Fitzgerald surprised to find herself stealing the show
Katie Fitzgerald feels as if she has a starring role in the hockey version of a silver screen classic.
And the Des Plaines native and Maine West graduate is returning for a sequel. Fitzgerald started practice this week in preparation for her second year as a goalie with the New York Riveters of the 3-year-old National Women's Hockey League (NWHL).
"A League of Their Own is one of my favorite movies," Fitzgerald said of the film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that starred Tom Hanks and Geena Davis. "The best way I can describe it is living A League of Their Own.
"Women's pro hockey is very new and it's so special to be a part of it. The pros definitely outweigh the cons and it's so much fun."
Fitzgerald's play was a big hit as she was selected goaltender of the year by the media who cover the four NWHL franchises in New York, Boston, Buffalo and Connecticut. She had a 7-6-1 record with a 3.01 goals-against-average and a .901 save percentage.
Fitzgerald also handed the Boston Pride its only loss in the final game of the regular season. Not a bad start considering she didn't necessarily think she would be a fit for the NWHL after a stellar college career at St. Cloud State in Minnesota.
"I really didn't think I was on that kind of radar," said Fitzgerald, who was contacted by the Riveters last summer. "It's pretty incredible to be proven wrong in that sense, because I didn't think I was what they were looking for.
"I just sold myself short a little bit. I went to a very good Division I school in Minnesota, but we weren't national championship contenders and I didn't do any national team things. I didn't think I was quite in that company, but I came to find I fit among these incredible women."
Sports have always been a big part of Fitzgerald's life. At Maine West, she was an all-area volleyball player and a four-year letterwinner in softball. She played travel softball until she left for St. Cloud State.
The foundation of Fitzgerald's hockey career started around age 4 when she would skate at the Oakton Ice Arena and Cornell Park in Des Plaines.
"What set hockey apart ... is I excelled a little faster with it," Fitzgerald said. "I found a special community within the Illinois youth hockey community."
She started at forward in her formative hockey years. But it got to the point where few others on her team wanted a second chance where everyone rotated putting on the goalie equipment.
"I thought, 'I'll do it, I'll take one for the team,'" Fitzgerald said with a laugh. "My brother (Ian) started playing goalie also and it was a little competitive. I had that extra level of drive."
Which was definitely necessary to fit playing hockey for the Chicago Mission along with two varsity sports at Maine West before going on to success at St. Cloud State. She had a 2.99 goals-against average and .906 save percentage as a senior and is third on the school's all-time list for goals-against-average (3.06) and fourth in save percentage (.908).
But after graduation, she assumed hockey would be something she would play recreationally or coach as she used her public relations degree toward a full-time career in marketing or mass communications.
"I figured my turn was up and it was my turn to help whoever was next in line," Fitzgerald said. "It was a tough pill to swallow because I didn't feel quite ready to hang my skates up."
It turned out she didn't have to -- although the life of an NWHL player is not like those in the NHL. Fitzgerald, who is living in Jersey City, NJ, near the team's home arena in Newark, is working with a marketing agency in retail merchandising. Because the players have jobs outside of hockey, the Riveters usually practice two nights a week and play one game per weekend in a season that starts in late October and ends in March.
Working this summer with the Chicago Bandits and seeing the rise of the National Pro Fastpitch softball league since 2004 was also an inspiration for Fitzgerald. Growing up her idols were goalies such as Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur and Marty Turco.
Now she is doing everything she can on and off the ice, along with other NWHL players, to give young girls hockey players the dream of possibly being the next Katie Fitzgerald.
"I would love to play as long as I can," Fitzgerald said. "There used to be a limitation but now there isn't. It's important to continue because I'm not ready to give it up, especially seeing girls on the team older than I am who are still playing.
"I love this league and playing for the love of the game. I'm so fortunate and so grateful to still be able to do this."