CWHL's first transgender woman finds comfort, confidence in professional hockey

Jessica Platt, right, is the first openly transgender player in the Canadian Women's Hockey League. Chris Tanouye/Canadian Women's Hockey League

Jessica Platt learned to skate in a backyard ice rink her family built in a neighbor's yard. She called it a back-rink. For as long as she can remember -- so, since she was about 3 years old -- Platt skated on that rink.

"Canada, right?" she joked in a phone interview.

Platt, 28, grew up in Brights Grove, Ontario, just outside of Sarnia, which is about 180 miles west of Toronto and just across the border from Michigan. Today, she plays for the Toronto Furies, a Canadian Women's Hockey League team -- something she didn't exactly expect to happen when she first picked up a stick in her back-rink 25 years ago. That's because, in reflection, playing professional sports is something that's challenging for a transgender woman to consider as a possibility, if for no other reason than that there haven't been any role models for Platt.

By coming out publicly and sharing her story, Platt is the second transgender person to come out in North American professional hockey and the first transgender woman to do so. She joins Brazilian volleyball player Tiffany Abreu, Australian rules football player Hannah Mouncey, New Zealand weight lifter Laurel Hubbard and American volleyball player Tia Thompson as transgender women who, over the past year, have talked openly about their experiences.

"I'm hoping I can help other trans people and trans athletes know that they can achieve their dreams," Platt said. "Even if one person is inspired or helped, then I feel like I succeeded at something."

The CWHL worked with You Can Play, an LGBTQ inclusion organization, earlier this season to update its policy regarding participation of transgender athletes to be in line with the policies of the International Olympic Committee and Hockey Canada recommendations. In order to be eligible to compete in the CWHL, all women -- cisgender and transgender -- must have hormone levels of a "typical female athlete." The CWHL was the first league to sign on to work with You Can Play in 2012, and the American professional women's hockey league, the NWHL, debuted a similar policy in 2016 following the coming out of the first transgender player, Harrison Browne.

"We try to make sure that all of our policies are up to date so our players are protected," CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said in a phone interview. "This isn't about women's hockey or sports, really. It is about the strength [Platt] has for telling her story. To support a woman who has made a decision to tell her truth is what this league is all about."

Due to an injury of another player, Platt was invited to play four games for the Toronto Furies during the 2016-17 season. Then she made the team full-time this season. She started as a blueliner, but her coach, Jeff Flanagan, recently moved her to forward. She has played in 16 of the team's 17 games so far this season.

"Any sport should be inclusive," Flanagan said. "It's important for our organization to be open and supportive. Certainly, we're here to play sports and we're here to win, but that only goes so far. If people aren't in a good place, then it's very difficult for them to perform as an athlete."

Platt said she began questioning her gender identity early in high school. She had many female friends, but they often hung out without her. From her spot in the boys' locker room, Platt felt left out and like she did not fit in the way she should.

"I felt like I was missing out on the experiences that I should have been having," Platt said.

Platt can make light of certain situations now that so much time has passed. She cracked a joke about "obviously" not fitting in with bro culture when she played on her boys' high school hockey team. At the time, however, she felt very much alone. Brights Grove is a small town, and most people weren't talking about transgender identity in 2005. Pop culture was still trying to wrap its collective mind around gay and lesbian identities; it would be eight more years before Netflix's "Orange is the New Black" premiered. Trans people, let alone trans athletes, were hardly thought of. Left to her own devices, Platt did her own research. She tried to absorb anything she could about transgender people.

"I was alone there, and I wanted to know if there were other people who felt like I did," Platt said.

Becoming more certain about her own identity, Platt began to pull away from her family. She didn't want to talk about her feelings because that inevitably meant she would have to talk about this. She put on a brave face and made it through high school, trying to convince everyone that she was "normal" in the way they thought she should be. She was in band, stayed out of trouble and worked at Tim Horton's.

After graduating from high school in 2007, Platt played in a local recreational league before hanging up her skates for what she thought would be the last time. She was finished. She took a few years off from school to work and, frankly, figure out what she was going to do. She began to understand that she wanted to transition, but she was terrified of telling her parents.

"I'd read stuff online about people being disowned for being gay or being transgender," Platt said. "It terrified me to be disowned and be on my own just like that. So I talked less and just started slowly closing myself off."

She returned to school in 2010 at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo and began to medically transition in 2012. Just before starting hormone replacement therapy, Platt shared her identity with her older sister and her mother. It went well. They were understanding and loving. Platt wrote her father an email to get him into the loop. She had her mother tell her older brother.

"I think I got pretty lucky with my whole family," Platt said.

Platt finished school in 2014 and was working at a coffee shop on campus at Wilfrid Laurier University but needed to pick up a second job. She started teaching kids to skate and fell in love with the ice all over again. She decided that she wanted to start playing again and joined a local recreation league.

"The last time I played hockey, I was 60 pounds heavier and never trained," said Platt, who's 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds. "Now, I was going to the gym all the time and was running and biking."

With the success she was having in her local league, Platt decided to go for it. She tried out for the CWHL on a whim, and though she didn't make a team full-time, she played in four games. This season, however, Platt earned herself a spot on the team through her own determination.

"She's pretty raw from a talent perspective," Flanagan said. "She's got great speed and a good shot, but what really drew us to having her on the team was her work ethic and grit."

"Hockey has been my favorite sport since I learned to skate," Platt said. "To be able to play again and do so professionally has been a dream come true."

Although the CWHL started paying players small stipends for the first time this season, they don't make a living wage. To supplement her hockey career, Platt works as a cashier at the cafeteria of a software company in Waterloo. The job allows her to play hockey on weekends and attend evening practices. In other words, it's perfect.

"I've been so happy and so confident," Platt said. "I want people to see that if someone is going through a hard time because they're trans or gay or bisexual that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There's potential to be happy and live the life that you've always wanted."