In a Career of Change, Friesen Finds Strength in New Surroundings

by Sam Fryman

Over the last year and a half, change has been a part of all our lives in one way or another. In women’s sports this has been especially true. On September 6th, the NWHL announced that, after six years, the they were rebranding to the Premier Hockey Federation. Back in February, the Pride, along with the rest of the league, played out the entirety of their sixth season in a bubble environment in Lake Placid, New York. To conclude their postseason, they played a championship game at home after another slight delay. One of the Pride’s newest players was on the Connecticut Whale that season; She’s an athlete who has always brought the best out of herself and others despite a flurry of team and culture changes throughout her career. The Pride’s newest offensive weapon, Kayla Friesen will be in her third new environment in the last four years. Still, she’s certain that all of the anxious moments that can sometimes coincide with change have made her ten times stronger on and off the ice.

Her first change in scenery came when she moved from her first home in Monroe, Louisiana to Winnipeg at age three. After she moved, Friesen got to make the choice on her own to go play independently in girls only leagues rather than stick around playing with the boys. Playing co-ed hockey was very important to developing her early skills, but she was glad to make the change and compete exclusively with girls on her own.

“I tried to stay on the boy’s side as long as I could. I think I ended up switching my second year of high school to girls. I got to make the decision on my own, which was nice.” Friesen also made a point of saying she had a support system that never forced her to choose a specific path.

“I was never really pressured. I didn’t have any parents or teammates nagging me and getting me to switch over. Winnipeg was great with that, the guy’s side loved it. I always had great teammates so I never had an issue which was super nice. I got to make the switch on my own when I was ready and when I felt was a good time for me.”

Friesen also made another switch after getting to a high school program, transferring from the Dakota Collegiate program in her hometown to St. Mary’s Academy Prep where she scored 168 points in 140 career games. As far as the most difficult change to overcome in that time, Friesen says it was going “no contact” and the game’s overall level of physicality.

“Growing up contact happens early, so as a girl, I always had to be aware and be ready to take hits. So that was a big adjustment for me, just learning how to control my body and not be as physical because obviously on the girl’s side, you can’t.”

Though she initially racked up a lot of penalty minutes and trips to the sin bin, Friesen learned about being a more skill-based player and that the game would only get faster the older she got.

The second change of scenery wouldn’t force Friesen to go too far from home. She committed to play for top program St. Cloud State to begin the 2016-17 hockey season. Growing up across the US border, the WCHA was a conference she had always heard about and always wanted to play for.

“Once I toured St. Cloud, I didn’t know if I would actually like it. It was another tour I got the opportunity to go on. Once I talked to the coaches and how they ran things and how they really focused on the development side, that really drew me because I knew I wanted to keep developing.”

She also mentioned assistant coach Jinelle Siergiej, a veteran of the 2010 US Women’s National team that won silver at the Vancouver Olympics was a huge mentor for her. “She played on the US National Team. She played at Wisconsin. She knows how to handle the female side.”

After a freshman year during which St. Cloud won seven conference games and tied an additional three, Friesen’s point total and overall game started to improve even while the team plateaued.  

“And that’s when I kind of realized that I don’t really think I’m developing anymore, and that’s what kind of scared me because I knew I wanted to continue a career after college and I knew if I wasn’t developing that I probably wouldn’t be able to.”

In Friesen’s sophomore and junior seasons, St. Cloud only managed finishes of sixth out of eight in the WCHA. Fearing that she may be losing her passion, Friesen transferred to Clarkson University for her senior season. The Golden Knights were a program that consistently challenged for and won championships on the women’s side. While there were several factors outside of performance that influenced Friesen’s decision, number one was rekindling a love she didn’t want to lose.

“I knew growing up hockey was my life, and I kind of felt that fading, so I knew if I stuck around [St. Cloud], there would’ve also been a chance that I wouldn’t have even wanted to continue hockey after work which kind of scared me.”

Friesen wanted to take that risk of reigniting her game in different surroundings rather than walking away or staying somewhere that might hurt her long-term development. She was familiar with Clarkson assistant coach Britni Smith, who had coached her during a stint with team Canada, as well as superstar forward Elizabeth Giguere. That season, Friesen scored a career high 30 points in 28 games as the Golden Knights finished third in the highly competitive ECAC.

“I didn’t really set any expectations. I think if I would’ve set expectations I maybe would’ve gotten in trouble. The team was awesome. I adjusted to the role they gave me and I loved it. The coaches were amazing and helped build my confidence back up so I owe a lot to them that’s for sure.”

For her post-collegiate career, Friesen admitted that while she had heard a little bit about the NWHL, she was more focused on trying to get some sort of contract to play in Europe. It was the players currently involved in the league that influenced Friesen to be involved, and with COVID starting to take hold, she also wanted to stay close to home and not risk the overseas journey.

“I loved what they were trying to do with building the female side, and that’s ultimately what pulled me to the NWHL. I loved it. I loved my last season in Connecticut.”

Friesen was selected second overall by the Whale in the 2020 draft, and she proved quickly in the bubble that she belonged right next to the team’s top scorers Emma Vlasic and current Pride teammate Katelynn Russ. The Whale finished the abbreviated season fourth after falling to the Minnesota Whitecaps in the semifinals.

The year was obviously one of big changes with the season taking place in the Lake Placid bubble, and rookie players like Friesen were forced to learn new systems and new teammates on the fly.

“Finding time outside the team practices, you have a week to get to know your teammates. Obviously chemistry and stuff isn’t just built on the ice. A lot of it happens in the locker room or at outside hangouts.”

“I think we did a really good job during a COVID year especially just to see each other as much as we could and hang out and get to know each other. Every team kind of needs to build something outside of the rink, just to add on to what you build inside of the rink.”

While the Whale chemistry was great and the team enjoyed a solid season, Boston came calling for Friesen. After landing a new job in the city and engaging in talks with team management she decided it was the right fit. What that process also illustrates in her mind however, is that the landscape of staying in one place for a long time in women’s sports is still not where it should be.

“That’s the (tough) thing about the female side is that it affects everything you do. You can’t just play professional where you want, when you want. You have to have a career outside. So that was a big factor for me, and just the history of the program.”

As has been the case with her entire career up to this point, Friesen also says it’s all about development and becoming the best player possible. “As always that’s something I look for because I don’t want to just be the player I am now I want to keep growing and I think Boston gives me that opportunity. Whatever role they put me in I’m excited to adjust and hopefully succeed in it.”

The Pride will be Friesen’s fourth team in as many years, and she has proven that she doesn’t have much of a learning curve when it comes to finding her primary role on the ice. She thinks having a largely successful veteran core back in Boston will help her be an impact player quickly. While Connecticut had a lot of new players last year alongside Friesen, they had not yet established a way of doing things the way the Pride have for the last three seasons. Just like the league itself, Friesen has no problem taking on a new identity.

“The biggest thing is to just kind of be a sponge. You have to learn the new things, their program and their culture. Just being able to be adaptive and coachable and a positive teammate is going to be huge for myself,” Friesen said. “Whatever team you go to, the girls are going to be awesome. Everyone works towards the same goal. If we work together, we’re going to get there that much quicker.”

This is definitely what the Pride are searching for this season, and Friesen will make a huge impact on and off the ice.