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All-Star Carly Jackson is just getting started

The newly-minted Six goalie has won over many with her talent and personality, but she has lots more to show.

Goaltender Carly Jackson before a PHF game in Boston on Feb. 26, 2022.
Michelle Jay

The last time I met Carly Jackson for an interview, the goaltender showed up nearly 10 minutes late to a media scrum at Northtown Center. The Buffalo Beauts’ Most Valuable Player of 2021-22 had just gotten waylaid by a horde of Girl Scouts who’d been invited to watch her and the team play, asking for autographs and photos. True to her nature with the fans, she took her time with each one, walking in with a sheepish grin once they’d had their fill.

This time, however, Jackson is nondescript, her slight frame hidden under a green Nike hoodie as she sinks down in a seat across from me. We agreed to meet at a local coffee shop not far from her Elmwood Village dwelling, and she chose to Rollerblade to meet me, setting her skates down next to her and asking if she could order a drink. A moment or two later, she returns with her iced coffee in hand, saying, “Thanks for that,” and those three words take me back to last January during her rookie season in Lake Placid when she thanked me for asking her a question during a Zoom media scrum. As if I was doing her a favor.

That’s been the vibe with “CJ,” as friends, teammates, and fans alike call her, since her first days in the PHF. Now having celebrated her 25th birthday and approaching her third season in the league, she still has the humility of a rookie, along with a sense of respect and courtesy instilled in her by the people who helped raise her. Some of the wide-eyed wonder of her first season has been replaced with a more shrewd sense of purpose and responsibility — in her own words, “I’m like, ‘Okay, I know how it goes.’ And now it’s like, what can I do to stir the pot, improve it in any kind of way, play better, raise the bar?”

Raise the bar she has, with a .903 save percentage and her first-ever PHF All-Star appearance thanks to the fan vote in her sophomore season. Add in a career-first shutout and a bolstering of an already-expansive supported base, and I don’t think we can call this a slump for her by any means.

And yet for Jackson, all of it is marked with a hunger to improve, a desire to keep building up to not just her individual peak as an athlete, but of course to the ultimate PHF goal: the Isobel Cup. It’s a mindset she says she grew up with thanks to the parental figures in her life.

“My parents divorced when I was younger, and so I’m blessed with two wonderful moms and two wonderful dads,” she says. “But they were always super like, ‘Go to school, get your education,’ and once I got my college degree, they were like, ‘Listen, now you’ve got your degree, do what you want. Hockey doesn’t last forever, so follow that dream, we’ll support you.’ And I’m really lucky that way.

“But I think that that mindset was like, I’m not done yet. Especially when I got my degree, and I’m like, okay, I have something for in case I don’t want to play hockey anymore, and my senior year I was like, ‘No, I’m not ready [to stop playing].’ And three years later, I’m still not ready.”

That idea — finish what you start, and go until you’re done — stemmed from her birth father, who was the reason she began to play hockey at nine years old. Growing up, he was a role model to young Carly, who watched him play beer league in her native Nova Scotia. When she expressed her own desire to play, he told her she had to learn how to skate first and signed her up for Canskate with disastrous results her very first day.

“I hated it, and I cried, and I was like, ‘I wanna get off the ice!’ and he was like, ‘Nope, go back out there, you got to finish what you sign up for,’” she recalls. “And so I finished out the year at Canskate and then he helped me learn to play hockey.”

Jackson started at forward, but the team she played on would rotate each player into goaltending. When it was her turn to don the pads, there wasn’t any going back.

“I played one game, I couldn’t tell you how it went, but that night my dad came into my room to check on me and there’s this huge lump in the bed,” she says, her face breaking into a wide smile at the memory. Carly, it turned out, had worn all of the goalie gear to bed, falling asleep with it. The choice had been made.

That choice has turned into a now almost 16-year playing career, from boys’ teams across Canada to the University at Maine, where she set record after record — in wins, shutouts, save percentage, and GAA. Once her college career came to an end, her fire for the sport still wasn’t quenched, and so she entered the PHF draft in 2020, being taken third overall by the Beauts and immediately ingratiating herself to the Buffalo community without even setting foot in the area.

Last season, she tried to balance grad school with the PHF, but she soon realized one was going to have to be put on hold for the other. She chose hockey for the time being, with the understanding that it was going to be a bit of a rough road — but in her words, “I’m gonna run with it until I can’t run anymore.” And now, she’s made a name for herself with the Beauts, where her first two seasons have seen not-quite-auspicious results but a lot of promise for a young team (of which Jackson was an alternate captain last season).

This third season, however, will be a bit different, as she dons a new jersey and a new role with the Toronto Six. The deal had been widely speculated over the past month, but only this past week had it finally been announced in trademark CJ style, with plenty of excitement and mullet talk. Even with her focus forward on what’s next to come in a new city, she’s had nothing but kind words for the organization and her former teammates across the border.

“I think the strongest thing is our camaraderie and our connection,” she says of the 2021-22 Beauts roster. “I think no matter how we played, whether it was good or bad, there was always a lot of faith in each other as a group... we do have a lot of fun, and the fact that we had so much fun and we were losing just says so much about the culture of our team and what we’re working towards.”

It’s a culture of positivity on many levels, she elaborates — and not just on the ice, but off of it.

“It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you’re not a good person then I think that will eventually catch up to you.”

In addition, she’s carved out a cult following for herself on social media, where on Twitter cat photos and lesbian jokes go hand-in-hand with league retweets and occasional calls to action upon major news and sports networks to feature female athletes. She was recently verified, to a fair bit of fanfare, and on more than one occasion has gone on like sprees of her fans’ tweets, which get a good amount of attention. In addition, her now-viral spins — a thing that started just amongst her family as a gag, and then spread to social media once she started doing it during warmups — are well documented on Twitter and TikTok alike.

Pivot to Instagram and you’ll find a treasure trove of thirst traps courtesy of Beauts team photographer Mike Hetzel, a very intentional move on her part. (“That’s my guy,” she says of her unofficial documentarian. “Every time the helmet comes off, he’s like, ‘fwoop.’”) One particularly popular snap of Hetzel’s is of Jackson pushing her now-famous mullet back from her forehead and flashing a cheeky grin, with the caption referencing a Tiktok meme. It has close to 2,000 likes.

The heartthrob status that comes with being an attractive 20-something and an out gay athlete in a sport like hockey has its appeal to Jackson, who says she gets a kick out of the responses she gets. More appealing, though, is the community she can help build simply by being herself, an idea she had to warm up to at the start of her professional career.

“I remember when I first started getting a little bit of attention on social media. One of my friends I played baseball with growing up had a bit of a reluctance on social media as well and she was like, ‘Dude, you have to be who you are and show that it’s important. You know who you are. Celebrate that and broadcast that because it’s important for other people to see that.’”

Jackson thought it over, but it took more prodding from her friend before she realized it could be a powerful tool if used right. Once she made her mind up, though, she ran with it. “It’s something that I wish I had growing up as a kid — you know, seeing someone who’s different and had some part of their identity wasn’t the norm, I guess, would have been really cool to see as a kid, especially through my younger years when I was coming out.”

That coming-out process involved a lot of introspection for her, as playing on boys’ teams opened her eyes to much of the heteronormativity surrounding sports and especially hockey.

“You’re a girl, and all the boys are talking about girls, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m supposed to talk about boys? But it’s like, who do I talk about this with? And you just assume it’s the norm. So I started dating all my friends who were boys, because like, this is how it’s supposed to be.”

Not until after her senior year of high school, wrapping up a silver medal-winning run with Team Canada at the U18 championships, did she start thinking it was time to be true to herself — and that was the awakening she needed.

“I remember the first time I had gone on a date with a girl and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is how it’s supposed to feel,’” she recalls. “And it was just totally invigorating, like a weight I didn’t even know had been lifted off my shoulders.”

With her family’s support — something she repeatedly says she’s lucky to have — she’s been free to carve a platform for herself that she didn’t necessarily see other gay athletes have when she was younger, and that in turn has created a following sure to follow her into her new gig in Toronto. The presence of so many fans, especially queer fans young and older, has been a welcome perk amongst many for a young woman able to make a living playing the game she’s loved since she was a child. It’s also been a welcome excuse to tweet at noted gay-joke bait company U-Haul to sponsor her (“You have no idea how much you’ve helped this little lesbian,” read one such tweet last week) and lean into the adoration and acceptance.

Under all of those layers, however — hockey goaltender, All-Star, gay cult favorite, Twitter comedian — is just a girl with a cat and a dog, who loves hot dogs and pizza, whose mullet and spins broke the hockey Internet, who is nothing but grateful for every second she gets to be on the ice and in the Fed.

“The biggest thing for me is playing for an organization that I believe in and for people that I care about, and that I know care about me, and that’s my number one priority,” she said of her future in hockey. “Personally, I’m very much just like, ‘Man, I want to play hockey, I want to play hard, and I want to have fun.’ So... we’ll see what happens.”