on him what the arrival of the PWHL means and the opportunity it presents for young girls like those in the Barrie Sharks organization.
“You talk to any parent whose kids are done playing hockey and it becomes such an important part of your life every day,” he said. “When it ends, it ends, and the fact that she’s got an opportunity to do it a pro level is really exciting.”
Young girls now have a path they can follow.
“They can look at, 'OK, if I can play in the Sharks organization and play at the U22 level and then go to play college and then when I’m done college I can go and maybe be a professional hockey player,” Duane added. “For the longest time, only their brothers had that dream
“It’s amazing that this whole group, and I’ve talked to a number of them, they all talk about the trailblazing they’re doing for the kids coming behind them. I think that’s the most amazing thing," he said.
Jessie has made it a point to give back to the game in her community. She relishes the role of a mentor and wants to be there for young girls every opportunity she gets.
“When I was growing up in the Barrie organization, I was playing against boys because there wasn’t even a girls' organization,” she said. “So now watching the Sharks organization develop, it’s been awesome for me being a role model for those girls.
"I don’t think we had enough of them around when I was growing up, so I didn’t realize what was out there for us to achieve.”
Jessie says it’s all been a pretty surreal couple of months, starting with the draft and having the opportunity to be drafted to a professional team, and then being able to follow that up by signing a pro contract.
“It’s something you hope would always happen, but until it became real, you really don’t understand the magnitude of it,” she said. “So, it’s really special.”
Jessie is excited about getting to play in the city known as the “Big Apple” and join other professional women’s teams there, including the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Liberty and the National Women’s Soccer League’s NJ/NY Gotham FC.
She’s been at training camp for over a week now and has found a place to live with nine of her teammates.
“We’re making it feel like cottage a little bit,” she said. “It’s been nice to meet the staff and everyone. Stakes are pretty high right now. Everyone is vying for a roster spot and see where everybody fits.”
Jessie is also looking forward to getting back on the ice with the Canadian women’s national team at the upcoming Rivalry Series against the United States. The puck will drop on the seven-game series Dec. 14 in Kitchener and will also include games in Sarnia, Saskatoon and Regina.
“Whenever you have the opportunity to put the maple leaf on your chest, it’s hard to put into words,” said Jessie, who helped Canada win gold at the 2022 women’s world championships.
While the PWHL schedule has yet to be released, Jessie knows she’ll have plenty of support from Duane, mother Lisa and brother Kyle when New York takes on Toronto.
“I’m looking forward to having them (family) out here to see our new spot, but also we’ll be able to play a few games in Toronto,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll have a couple of New York jerseys in the stands, even though we’re playing a team in Toronto and so close to home.”
It’s been quite the journey for Jessie, who has gone from playing hockey in the backyard with Kyle to getting ready to take to the ice with a professional team in the Big Apple.
“Sometimes we get caught up in our moment,” she said. “We work so hard (to get here), we focus on that. But when we take a minute to reflect on things like that, it’s pretty surreal.
"And we hope this is just the beginning.”