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From Plainfield to the pros: Lisa Chesson’s rise and return to hockey

From the suburbs of Chicago to the Vancouver Olympics, Lisa Chesson’s hockey career has taken her all over North America. We sat down with the defender to reminisce, and preview her return to the NWHL.

Michelle Jay/NWHL

Growing up in Plainfield, Illinois, Lisa Chesson can recall being one of only a handful of girls playing hockey. There were only a couple of youth hockey programs in her area and even fewer opportunities for girls interested in hockey — so, like many of her peers, Chesson started out on her high school’s (almost) all-boys squad.

A lot has changed since the 1990s; now, there are a wealth of opportunities for girls in the Chicagoland area to start playing hockey. From the Chicago Young Americans and Team Illinois, both of which were in their early days when Chesson was just starting out, to the storied Chicago Mission squad that has produced national team greats like Megan Bozek and Kendall Coyne, girls’ and women’s hockey has grown significantly in the Chicagoland area and in the American midwest as a whole.

“It’s awesome to see the way the sport has grown since I started,” says Chesson. “[Young female hockey players] have so many more female role models they can look up to.”

Since the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Chesson has always looked up to Cammi Granato. Granato, a “stay at home D” like Chesson, was part of the American squad that won the first ever gold medal, but her role went far beyond just bringing home the hardware.

Granato “really motivated me to keep playing and set the goal of playing on an Olympic team one day,” Chesson says — a dream that would ultimately come to fruition just two years after the conclusion of Chesson’s storied career at Ohio State, when she was named to the American roster for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

The Olympics weren’t Chesson’s first taste of the international stage, though the tournament was undeniably one of her best showings at that level. Just one short year after she graduated from the Buckeyes’ women’s hockey program as a 2x Most Valuable Defensive Player Award winner and a 2x all-WCHA third team honoree, Chesson was selected to represent the United States at the 2009 Women’s World Championship — her first appearance on the American senior team.

“Playing for Team USA and putting on the jersey was a dream come true,” Chesson recalls.

Over the course of the tournament, the defender scored a goal and two assists in what would amount to sizable routs of Japan and Russia. Nevertheless, Chesson had proved herself worthy of donning the red, white, and blue, and spent the next four years playing alongside Team USA greats like the Lamoureux twins and Hilary Knight at the international level.

USA v Canada Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Within her team, though, were some former foes turned friends — Chesson would find herself competing alongside former opponents in the WCHA, like Minnesota’s Natalie Darwitz and Wisconsin’s Meghan Duggan and Jessie Vetter, rather than against them. When asked about whether or not it was difficult to adjust to the styles of players she’d once sought to thwart, Chesson instead says the former rivalries melted away, as they were unilaterally focused on the same thing: bringing home a gold medal and all the glory that comes with it.

“We were all working together to bring out the best in each other,” she says. “... Being able to live out that dream [of playing in the Olympics] and share it with everyone that had been along the journey with me, that was special and something I will never forget.”

While Chesson and her American teammates may have fallen short of the ultimate prize in 2010, there’s no denying that the team put on a show at the tournament, especially Chesson herself. After registering two goals and three assists over the course of the Games, it would end up being Chesson’s most offensively productive international series ever — and a fond memory to boot.

The 2013 Women’s World Championship, and with it her second international gold medal, saw the end of Chesson’s career at the international level. Nevertheless, she was determined to keep playing — and, in 2016, just one year after the conception of the league, she joined the Buffalo Beauts. That same year, Chesson would be apart of the Beauts squad that won the Isobel Cup against a stacked Boston Pride roster.

At the end of the 2018-19 season, after a heartbreaking loss in the Isobel Cup Final, Chesson pledged #ForTheGame and vowed to sit out the next NWHL season alongside many of her international teammates and competitors. She trained and practiced alongside former Beauts teammates in the Buffalo region of the PWHPA, but after only participating in one showcase with the organization, she opted to return to the NWHL ahead of season six and re-join the Beauts as a veteran presence.

“I had been thinking for a while to return to the NWHL. I wasn’t really on the ice much during the past year, and I missed it,” Chesson says. “Choosing to come back to Buffalo was easy for me.”

Why the NWHL over any other opportunities? Chesson cites the welcoming atmosphere of Buffalo and emphasizes the support the fans have always given the team. Between showing up and filling Northtown Center to the brim with Beauts blue, to braving the western New York temperatures outdoors at the Buffalo Believes Classic, there’s no denying that the Beauts have some of the most dedicated fans in the league.

Not to mention the work of the league itself to grow the game, what with the addition of the Jr. NWHL — which has an affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, Chesson’s current residence and the location of her alma mater — and the outreach the league has done with bringing in fans from all over the country. “The NWHL has made such amazing progress over the years in growing the game, I am humbled to be able to help continue that growth with the team and the league,” says Chesson.

It’s hard to predict what the next season of NWHL hockey will bring, for any player on any team. With the season’s start delayed until January of 2021, there’s still room for a lot of uncertainty, both on the ice and off of it. Regardless of the effects of the pandemic, though, one thing’s for certain: Lisa Chesson is back and ready to rock in Beauts blue.