Wearing the jersey of Toronto’s Team Sonnet during the most recent PWHPA season, Kayla Vespa brought a profound enjoyment of the game and an appreciation for the fans, encompassing a true sense of professionalism. Regarded as a faceoff specialist, effective on the power play with a team-first philosophy, the articulate forward brought a tremendous work ethic to complement her skill set.
Raised in Hamilton, Ontario, winning a PWHL championship with the Stoney Creek Jr Sabres, Vespa shone as a multi-sport sensation, leading her high school to a provincial bronze medal in soccer, also competing on a provincial level in the 4 x 100 metre relay. Competing for the St. Lawrence Skating Saints at the NCAA level, Vespa enjoyed 135 appearances, highlighted by multiple ECAC All-Academic honors.
A highly disciplined player, called for only 16 penalties over four seasons, Vespa took on an even bigger role in her senior season of 2019-20. Enjoying an offensive breakthrough, racking an impressive 33 points, she nearly matched her previous career total, producing 35 points in her first three seasons with the Skating Saints.
With career highs in numerous offensive categories, including goals, assists, shot percentage and game-winning goals, Vespa also led the Skating Saints with a 53% win percentage in the face off circle, also pacing the team with eight power play points. Of note, the team enjoyed a solid 10-6-5 mark when Vespa recorded at least one point.
Starting with the second game of the season, Vespa enjoyed an eight game scoring streak. Spanning from September 28 to November 1, recording an outstanding 16 points, Vespa’s best performance was a three point performance, including the game-winning goal in a 5-1 final versus Holy Cross on October 19. For her efforts she was recognized as the ECAC Player of the Week.
Undeniably, no game during the season held as much impact as her final game at Appleton Arena. Serving as her finest hour, a 3-2 win versus the Quinnipiac Bobcats on February 15, 2020 saw Vespa break a 2-2 deadlock at the 11:51 mark of the third period, scoring on Abbie Ives.
Standing as the game winning goal, with assists credited to Maggie McLaughlin and Kalie Grant, her final goal on home ice, as the Skating Saints emerged victorious, stood as her greatest goal. Following it up with Team MVP honors, named in honor of Bernie McKinnon, it served as the crowning touch to a proud career, accentuating a dream season which saw Vespa rise to the occasion.
“When I look back to these achievements, I feel very lucky and grateful to have shared these with my teammates. As a team, we would set goals at the beginning of every season. We were disciplined, and motivated to be the best players we can be. Without my teammates and coaches, none of this would have happened.
Each offseason, I would reflect and ask myself what I needed to work on, both on and off the ice. Each year I felt that I had made progress, as I strived to be a student of the game. Scoring the game winner in my last home game was an indescribable feeling. The atmosphere at Appleton was always electric, and it made it more special to have my family there also.”
Ecstatic at the privilege of graduating to the professional ranks, Vespa enjoyed the opportunity to remain in her home province. Wearing number 11 for Team Sonnet, she is actually one of two St. Lawrence alumnae on the 2021-22 roster. Joined by Rachael Smith, they comprise two of eight former ECAC stars on the Sonnet roster, allowing for a unique novelty of calling former university rivals as teammates.
As the league’s raison d’être holds many different meanings, from allowing professional women’s ice hockey a potential to flourish, also part of a powerful statement about sporting equality, overall, the role of women in sport remains one filled with exciting growth. Demonstrating that the game holds a bright future, the PWHPA has presented Vespa with an even more profound sense of purpose,
“The opportunities it has created (I enjoy most). Especially being a role model for the young girls who one day, aspire to be professional hockey players. We can tell our stories and fight for what we deserve. We hope that young female athletes believe in a future where a professional hockey career is possible.
Also, I have enjoyed being on a team, where everyone supports one another, but also pushes them to be the best they can be. It is also a cool experience playing against other talented players!”
In a season filled with many compelling showcase events on the Dream Gap Tour, Vespa has graced the ice on both sides of the border. From an historic series of matches at Truro, Nova Scotia, the first professional women’s ice hockey matches in the province, to an event in Arlington, Virginia, presented in partnership with the Washington Capitals, such experiences evoked a true major league feeling.
Of all the Showcase events in her career, none held as much meaning for Vespa as the inaugural Secret Cup. Contested at the iconic Calgary Saddledome in May 2021, the first PWHPA games in Canada for over a year, there was a feeling of rejuvenation upon gracing the ice.
Putting aside the worries of a brutal pandemic, quickly finding unity and jubilation, the excitement of meaningful games took precedence. With few opportunities to enjoy ice time throughout winter, isolation the norm for so many, the positive impact of competition in Calgary evoked strong feelings of gratitude for a contented Vespa, which saw the Sonnet roster reach the Finals.
“There are many favourite moments. One memory I will never forget is our team’s very first Showcase in Calgary. It was very unique, and special. We had not really practiced as a team before the Showcase due to COVID-19, but it did not matter.
We were just so appreciative and grateful that we were able to play and wanted to do our best to showcase our talents. We came together and made special memories especially playing at the Saddle Dome! The PWHPA board, sponsors and volunteers at the showcase worked so hard to make this happen for us. They certainly made it one to remember. Thank you.”
Running parallel to Vespa’s professional endeavors, an opportunity to give back in a coaching capacity, bringing fulfillment and gratification, turned into a labor of love. Involved with the Stoney Creek Sabres Girls Hockey Association, where she experienced numerous glories in her younger years, it has allowed her to come full circle.
Belonging to the coaching staff of the U13A girls’ team, Vespa’s acumen for the game proved highly effective in a successful season. Enjoying 35 victories during said season, the Sabres captured the bronze medal at the OWHA U13A Provincial championships. Instilling values and encouragement for a group of young talents, the reward is one filled with inspiration, reinforcing the standing of Vespa as role model, and local hero,
“Growing up, I had coaches who served as a mentor for me. They have helped me grow as a hockey player. I wanted to do the same thing for these young girls (U13A Sabres), and to also inspire them to chase their dreams.
I did not have many females that were coaches at a young age, and I think it is important to have females empowering other females. I love the competitive aspect of it, winning, and helping kids grow. I wanted to give back to the game I love and be a positive role model for the girls.
Also, I wanted to teach them life skills (that) I have learned from sport, such as, teamwork, sportsmanship, work ethic and gratitude. It truly is a blessing! Hockey has given me so much. Certainly, a lot to be thankful for.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”