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From blue lines to hop bines: the Sarah Casorso story, part 1

From Kelowna to UBC to Vienna to Buffalo, Sarah Casorso’s hockey journey has led her to some unexpected places

Pat McCarthy

For professional women’s hockey players, there is a persistent battle with ignorance. Hockey - especially from a global perspective - is a ‘man’s game.’ For Buffalo Beauts defender Sarah Casorso, the stakes are that much higher. The Kelowna, BC native is not just a pioneering professional women’s hockey player, but has recently begun a full-time career as head brewer at Bench Brewing in Lincoln, Ontario.

It’s quite a trek from her native homestead, and like most adventures, the journey from two-year-old skater to NWHL star and creative fermenter has not been a straight line. Heritage has been a constant in Casorso’s life, though.

Her ancestors were among the first Europeans to settle in Kelowna — her great, great grandfather was the 19th person to make a home in the area, and the only Italian at the time he arrived. Sarah’s family still owns that land, generations later. “We still have the original property and the original houses ... there was a time in my life when I thought I’d be 40 and go back home and take over the orchard,” she said.

Her father runs the homestead now, and she says his hard work has always been an inspiration. “When I was little, I used to look up to my dad, like...crazy. I wanted to do anything he did, and he was a farmer and a hockey player — just a phenomenal athlete.”

His love of the game got Sarah started at an early age. “When I was just two years old, he put me out on the ice, and I fell in love with it right away. He used to build a rink for us every year. I would skate cones and just be out there for hours. I loved it, and so skating has always been my best attribute.”

Times of transition

“I played with the boys’ teams until I was 11. I was really small, and the boys were getting bigger, and starting to hit more. I made the decision to switch over to girls’ hockey. I was on the first pee-wee rec team. It was a different kind of hockey; not as aggressive, and a lot more ‘heads-up.’ I learned to play the game in a different way, and that skating that I was really good at paid off for me.”

Casorso was a forward in her early days, and enjoyed playing center. She played there until she was 15 or 16, when she was assigned to defense. “My coach threw me back on D,” she says, smiling. “I was completely reluctant.”

Pat McCarthy

It was a brilliant move by her coach, however, because she made Team BC (British Columbia) as a defender. She played with this organization for two seasons, fielding a lot of offers from universities all over Canada and few American schools. “Ultimately, education was very important to me, so I decided to go to University of British Columbia, which is renowned for their academics and athletics,” she stated.

It was at this time that a good friend would introduce her to craft beer. “I just thought I hated beer. Big brand lagers would make me gag. I had no idea there was so much more out there.”

The college try

Her collegiate career got off to a rocky start. In her second season at UBC, the team had the worst record in the CIS (now U Sports).

Before her third year with the team, Graham Thomas was named the head coach at UBC. Not only would he would he lead UBC to win Canada West in his first season but he would also change the course of Casorso’s life.

After she graduated, she asked Thomas if he knew of anywhere she could play. “I reached out to him and asked if he had any contacts in Europe. There was a player he had coached that was playing in Vienna. He called her right away. It was literally the next day that the ball got rolling.”

Sabre-metrics

Sarah joined the Vienna Sabres of the Elite Women’s Hockey League for the 2015-16 season. The EWHL consists of clubs in several European countries, and the organizations draw heavily from North America.

The year in Vienna would lead Casorso to do some soul searching. “I got to travel a lot and it’s a time that I really cherish...I wasn’t sure what I’d do afterward. I had graduated with an English literature degree that I had no intention of using, but I had fallen love with the wheat beers they have in Vienna. They seemed to be huge production facilities, and still pump out quality beer. Even then, I wasn’t thinking about manufacturing. I was thinking the agricultural side - maybe I could grow some hops! There’s a worldwide demand for them, and no one is really growing them. I didn’t really have a direction, but I also knew I wasn’t done playing hockey.”

What’s next?

After winning the EWHL championship with the Sabres, Casorso returned home to weigh her options. She was familiar with the CWHL in her home country, and was interested in the burgeoning league in the United States. “I liked the idea of the NWHL and the thought that I could help to grow the league. I wanted to see how I would compare in a league that was drawing top NCAA girls. It was a new challenge, and a step outside of my comfort zone.”

Once again, things happened at a rapid pace for Casorso. She reached out to Thomas, who contacted the general manager of the Buffalo Beauts, Ric Seiling. The conversation earned her an invitation to the NWHL combine, and after day one, she was offered a contract by the Beauts.

“I took a day to think about it. I didn’t really know how I would make it work.”

With no job and no home near Buffalo, Sarah had a big decision to make. It was an opportunity few have been given, but it came with a lot of unknowns. Where would she stay? Could she find work? A community she could be a part of?