As a young goalie, Kimberly Sass didn’t lack for role models. Her father, Robert, was a former goaltender who coached her youth teams in Amherst and supported her every step of the way. Sass also lived around the corner from a pretty fair netminder. Guy name of Dominik Hasek.
Hasek was at his peak when Kim decided to play goal as a 7-year-old, around the time the Dominator was leading the Sabres deep into the playoffs and winning an Olympic gold for the Czech Republic in 1998.
People from that neighborhood tell stories about Hasek going out into the driveway and playing street hockey with the kids. Sass dreamed about being like Dom one day, playing in the Olympics and the pros.
“Yeah, Hasek was my neighbor,” Sass said Thursday by phone. “I was friends with his son, Michael. I remember my whole family sitting around the living room, watching the game against the Dallas Stars. I had a Sabres tee shirt on, I was so into it.
“My father was one of my bigger inspirations in my life,” she said. “He was my coach from the start. Everyone in my life was pretty encouraging and I was fortunate enough to not feel like I ever had any boundaries in what sport or career I chose.”
Sass was a natural in goal, a star with the youth Bisons. But there was no girls’ hockey at Williamsville North when he was in high school (they started it the year after she graduated). So Kim played with the boys junior varsity and varsity. She went on to play four years of college hockey at Colgate and has been involved in the uncertain world of women’s pro hockey for five years.
She feels fortunate to have grown up without any sense of limitations due to her gender. Sass played hockey with the boys. She loved math, and after graduating from Colgate with degrees in studio art and geography, she got a master’s in architecture from UB while playing pro hockey for the Buffalo Beauts in the 2015-16 season.
But Sass, who is a workplace design architect at a New York City firm, knows that many women weren’t so fortunate. Even in 2020, we live in a culture where little girls aren’t often encouraged to pursue careers in historically male-dominated fields.
So she jumped at the chance to be an ambassador for Lydia Hill’s IF/THEN (If she can see it, then she can be it) initiative. If/Then seeks to advance females in the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) by “empowering current innovators and inspiring the next generation of pioneers.”
Sass, an athlete, entrepreneur , architect and union leader, surely qualifies. On Saturday morning at 10, she will be featured in a segment of “Mission Unstoppable,” a CBS TV program that showcases women on the cutting edge of science and other STEM fields.
The TV series, which is geared toward girls from 10-15 years of age, is co-produced by Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis and hosted by Miranda Cosgrove of iCarly fame.
“Strong female role models are essential to breaking down barriers and educating the next generation of leaders about gender equality,” Davis says. “Girls need to see themselves on and off the screen as STEM professionals.”
Sass, an avowed multi-tasker, brings her dual talents to a national audience in Saturday morning’s episode. She talks about the design of a hockey arena in New Jersey, then steps into her goaltender’s gear to stop a few pucks on the ice.
“We’re trying to gain visibility so girls can see the possibilities,” said Sass, who moved back home in March and is working remotely from Buffalo. “‘Oh, Kim plays professional hockey. Oh, she’s also is in architecture. What’s architecture?’ I think getting girls familiar with STEM at an earlier age will definitely help them become open and more interested if they can put a face to the career.
“If more girls can see what they can be, it’s a no-brainer. They don’t even have to think twice about what they think their limits or boundaries are. It’s an awesome opportunity to get to do what I do.”
Sass has referred to herself as “weird,” a typical goaltender. Her motto is “stay sassy”. But you couldn’t succeed in designing workplaces and stopping pucks without a structured intellect and keen work ethic. Weirdness and structure is where genius collides, right?
She laughed. “I think my characteristic for being detail-oriented helps me in both careers. You have to really focus on the nitty gritty-stuff. There’s a lot of things to remember and coordinate in architecture. It’s the same in goaltending, where you pay attention to detail in learning new skills and mastering your skating technique.
“Angles play a part in both — in architecture and also cutting down the angles on the ice as a goaltender. There’s some similarities, for sure.”
Sass was chosen as one of 125 If/Then female ambassadors. She went to Seattle for the annual meeting, where she hosted a booth as part of a family science day to encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM.
She’s also a player and regional board member of the PWHPA, the women’s hockey organization that was formed after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded in 2019, leaving more than 100 elite players without a league.
The NWHL, which includes the Buffalo Beauts, remains in business, though some of its players left for the PWHPA, which is holding out for a truly viable women’s hockey league that can enable females to earn a living wage and not have to work on the side.
Sass worked at her architecture firm in Manhattan while playing for the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters in New Jersey in 2017-18. That meant getting up early, taking the train into the City and heading back to Jersey for practices and games. Salaries were minimal. It was hard not to feel jealous about the riches of the NHL guys.
“Oh, we’d practice at the Devils practice arena, park in the same parking garage that the players do,” she said. “Just a simple thing like comparing what kind of car we’re driving into the parking garage. It’s like a totally different lifestyle. We’re coming from work, coming from our full-time jobs. We’re grinding, just to keep professional hockey alive. Just to see the difference is frustrating, but also motivating.”
The frustration bubbled over last year, when Sass joined the players who left the NWHL for the PWHPA, despite the lack of a regular league and schedule. The PWHPA had a Dream Gap tour, backed by Billie Jean King, which had hockey events around the country. The NHL included them in a 3-on-3 at the All-Star game.
Sass was among the players selected for the PWHPA’s three-game Dream Gap Series trip to Japan this season. But it was called off because of the pandemic. Sass recently took part in a game at Madison Square Garden to help promote climate awareness.
So the state of women’s pro hockey is murky as ever. But Sass, 29, remains optimistic. She recently made the 25-player roster of the PWHPA’s New Hampshire regional hub team, which play exhibitions with teams from a men’s junior league until the future of the women’s game, and the coronavirus pandemic, becomes clearer.
She is hoping that the PWHPA will be able to resume the showcase weekends, which were typically hosted by NHL teams and were a success last season, by January.
In the meantime, Sass will continue to design corporate workplaces, train goaltenders on the side, and cling to what remains of her hockey career.
“When you’re retired and playing for fun in a recreational league, it’s not the same. I enjoy the competitive atmosphere. I took three years off after college hockey to go to graduate school.
“So I’m going to cherish every moment I have left on the ice. The coronavirus has given me a new perspective. Some players were debating whether they were going to play this season, but every single player is happy just to be on the ice right now.”