Karen Ota-O’Brien couldn’t find a place to play hockey.
She moved to Florida in the 1990s and started a small travel team with a couple of other women who played. They mostly played with men’s teams because there was no other outlet for them.
When she was in her early 30s, she shattered her shin bone trying to stop a slapshot.
“That put me out for a year-and-a-half,” Ota-O’Brien said. “I just had injuries. It hurts when you run into dudes versus women.”
At age 58, Ota-O’Brien is not only still playing hockey, but she’s responsible for helping grow the game in Florida as a co-founder of the Florida Women’s Hockey League and founder of the Lucky Pucks Hockey Club, giving women a safe and welcoming place to play hockey. That’s helped earn her the 2023 Hockey Adult Player of the Year Award.
She said she was honored to get the call because USA Hockey is “the grassroots of amateur hockey.”
“It’s a huge honor,” Ota-O’Brien said, adding that winning the award gave her goosebumps and brought tears to her eyes. “Because I know that they understand, by giving me this award, they totally get what it takes to start a program. Especially in Florida.”
This award is presented annually in recognition of the accomplishments for an adult hockey player.
Ota-O’Brien is also a finalist this year for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, given to an individual who has positively impacted their community culture through hockey. She’s skated with her Lucky Pucks teams for years, and this past season, she and her teammates won the USA Hockey 40-plus Adult Women’s National Championship. The Lucky Puck divisions also swept the state championships in the novice, recreational and C divisions.
The Florida Women’s Hockey League is a travel program involving cities across the state. So, how did the league get its start?
Ota-O’Brien conceptualized it with a couple of other female hockey players. She wrote the details down on a bar napkin while they were out discussing the idea. She reached out to a few other women she played with to get the league’s puck rolling, with a travel season the runs from September through February.
She also started a girls’ night out hockey program in the early 2000s, which has grown to two nights a week playing in Boca Raton and the Panthers Ice Den in Coral Springs. It “provides a safe, fun skate” for women divided up into lines of beginners and more experienced players, Ota-O’Brien said. She simply wanted to give women like her, who are older players without a college hockey background, a place to play hockey.
She couldn’t imagine simply staying behind the scenes with all these programs; she loves to play, too. After growing up on a cattle ranch in 100 Mile House, British Columbia, and learning to skate, with figure skates, on frozen hay fields, Ota-O’Brien moved to Florida after what was supposed to be a work vacation. She was asked to play in a pickup hockey game with some of her male coworkers from a restaurant, so she grabbed some gear and hit the ice with them.
“That got me hooked,” Ota-O’Brien said. “This is so much fun. It’s great exercise.
“So that’s what kind of got me starting to play and getting organized with other women.”
She knows she’s probably one of the oldest players out there, but she was comforted to see that there is a 60-plus division at nationals. For now, she’ll hold out playing in the 40-plus division as long as possible; a couple of her friends want her to stay until they turn 40.
“But I’m still playing,” Ota-O’Brien said. “Until, I don’t know, until my body tells me I can’t. So far, knock on wood, I’m feeling pretty good.”
What also keeps her going is the camaraderie with all her friends in the women’s hockey world. It’s the friendships, connecting with women from all over the world with various hockey backgrounds. They all share Ota-O’Brien’s passion for the love of hockey.
The game is also a great tension release sometimes.
“Not only is it the best exercise that you could possibly get for cardio, but you could have the craziest, crappiest day at work or home,” Ota-O’Brien said. “And you go out there for an hour, and you just forget about everything, except for chasing that stupid little black puck for an hour, trying to get it away from somebody.”
Ota-O’Brien winning this USA Hockey award isn’t the only exciting hockey-related piece of news happening in south Florida these days, with the Florida Panthers going on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. Ota-O’Brien also pointed out the similarity with Florida Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour and her both being First Nations.
“I feel like we’re on this roll here between us and the Panthers,” Ota-O’Brien said. “It’s just going to be a good year. Because it’s been definitely for myself and the Lucky Pucks. We’re pushing some huge mojo over to them and hoping that they can go all the way.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.