Not every hockey story starts with frozen ponds, quaint Canadian towns, or toddler-sized ice skates. Some players don’t earn their stripes in backyard rinks or mini mite leagues in lake-lined Minnesota idylls.
For Hannah Beckman, hockey life began when she showed up to what she and her father Peter thought was a learn-to-play clinic in suburban New Jersey. Beckman was a preteen, definitely not the typical candidate to start out on the ice. Little did she know, it would be the ultimate trial by fire for the then-12 year old.
“We showed up and it was the New Jersey Rockets tryouts,” she laughed, referring to the junior hockey organization based in Bridgewater, NJ. Her face split into a wide grin at the memory, shining bright even through our Zoom call. “I just learned how to skate, I can barely skate backwards, and I’m at tryouts with these girls who’ve been skating since they were three. So... it was just kind of the underlying joke, that my dad signed me up for what he thought was Learn to Play when it was actually a tryout.”
That crash course was all she needed to realize hockey was the sport for her. While her older siblings gravitated toward the more popular sports — softball, basketball, soccer — Beckman felt a pull toward the ice, a pull that started with her dad and the glory days of the New Jersey Devils in the 2000s. Witnessing that pandemonium was like a jolt of adrenaline for young Hannah, and from then on she knew softball wasn’t going to cut it.
“I think just the constant movement of it just lit me up,” she said. “Then I just remember, like, watching [my dad] watching the Devils and I was just like, This is insane. It was just so fast paced and I loved it.”
That speed became a hallmark of her own game. Beckman knew she was going to have to work twice as hard to catch up with her teammates, so her speed was the main focus from the word “go” — and that speed has translated into a role as a playmaker on the Manhattanville College women’s team.
Unfortunately, it’s a mix of sweet and sour when it comes to being a person of color in a sport where people of color are few and far between — at least, on the ice. Many of us have no doubt stumbled upon those people and those moments who make us feel somewhat lesser than, as if we are somehow intruding onto the sanctity of a frozen pool of water. Beckman was no exception to that, and her mother in particular had to deal with the tacit prejudice that’s part and parcel of the hockey experience for many minorities in the sport.
Hannah’s mother Maria had never been much of a hockey fan, so when her daughter expressed interest, she and her husband had no idea where to even begin. But they knew they wanted to help make her wishes come true. So Peter did the research and signed Hannah up, while Maria was the parent who came to all of her practices. Of course, that led to the microaggressions that are all too familiar.
“I was fortunate where I didn’t have any firsthand negative experiences, but I definitely felt the stares at [my mother] where it’s like, you know, for her color... the stereotype is there’s not many people who can afford our sport, or like, fit into our sport,” she said. “So I think that definitely came into it, where it was the looks [that said], ‘Do you belong here, what are you doing here?’”
Those looks didn’t last long, though, and soon Maria Beckman (whom Hannah describes as a “tough cookie”) made it clear that she wasn’t going to scare easily.
“She has a lot of respect for herself, and I have respect for her thinking to when she was just there [at practices/games] and there for her daughter, and to this day I thank her for that,” Hannah continued.
With her mother supporting her every step of the way, Hannah’s hockey career was underway, and a short stint at Utica College turned into a career at Manhattanville when she transferred schools. Beckman describes herself as a “grinder and a playmaker,” someone who brings a lot of energy onto the ice and wants to work as hard as she can to achieve her goals.
It was that drive that no doubt caught the eye of Scott Vargas of the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association. Vargas, a former semi-pro journeyman who played in Finland, has been growing and building up PR’s hockey program for the past two years, and he had done his homework on Hannah Beckman.
“I was doing my normal training in the summer in New Jersey, and I just got a random text from a random number, I had no idea who this was,” she said of when Vargas first contacted her. “I was just like, ‘How did you get my number?’”
Once she realized it wasn’t a fluke, however, Beckman started doing her research on the association and Puerto Rican ice hockey as a whole. With that, and some words of encouragement from her coach, she made the leap and joined Team PR for the Amerigol LATAM Cup in Coral Springs, Fla., at the Panthers Ice Den.
“I had no expectations at all, because I had no idea what to expect,” she detailed regarding the experience. “But I showed up there and it was insane. There’s cameras everywhere, and then there’s just like, people from all different countries, shirts, jackets... and I’m just like, wow, like, okay, this is something bigger than myself.
“And I walked into the rink and it was kind of breathtaking because you could just tell these people were coming from a heritage like my mother’s family, my family, and I’ve just... I wasn’t used to that. I was used to, you know, the stereotypical hockey players walking into the rink, but I kind of walked into something new.”
That in and of itself opened Beckman’s eyes to the idea that hockey could be something much, much more than just the stereotype, more than what it has been over the last century or so. And Puerto Rico, once a co-ed team, is leading the way in Caribbean hockey with two strong squads on both the men’s and women’s sides.
The women in particular are a force to be reckoned with. Team PR won five straight games to clinch the gold medal, and Beckman was a star player, tallying six goals in the round robin. Stevenson University’s Karly Aguilar-Aguirre and fellow former Junior Rocket Jazmine Miley also factored heavily in the scoring, proving there’s plenty of talent to be had from the island — whether born there or descended from its ancestors.
That gold medal win catapulted the Puerto Rican women to a new level of notoriety on both social and traditional media, and even with a headline on NHL.com. All of it floored Beckman, who said she’d never realized just how big this was going to be in terms of exposure and impact.
It’s also opened up a whole new community with its own rich culture to the beauty of hockey, something she was able to witness firsthand through her own relatives.
“I had family there [at the LATAM Cup] that I hadn’t seen in years from my mom’s side, and they’ve never seen a hockey game,” Beckman said. “And they were just astonished. They were mind-blown. The things they were saying to me made me feel on top of the world, because I knew that there was growth being made by just us playing the game we grew up loving.”
That growth is what Vargas is aiming for, and with it, a potential bid for IIHF membership down the line. While Team PR still has a ways to go, they’re already proving they have the chops to provide some great competition in international events.
As for Beckman, she’s taking it a step at a time. In her junior year with Manhattanville currently, she says she’s thought about next steps potentially with the PHF or even Europe, but one thing is for certain: she won’t be done with hockey anytime soon.
“It’s almost surreal, looking in the mirror and being like, what did I just do?” she laughed. “But it’s also an awesome feeling of realizing that not only do I get to play the game, but I get to play the game for a reason.”