Grace Dima isn’t taking her newfound role as a trailblazer on the Long Island University women’s ice hockey team lightly.
The Huntington Bay native said being a pioneer on Long Island’s first Division I hockey team could be impactful on the community — especially for young girls.
“Personally, growing up here and playing youth hockey here, my first-ever youth hockey girls game was at Iceworks, our home rink,” said Dima, who graduated from Portledge School in Locust Valley and spent her freshman year at St. Lawrence University before transferring.
“I think it’s amazing for girls teams around here because women’s hockey isn’t crazy popular on Long Island … Having this Division I team and having these girls who aspire to be great hockey players, it’s just crazy. If this was here when I was younger, I don’t even know what would have happened.”
At the helm of the first-year program is Rob Morgan, an Alberta, Canada, native who took the reins after LIU’s Brookville and Brooklyn athletics programs unified last October.
He’s made several coaching stops throughout his career, spending time at Dartmouth, Yale and St. Norbert before traveling to China in 2018 and developing professional women’s ice hockey as an assistant coach on the Chinese national team. He’s always been a builder.
“We’re limited by experience, but I believe I can take my experiences from along the way and collectively we can lay a foundation and build a championship program,” Morgan said.
The Sharks’ home rink is Iceworks in Syosset, the former practice facility of the Islanders. They opened the weekend of Oct. 4-5, losing two games to UConn, which graduated only two players from last year’s team that finished 14-18-4.
By comparison, the Sharks had spent approximately 10-15 hours of practice time together before the season-opening series.
Morgan’s 23-player roster is green, featuring 21 true freshmen with Dima the only player from Long Island. He has international talent with 2022 Olympic hopefuls from Canada, China, Denmark and Sweden, but Morgan considers one of his leaders to be Dima.
“It’s hard being on a team where you don’t have those seniors and juniors telling the girls what is expected,” Dima said. “We kind of have to form a set of guidelines for ourselves.”
Limitations for ice time require that the Sharks practice early. They hit the ice from 8-10 a.m. Monday through Thursday, but they arrive at Iceworks at 6:45 a.m. for one hour of off-ice training. The players begin their academic days at 11 a.m.
Games are played on Fridays and Saturdays against the same team. Last weekend, the Sharks played defending NCAA champion and No. 1 ranked Wisconsin, losing 10-2 on Friday at Iceworks and 12-0 on Saturday at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. In Friday’s loss, Dima scored her first collegiate goal. The Sharks lost to Yale on Friday, 9-2, and Saturday, 5-1, falling to 0-6.
Morgan said Iceworks could present a future problem for the program because of a limited amount of seating for a fan base he hopes (and expects) to grow in the coming years. Even if the program struggles in its inaugural season, Morgan said spectators will notice the team’s energy.
“Every practice and every game that we play, I feel that energy from everyone,” said Matilda af Bjur, a forward from Linköping, Sweden. “We’re a family, and we’re going to grow as a family, but the energy comes from the love of hockey and the love for each other.”
Like many of her international teammates, af Bjur has significant experience at a high level. She played in 41 games for the U18 Swedish national team and was an assistant captain. Morgan said those players provide a strong base from which to build, but it’s been difficult not having a significant presence from upperclassmen.
Dima (a sophomore) and Morgan Schauer (a junior transfer from Robert Morris) are the only non-freshmen, but goaltender Mia McLeod said that could work to their advantage.
“I feel like this is what makes us different from a lot of Division I teams,” said McLeod, an Ontario native who made 49 saves in a 4-0 season-opening loss. “We will grow up and in four years, we’ll all be seniors. I think that will make us stronger. We know that our first couple years are going to be a little rough, but in the end when we hit that fourth season, we’ll have gained confidence.”
In the interim, even if wins are hard to muster, spectators can be assured of one thing.
“I think they’re going to see how hard we’re working,” Dima said. “No matter the score, we won’t give up. There’s just no chance anyone would do that.”