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Jessica Lafrenière: Challenging the status quo

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When asked what it feels like when she steps onto the ice, Jessica says, “The rush of cold air is an energizing burst of excitement. Believe it or not, I still, to this day, get butterflies in my stomach before every game.” For Jessica, the exhilaration of each game starts well before she even gets to the arena. It has been 20 years since she first started playing, and her passion for the game only grows stronger with time.

But, up until the age of seven, sports were not a significant focus in the family household. Mom, Lise, was busy raising three growing girls on her own, so there was not much room to prioritize sports. When Jessica’s stepdad, Frankie, joined the family, that began to change. Televised sports regularly lit up the living room, and Jessica’s stepbrother, who also plays hockey, was influential in her desire to play.

It would still be five years though before Jessica started playing, and it was not as simple as gearing up and getting on the ice. Jessica was born with a congenital amputation of her right hand, so a prosthetic was required that would allow her to control a hockey stick. Unfortunately, the cost of prosthetics can be quite prohibitive, running anywhere from $3,000 for a cosmetic hand to $100,000 for a myoelectric unit. Thankfully, funding from The War Amps made it possible to obtain this specialized equipment through the Prosthetic Services department at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

In general, Jessica says she was well accepted by her teammates, but she recalls times when opposing players would take advantage of her disability. “Yes, growing up, my prosthetic was pretty apparent. I played in games where the opposing team knew about this, and some players would purposely hit my stick in such a way that the prosthetic mechanism would pop off, and I’d have to get off the ice.”

At the time, those types of encounters were frustrating more than anything. “It meant I’d lose ice time because I would have to rush off the ice and have my coach help pop the prosthetic back into place.” But looking back on those experiences now, Jessica is somewhat saddened by them. “It’s disheartening to think that a player would take that as an opportunity to force someone out of the game. But I understand that they were kids and that the adults have to help them understand that behaviour is not acceptable.”

It took several years, but Jessica has finally found comfort within herself and owning what she does not herself consider a disability. So much so that she recently launched a YouTube channel, Limitless Lefty, aimed at educating and empowering others. Jessica says, “It’s never been something that has held me back; I can do just about anything anyone else can.” She possesses a fierce determination evident in her daily life as much as it is on the ice. Her shot and power would never betray the fact that within her glove, carbon fibre and neoprene take the place of the intricate musculature of a hand and wrist. The majority of people are later surprised to learn Jessica has one hand.

Source: Wandering Misfits

 

In 2015, Jessica joined the Wandering Misfits, a women’s travelling hockey team. That was a year of many firsts, including a first flight and an international tournament in France. These were life-changing experiences and helped to strengthen her desire to grow the women’s hockey community. She soon took on the position of Alternate Captain and was instrumental in establishing the team as a permanent league team. In addition, Jessica now manages the bulk of the team’s local activities. One of her biggest joys from this role is “organizing our team for away tournaments.” Jessica chuckles as she says, “I geek out quite a bit on spreadsheets and organization, so it’s a perfect storm for me.”

That year would prove to be significant for Jessica for another reason. Not long after she started seeing her now fiancée, Jessica decided to come out, and she credits her fiancée with helping her feel comfortable enough to take that step. She describes the experience as “Scary. I come from a small town. I grew up in the GTA, but I had the thought that because I come from a small town, my family’s reaction was going to be that everyone would stop talking to me. I don’t know that I ever thought that my friends would stop talking to me. But my extended family, I definitely thought that was going to be the case. So, it was scary.” When asked whether some of her fears were realized, Jessica says, “Yes, my biological father and I no longer have a relationship.”

However, there were some pleasant surprises along the way as well. As it turns out, the vast majority of Jessica’s family was accepting, and she says, “The one person that I did think would take it the wrong way was extremely accepting. My stepdad. He’s very old school, and I just assumed, but he’s stepped up because he really is and has been my dad since I was seven. So it’s been nice to see him stepping into the father role even more than he had already been. Even my paternal grandmother surprised me. One tends to think that the older you are, the more closed-minded you’re going to be, but my grandmother was very open, and she really loved my partner.”

Jessica also notes that “In high school, I had one friend who I knew was gay.” It was not until Jessica became more involved in sports that she had much exposure to other members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Missing the last year and a half of hockey has been challenging. As was the case for so many, the pandemic benched Jessica and her team for far longer than they could have ever anticipated. She misses the ice tremendously. It is one of her happy places. “I enjoy the community. I love the conversations, camaraderie, and connections I make to other players. I do not find this as much in any other aspect of my life.”

When asked what the future holds, Jessica cannot wait to get back to work with her current prosthetist, Neil. Before the pandemic hit, they were in the middle of the development process for an exciting new goalie prosthetic. One of her dreams has always been to play in net. Jessica jokes that one of her motivations is the extra ice time this position brings. “Unfortunately, growing up, net wasn’t an option,” she says, “however, I am currently awaiting approval from War Amps for the new prosthetic.” At an estimated production cost of $12,298, Jessica is incredibly thankful that funding makes these dreams a reality.

Neil Ready CPO (c.) fitting the goalie prototype on Jessica / Source: Tanja Hutahajan)

 

In the meantime, Jessica and her fiancée are developing a children’s book loosely centred around Jessica’s experiences playing hockey as a child. They are both strong advocates of equity in sport and believe that representation matters. Being someone who stands squarely at the crossroads of intersectionality, Jessica aspires to be a voice for change. Most recently, Jessica became an ambassador with Women’s Hockey Life in 2019. She says she hopes to see “a visible action for diversification. As a differently-abled player, part of the LGBTQ+ community, part Métis and a woman, I believe having a role model in the hockey world that was not a CIS white male from the NHL would have been more impactful for me. So, let’s diversify the hockey world and make an impact on our future generations.”

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