‘Dream big and find your journey from there’

Photo: Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images

In honor of Women’s History Month, this week TheAHL.com is featuring a multi-part series spotlighting women across the AHL.

📝 by Patrick Williams

Aisha Visram had a clear goal in mind growing up in Toronto.

She wanted to work in hockey. Somehow, some way.

Filling in the details of just how to make that happen would have to come later. Every bit of effort and sacrifice that she would put into her future career came with that central goal.

“Growing up kind of the stereotypical Canadian, I watched hockey, loved the game, and then was trying to find a way to make a living in the game,” Visram said.

Athletic training caught Visram’s attention as an ideal way to blend that interest in hockey with a passion for healthcare, and to build a career around them.

“Athletic training is the perfect combination of both those things,” Visram explained. “You get to work in sports. You get to be part of a team. You get to work with a whole bunch of people to reach goals, which I love. I love the idea of bringing in a bunch of different people with different skills and different specialties and all working together to achieve something.

“But then also combining it with healthcare and being able to help people work with active individuals, help them prevent injuries, come back from injuries… It was just like a perfect marriage of the two things that I was really interested in.”

Visram did her undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph. She continued her education at Mount Royal University and completed a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Visram broke in as an assistant athletic trainer at St. Lawrence University. The passion to work in hockey had only grown stronger on her long path.

“For me, the whole goal was, ‘Let’s work in hockey. I’ll do whatever I need to do to get to the NHL,’” Visram said. “Starting at a Division I hockey team was a great way to get into things when I graduated from UMass. I was just looking for a hockey job.”

But even then, Visram’s work took her through a variety of sports and the parade of athletes that come with them.

“The one thing that I didn’t like was that you were never with just one sport,” Visram explained. “I wanted to focus on one group of people, one team, as opposed to five different sports. Now you’ve got 200 athletes under your care. It’s very difficult to give everyone the attention that they need, and I felt with my skill set and what I wanted to do, I wanted to be able to focus on a small group and give them everything I had.”

That opportunity came in 2017, when Visram was hired as the lead athletic trainer with the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder. She also served as a representative on the league’s advisory committee for trainers, another way to expand her knowledge and skill set.

“It was nice to be able to connect with others and share challenges and feel like you were being supported by others who were going through the same things,” Visram said. “And we got a lot of work done on that committee, and it felt really great to be part of changing things, working on making the league safer, making working conditions better. We were able to do a lot of things actually affecting the league as a bigger goal of making change.”

Having built that kind of resume, soon enough Visram felt ready to push forward. After three seasons with Adirondack, she joined the Los Angeles Kings organization as an assistant trainer for the AHL’s Ontario Reign.

She was now only step away from the NHL, yes, but she is taking her time.

“I don’t want to say I’m always trying to move up,” Visram pointed out. “You’re not trying to rush the process. You want to learn at every step. You want to grow at every step, and then when you’re ready to move forward, then it’s time.”

Coming to the AHL provided another chance to grow.

“The actual athletic training part is the same at every level. We have the same skill sets. We’re doing the same basic things,” Visram said. “It’s the other hats that you wear and then the other hats that you don’t wear.”

In the ECHL, well, she wore plenty of hats. The work also included strength training, limited support staff, and just about any other role that needed doing. Coming to Ontario — and the expanded resources that accompany work in the AHL — suited Visram quite well.

“It’s more people who are sharing the jobs, which makes things easier in terms of focusing on the stuff that you really need to do — athletic training, communicating with the coaches, coordinating care,” Visram explained. “There’s a bigger ability to focus in on those things versus having your attention on a bunch of different things and trying to make things work that way.”

And while Visram has taken her time advancing through the game, sometimes that process is expedited anyway. Midway through her second season with the Reign, COVID-19 protocols left the Kings support staff shorthanded for their home game against Pittsburgh on Jan. 13, 2022.

“‘We need somebody to work tonight,’” Visram recalls the Kings saying. “‘You want to do it?’”

“‘Yes, I do,” came her immediate reply.

Like so many aspects of the game during the most trying days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a willingness to adapt quickly became a necessity across hockey. Then again, Visram barely even had any time to develop any nervousness in the few hours leading up to the game that night in Los Angeles.

“‘There’s really no time to freak out or get excited or do too much. It’s time. This is in a couple hours. It’s time to go to work,’” Visram recalled thinking. “I think that helped me a lot in terms of controlling the nerves.”

That night, according to the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society, Visram became just the second woman ever to work as a trainer behind an NHL bench, joining Jodi van Rees who did so with the Montreal Canadiens in 2002.

Seeing Sidney Crosby on the ice a few feet away provided Visram with a welcome-to-the-NHL moment. A wave of calm during the national anthem allowed her to take in her surroundings before the frenzy of working started.

The emotion came later.

“It was a really cool experience and just nice for me,” Visram said, trying to sum up those feelings. “I don’t have a full-time job there yet. There’s still a lot to accomplish, but for one moment it was where it was like, ‘Okay, I’ve been working so hard for this. I’ve got it now.’

“I still have to do more work to get there. But just to get that feeling of just knowing, ‘Hey, I can do this, I can get there,’ was really great for me.”

And when Visram looks back on that achievement from a wider view, more thoughts come to mind. For a long time, she had shied away from any thought that she was a trailblazer for women trying to break into athletic training in high-level hockey.

That perspective has changed with time, however.

“I think I resisted thinking of myself that way for a while,” Visram said. “When you admit to yourself that this is what you’re doing, a lot can come with that, and it can get overwhelming. So day-to-day, I try not to focus on it, because there’s a job to do — you don’t want to get too caught up in the other things that can distract you.

“But at the same time, I am starting to accept the fact that maybe I am, and I’m just trying to do everything I can to be worthy of anyone who might look at me as a role model.”

Change is happening, and Visram’s climb is one sign of that. She has no time for excuses as to why a woman might not be a fit for a job. She believes that when someone sees others getting opportunities, inspiration follows.

“I think it’s important for us to see other people who look like us in jobs that we want to do, because it makes you think you can do them, too. I am a big believer that representation matters. It’s very easy for people to say, ‘Well, our locker room, bathroom, and training room are all connected. We can’t have a woman working here.’

“Well, that’s a silly excuse. You want to have the most qualified person you can filling these jobs, and if you need to put up a wall or build a door, I think that’s well worth it to make sure that you create an inclusive and welcoming environment so that you get the most qualified people possible.”

But she will also revel in victories and battles that have been won.

“I definitely think there’s a lot more opportunities now than there were before,” Visram said. “I mean, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. But just in the last few years, this is way more than there has been. We need to make sure that this continues, but, ‘Yes, we are moving forward. Something is changing.’ That’s really great to see.”

Visram’s own journey continues to move forward as well. This past December, she earned a Doctor of Athletic Training degree from Florida International University.

“Whatever it is you’re passionate about, you should chase. I think for men, women, whoever, it’s important to dream big and then find your journey from there.”