The sport of professional hockey has long been a male-dominated venture. That started to change with the establishment of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2007, and more recently the National Women’s Hockey League in 2015. This bold new initiative inspired author Stephanie Phillips to create the graphic novel, “Kicking Ice,” which tells the story two young girls who play hockey and grow up to play in the NWHL. The book is intended to inspire girls of all ages to discover the joys of hockey along with the possibility that now one day they too could play as professionals.
I recently spoke to Phillips and artist Jamie Jones.
Kyle Scully: Stephanie, what inspired you to write this graphic novel?
Stephanie Phillips: I’ve always been a hockey fan, I grew up playing hockey, first roller hockey and later in High School I made the switch to ice. I remember just kind of following the start of the NWHL and with the Olympic year approaching, my initial idea was just to do kind of a web-comic about girls and women in sports. It became very centered around what I know the best and kind of spiraled from there, but my own personal love for the league and the sport itself.
KS: What was the pitch process like with the NWHL?
SP: When I first spoke with Ominous Press, my initial concept was an ongoing web comic about women in sports. Ominous was quickly asked, what if we do a graphic novel? I thought, I do have some contact with the NWHL and it might be really cool since they’re still in their infancy to give them a way to have their own superheroes of a kind, so I started making some calls and emails. My first call with Chris Botta. I had a pitch prepared and I got one sentence in and Chris was just like yes, let’s do this, what do you need? The reception has been nothing but positive. I’ve actually found out how much I have in common with NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan, who’s actually from Tampa like me and her dad worked for the Tampa Bay Lightning, so she grew up a Lightning fan like I did.
KS: I did notice that there was the prologue and then it goes into the story proper. Each one featuring unique artwork. What caused the shift in artists?
SP: I was writing the script and Ominous Press provided Lee Moder as the artist for the book. I didn’t really know his work but it was absolutely gorgeous and he did the initial character designs along with what we’re calling the prologue. It looks fantastic but Lee had some significant health issues and had to step down. Ominous asked me, do you know who you want to finish this project with? Jamie was the first and only name on my list. Within an hour of us talking he was already drawing character designs. It really was a perfect fit.
Jamie Jones: No, Stephanie asked me and there was a lot of me just sketching and making sure hockey pads looked right and all the gear looked right. I had no hockey experience before the book but I have a lot of hockey experience now.
KS: Where did you come up with the title “Kicking Ice?”
SP: The name “Kicking Ice” actually comes from an old Tampa Bay Lightning promotion in the nineties that the Lightning did called Kick Ice. They built it into a Lightning logo. I found out much later that Dani Rylan’s father was on the marketing team that helped create the slogan Kick Ice so when Dani saw the book she immediately knew where the title “Kicking Ice” came from and I thought that was really cool.
SP: They wanted us to use the current jerseys and rightfully so. They are very proud of the logos and the work they’ve done on them. Jamie did an amazing job of representing those in the book as well.
JJ: One of the jerseys changed so I had to go through and redraw all those jerseys. After that, I left all the jerseys until the very last week of the production so I didn’t have to go back and redraw jerseys again.
KS: And did you feel a lot of pressure then to make sure that the jerseys looked as accurate as possible?
KS: Jamie, did you come into contact with the gear to help you draw more accurately or did you just use reference photos?
JJ: It was so fast, it was reference photos on reference photos on reference photos.
KS: In terms of drawing these women, did you feel any pressure in terms of making sure they looked accurate, have you done real people before or had your only prior experience been with your own creations?
JJ: There is a certain amount of pressure that comes with drawing real people and also drawing real people who wrote their own dialogue. I can typically draw a page a day but those pages I spent about a week and a half just drawing any panels that had actual players. I saved all of them until the end of the book. There were huge chunks missing from the book because I had drawn all the girls and then I had to fit in the players in the style of book which was even trickier and took some time.
KS: Stephanie, what was the most difficult thing about writing this comic book?
SP: I think the most difficult thing was finding a balance between showing off the NWHL teams and presenting the narrative of our two main characters.KS: What was the motivation behind incorporating certain players like Kelsey Koelzer (Metropolitan Riveters) and Jillian Dempsey (Boston Pride)?
SP: Yes, so some of that is about which players were interested in being more involved. Kelsey Koelzer and Jillian Dempsey were actually involved in helping write their own dialogue. The process of creating themselves as comic book characters they saw each step of the way. In fact, Jillian Dempsey wrote all her own dialogue. So, when you hear Jillian Dempsey speaking in the book , that is actually Jillian Dempsey speaking to our characters and to any little girl that’s learning to play hockey. I thought that was a really cool element to be able to have them represented as themselves in the book and to get to state their own message to young players and fans. That is one of the reasons those two were chosen.
KS: So you reached out to various players and these were the one in particular that responded or was there like a slew of them and you had to like tell people no, or how did that work?
SP: We never had to tell anybody no. The responses have been great. I think most players know about the project in some capacity and at the time the players association was really helpful with putting us in touch with people. For instance, Jillian Dempsey is a school teacher, so for her there was also a lot of excitement about being able to have this book in the classroom. She wanted to have a way to share two things she’s very passionate about, because she’s a teacher and also a professional hockey player and that’s a really cool combination. So, I think for her that’s really cool.
KS: And, so this, the line she has, the “prove people wrong,” that was something that she came up with herself?
SP: Yes, that is Jillian Dempsey’s personal motto, “prove people wrong.” So, Jillian wanted to include that in the book and I thought it was great.
KS: Do you collect anything hockey related? Cards, paraphernalia, etc?
SP: A bit, so I like I said I’m a pretty hardcore Lightning fan. I grew up with the Lightning and when I was a kid I had a personal connection with some of the players on the team like Roman Hamrlik and Petr Klima. I actually have quite a few game-used memorabilia items like a Hamrlik stick and pucks from Phil Esposito. My most-prized possession is a Martin St. Louis signed Stanley Cup jersey. I remember watching him play, and no offense to him, but he was a bit shorter. I liked the fact that there was somebody a little bit smaller on the ice that wasn’t over six feet tall. He was putting pucks in the net. It was just such a cool thing to watch him play, so his jersey is my favorite thing in my collection.
KS: And how did you meet these people?
SP: My dad actually did some work for the Lightning back in the nineties. So as a kid, I used to go over to Petr Kilma’s house and play with his daughter when he was with the Lightning. At the time I had no conception of this. I remember later in life being like, yeah, I had been to Petr Kilma’s house a few times.
KS: Jamie, is it safe to say that you don’t have any hockey collection of any sorts?
JJ: It is safe to say that I have a “Kicking Ice” puck.
KS: Jamie, what was your impression of hockey prior to the book and what’s your impression of it now that you’ve worked on it?
JJ: I was never a huge sports guy, but, man, hockey looks fun. It moves so quickly. I can follow it.
KS: Is this what led to the rules being described early in the book?
JJ: The rule set is the best intro to sports I think. I think it’s one of the reasons “Kicking Ice” works so well. I immediately knew the rules to hockey after reading that one section where Bella goes to her first game. Afterwards, every time I would meet my friends out at the bar and hockey was on, I was just watching hockey and everyone else was socializing.
KS: Beyond working together to properly include the rules early in the book, what’s the collaborative process on a book like this?
JJ: The book was already written when I came in and some early character designs had already been done, so for me I got the script and then it was just draw the book. Once things got started though, Steph and I would meet up at least every other week, sometimes weekly, and we were talking constantly throughout the process just to make sure the characters were acting appropriate or in some kind of way what the book needed to feel like.
SP: I would say it was one of the most collaborative process I’ve ever done as a comic writer. I think it helps that Jamie and I were friends prior to working on it. At the time we were living so close to one another we could just be there for hours discussing direction and character. It’s been a lot of fun to work on it with somebody that’s also just so invested in the project. In your mind, you create these characters and you want them to be a certain way in the comic and it’s really cool to see Jamie bring them to life.
KS: Stephanie, did the bully featured in the book come from your experience playing hockey or was he completely fictional?
SP: It’s a little of both. I grew up playing roller hockey and street hockey as a kid. I was the only girl playing and that has just been such a feature of my life. Even as an adult playing beer league hockey, every once in a while, there’s that guy that just kind of wants to be a jerk and make sure you know you’re not welcome. Although, I think the bully in the book is more of a representation of kind of all of our collective experience.
Kyle: What has been like the reaction to the book been at conventions and with the young girls in particular?
SP: The reception has been absolutely amazing, The first time it really hit me as something kind of special and cool was when Jamie and I flew up to Buffalo. We spent three days at the comic book convention. We never sat down or stopped talking once. We just had a continuous stream of little girls and even boys that played boys hockey who were really excited about the book. It was really special to get to talk to people in Buffalo that were fans of the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts team, players. That entire convention was a just a really cool experience.
KS: Jamie did you have any experience with this is well?
JJ: I remember there was a little girl I met during Free Comic Book Day. It was the first time we actually had issues and a little girl had come from hockey practice to get a preview copy of “Kicking Ice” and that was that was the first time it really hit me that we were doing something cool.
Kyle Scully is a lifelong Sharks fan whose secret dream is to attend the Sloan Analytics Conference. Loves Zebra from Popcornopolis but only eats it at hockey games. Follow him on Twitter @socal_scully