Zafuto moves behind Nichols bench

Olivia Zafuto

It's a different view from behind the bench, but Olivia Zafuto is loving every second of it.

Zafuto, a Niagara Falls native who just turned 23 years old, is currently in her first season coaching the Nichols girls prep hockey team.

For Zafuto, being back in the Dann Memorial Rink, coaching the program she played for is the stuff of which dreams are made.

"Yeeeeah, it's different. It's fun," Zafuto said with a smile. "The girls have been a lot of fun this year. It's hard to stand back there (behind the bench) and not want to be out there, strap up the skates, playing and competing. For me, it was nice to come back and hopefully be able to create the environment that I had when I was at Nichols and bring some fun."

Zafuto, who also played for the Niagara Jr. Purple Eagles, considers her days at Nichols some of the best of her life. She said along with winning, she wants to create an atmosphere where her girls have just as much fun and make wonderful friendships and memories like she did.

A member of Nichols' Class of 2015, Zafuto was captain her senior year and was part of a core of players to win three titles in both the North American Prep Hockey Association and the Conference of Independent Schools Athletic Association.

She signed with Colgate University, where she set a new program record for points (104) by a defenseman.

Knowing full well the pride and tradition of a program like Nicholes made Zafuto a natural selection to fill the job after previous head coach Shelley Looney stepped down.

Sharing the bench with Zafuto are assistant coaches Jay Sprague and Allison Gasuik, a Nichols alum who was on staff last year.

By far the youngest coach this program has had in a long, long time, Zafuto is not at all overwhelmed by the situation. She feels that not being all that far removed from her days in their skates can help her relate to her players.

But at the same time, she can be a no-nonsense disciplinarian. There's "Liv," the person you can joke around with, and "Coach Zafuto" when it's time to work.

"Honestly what am I, five years older than them?" Zafuto said. "I'm not that far removed. I think it's good for them. They had Allison coaching last year. They joke around with us and they can, but they know the line and where the line is drawn. We're coaches and they respect us even though we're not too far off in age."

Zafuto said the somewhat tricky part for her and Gasuik is to not bore girls with their war stories from their days on campus. They players need to be sure their invested in the present and future just as much as the past.

"To some extent they also like to hear about our experiences at Nichols," Zafuto continued. "They ask about things that might have happened to us in college, the recruiting process."

The last time the GNN Sports checked in with Zafuto was a year ago when she had just been drafted by the NWHL's Buffalo Beauts.

Since then, Zafuto had joined forces with 200 other girls who are in a work stoppage protesting for overall better conditions and to grow the game of women's hockey in every way possible.

"The CWHL folded and there started being rumors of (NWHL players) not playing next year," Zafuto said. "Then there was excitement about bettering the game. There was this buzz around.

"We're gonna do something special. We're gonna hold out and try to grow the game as much as we can and create a sustainable league so that young girls can dream about playing, playing professionally and playing in a league that's gonna make it and they could do it for a living."

Zafuto said that this isn't about the players having unreasonable demands of big money contracts comparable to what NHL players are making. It's about creating a financially-stable league where they can make enough money that they don't have to work day jobs to make ends meet.

How can coaches like Zafuto sell young players on a potential professional future with the NWHL on the brink of folding?

Zafuto, who has been skating in what's been dubbed the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, said she and the others are hopeful that the public can understand their mission.

"There's about 200 of us who are choosing not to play for the betterment of the game," she said. "It's not just about money. It's about traveling together. The benefit of practice times together. Being able to play hockey for a living. Not having to worry about a full time job and play hockey at the same time."

Zafuto said that while it may appear that girls are on opposite sides of the fence, with some sitting out and others playing, there is no animosity. It's just everyone doing what they feel is best for women's hockey in long run.

"There are people who have different opinions on the best way to grow the game," Zafuto said. "I truly believe that if the NHLbstepped in and a WNHL started it would be our best option, similar to the WNBA."

Recommended for you