Amerks’ Orrison Pilgrim blazing a trail for women in pro hockey

Photo: Buffalo Sabres

📝 by Suzie Cool | AHL On The Beat

When it comes to sports, the first thing we notice is the athletes that we want to emulate. The athletes whose performance transcends the game itself, sets franchise records and makes history. Or it’s the memorable debut that opens the door for a long and storied career.

What many don’t know, however, or simply fail to see, is that there’s an entirely whole different world behind the scenes that helps these players along the way that more often than not goes a little unnoticed.

Whether it’s the coaching staff that helps develop a player’s confidence to take their game to the next level, the strength and conditioning coach that ensures players are in tip-top shape no matter the time of year, or the athletic trainer that is always there to take care of a player when injuries occur. These are just a few of the people that are there to help these athletes take their game to the next level.

However, what happens when their own opportunity arises?

We saw that last week as COVID-19 continued to wreak havoc within the Buffalo Sabres roster and staff when they headed out west for a four-game road swing. As Rochester Americans head athletic trainer Michael Dhesse got called up to accompany the Sabres for their trip, it opened an opportunity for someone that would be breaking some major barriers.

Last Friday night, as Rochester took on the Syracuse Crunch at The Blue Cross Arena, Amerks assistant athletic trainer Kedryn Orrison Pilgrim assumed head training duties. With Dhesse on the west coast for the duration of the Sabres’ road trip, this meant that Pilgrim would again take on this same task the next night when the Utica Comets came to town.

Orrison Pilgrim was no stranger to having to take on the head duties in Rochester, though, as she had been tasked with it at the beginning of the season and was heavily prepared prior to Dhesse’s departure.

“I kind of knew it was coming,” Orrison Pilgrim said. “Michael was kind of unsure he was going to go but we prepared as if he wasn’t going to be there. He brought me up to speed on a lot of things just to make sure that I’d be ready for the weekend and then that ended up happening, so it’s good that we did that.”

That in itself made Orrison Pilgrim just the second woman in the American Hockey League to assume head athletic trainer duties throughout the course of a game. Aisha Visram, who is with the Ontario Reign, is believed to be the only other woman in the American Hockey League that takes on this title or works with a team in this capacity.

Prior to the 2021-22 season, Orrison Pilgrim joined the Amerks following two years as an assistant athletic trainer at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where she worked primarily with the women’s volleyball, men’s ice hockey and softball programs. Before that, she served as the head athletic trainer with the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League for two seasons. She was also a graduate assistant athletic trainer at Minnesota State University – Mankato in 2016-17 and was an intern athletic trainer before that with UWEC during the 2015-16 season.

Orrison Pilgrim completed her education at North Central College in Illinois, earning a bachelor of arts in both athletic training and psychology. She was a member of the women’s volleyball team for four years and a thrower for the women’s indoor and outdoor track and field teams for a year.

So it comes as no surprise that having Orrison Pilgrim behind the bench in Dhesse’s absence was seamless.

“She can handle the lead responsibilities when Michael is gone,” Amerks head coach Seth Appert said. “She has the confidence to do that, she has the skills and the personality to do that, and our guys respect her a ton.”

Appert knew that Orrison Pilgrim would be a good fit for the Amerks from the beginning.

“She’s outstanding. It was a great hire by our organization. I knew a coach that she worked for in the USHL and he raved about her ― not only about her work and her professionalism, but the fit that she would make into what we want to do with our culture.”

Orrison Pilgrim admits that part of the reason she fits so well into the culture in Rochester is because of the amazing group of players ― and human beings ― she gets to work with on a daily basis.

“The other part of that is that I’ve been with hockey teams every year and there’s just something about hockey players that is very welcoming; they take people in really quickly.”

After a weekend of back-to-back action for the Amerks and taking on the head responsibilities, opportunity came knocking once more for Orrison Pilgrim over the weekend.

As more and more players continued to enter COVID-19 protocols for the Sabres, so too were staff members who were finding themselves in the same predicament. Which, of course, only meant that Orrison Pilgrim was the next one in line to get her much-deserved call-up to the National Hockey League.

As Orrison Pilgrim was wrapping up her duties on Saturday night at the Blue Cross Arena, she was summoned ― along with a handful of Amerks players ― to join the Sabres in Denver for their game on Sunday.

Photo: Buffalo Sabres

“I got the official word after the game and so I was kind of running around trying to finish up stuff here, trying to find my clothes and pack when I got home and then we flew out the next morning nice and early.”

Orrison Pilgrim would be assisting Dhesse behind the Sabres bench, making her just the third woman in NHL history to hold this position during a regular-season game, according to the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society and Society of Professional Hockey Equipment Managers.

“I think for me it’s partly being in the right place at the right time,” Orrison Pilgrim said. “It was a weird set of circumstances that brought me there, but at the end of the day, they asked me to come and of course I was going to be there.”

With all the added pressure of it being her first game in the NHL, and making history to boot, Orrison Pilgrim was extremely happy to share the moment with someone she is extremely thankful to for giving her her first opportunity in professional hockey.

“Obviously, Michael and I have worked a lot together this year, but to have him there to work with my first NHL game with was awesome. He’s the first athletic trainer that I’ve ever worked with in pro hockey, so that helped a lot, and I definitely would not have been as comfortable if he was not there.”

Sabres head coach Don Granato didn’t find out until after Sunday’s game of the significance Orrison Pilgrim being behind the bench.

“I just was informed that she’s only the third female that’s been behind that bench,” Granato said, “and that’s not enough because there’s so many that are qualified. It’s great that she can be a leader and a pioneer in that category. It’s neat for us to be a part of that as well.”

“To see her get to go up to the NHL was really cool,” Appert said. “As a dad of daughters, you love to see those opportunities that woman are earning because it shows young girls, like my daughters and others, that anything is possible if they become great at something and put their passion into something.”

Even players, like Amerks defenseman Brandon Davidson, were ecstatic about seeing Orrison Pilgrim reach the next level.

“She’s done a heck of a job since she’s gotten in here,” Davidson said. “She’s a great human being and deserves everything that she’s gotten.

“We’re a team here. Not just the players but the coaching staff and the trainers and we all want to excel to the next level. It’s really wholesome when you see a good person like that get to the next level.”

Orrison Pilgrim said she heard support from many athletes that she worked with in the past.

“I think one of my favorite things that came out of me working my first NHL game was the number of former players that reached out to say congratulations. Even from teams that I worked for in my first year… it was just really cool to hear from some athletes that I haven’t worked with in years.”

In the end, as long as you’re good at your job and treat people the right way, it doesn’t matter your gender.

“Our players don’t care; they just want somebody that is good,” Appert said. “[If] you’re really good at your job and you treat people the right way, they’re going to respect you and they’re going to appreciate you.”

With the response that Orrison Pilgrim has seen flood in, we know that Rochester is just one stop on her way to the next level.

She’s truly just hoping that her story will help inspire others to make the leap to follow their passions.