NWHL All-Star Jillian Dempsey is also a full-time fifth-grade teacher.
By Alex Holmes
Jillian Dempsey owns the NWHL record for the most games played, goals, assists, and points. She was the 2020 co-MVP and has already lifted the Isobel Cup. The Boston Pride team captain and league veteran of six years is at the top of her class and, amid a schedule full of workouts, practices, and games, she teaches a class of her own. Through ice hockey and teaching, Dempsey uses two of her passions to invest in the next generation of readers and hockey players.
In her hometown of Winthrop, Massachusetts, located six miles east of Boston, Dempsey is very familiar with Arthur T. Cummings Elementary School. She attended elementary school there as a kid, and now teaches a fifth grade class alongside the same people who once taught her. She credits those teachers and school staff with providing her a positive experience growing up as a student.
“I am one of those people who absolutely loved school all the way through,” Dempsey said in an interview with She Plays, “and the biggest reason for that is my teachers.”
“I always loved going, I loved learning, I loved being in the classroom.”
With a knack for learning and finding enjoyment at school, it’s no surprise Dempsey attended Harvard University, where she captained the Crimson in her senior season and finished her ice hockey career in Cambridge ninth all-time in points scored. Her dream to play professional hockey became a reality shortly after college, when she played her first two seasons with the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. She made an impact right away, earning Rookie of the Year honors in her first season.The CWHL folded in 2015, but Dempsey stayed close to home and has been a mainstay of the NWHL’s Boston Pride ever since.
Hockey wasn’t the only professional, full-time venture that Dempsey began after graduating from Harvard. Dempsey saw her older sister join Teach For America, a two-year program that places teachers in low-performing schools, while she was a freshman in college. In her senior year, Dempsey decided to take a similar route and joined the TFA Corps herself. As one could imagine, balancing teaching and playing a professional sport was challenging to say the least, but Dempsey embraced the difficulty that came with pursuing two passions at once.
A typical day featured an early wake-up call and drive to school for a day of teaching elementary school students, followed by an off-ice workout. Next, if she didn’t have practice with the team, she would return home to get some lesson-planning done for her students before going to bed.
“Looking back, they were definitely packed days and always busy—but the good kind of busy,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey uses her platform as a teacher to instill values in her students like hard work, being kind to people, and sticking to goals. She uses her platform as a hockey player to show them what those values look like. “I think so much more of what I preach to them and what they see in the classroom with me, it feels more real when they see me living that dream outside of the classroom,” Dempsey said.
It doesn’t take too long for her new students to understand their teacher is a professional hockey player. Her classroom is decorated with a hockey stick, Blades the Bruin, and a “Miracle” poster. She is a role model for her students: not only is she smart and athletic, but she demonstrates every day how her constant hard work pays off by letting her pursue two careers she loves. Future pro athletes and teachers alike find inspiration daily in Ms. Dempsey, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for the children in her class to think “I could be a professional athlete too one day.”
Another legacy Dempsey hopes to leave behind in the classroom is a passion for reading. She knows how valuable literacy is across all disciplines, so each year, one of her goals is to help reluctant readers find a book to enjoy. She guides them through the goal-setting process, encouraging students to read a certain number of chapters at a time and helps them keep track of those goals.
Support is something that goes both ways between Dempsey and her students, who sometimes come into school wearing a #14 Dempsey jersey or t-shirt. Her students even tuned into Twitch to watch their favorite fifth grade teacher score three goals and record three assists during the 2021 season. The support also extends beyond her classroom and into the hallways of Arthur T. Cummings Elementary. The entire staff wore ‘Dempsey’ t-shirts the day before she left for the Lake Placid bubble, where she continued to teach her students remotely.
“It lifts me up so much,” said Dempsey, who has become a hometown hero and role model for students and adults alike.
As the first women’s professional ice hockey league in North America to pay its players, the NWHL continues to make strides while establishing itself in the United States sports landscape. The league has formed strategic partnerships with big brand names like Discover, Dunkin’, and Dicks Sporting Goods, and continues to grow as people learn about the league. But with a young, developing league, it is still difficult for players to earn a salary large enough to live on. At the moment, there is only so much the league can afford to pay each athlete, so, like Dempsey, a majority of NWHL athletes work a full-time job aside from playing hockey.
When asked about what she hopes for the next generation of women’s ice hockey players, Dempsey knows the ultimate goal would be for these players to have the option to play ice hockey as a full-time career. The NWHL has made exceptional progress over the last few years and she believes that growth in women’s ice hockey is heading in the right direction, especially with the rise of girls participating in youth programs.
“Everything we’re doing right now is for the future generations and really pushing the sport forward. It’s easy to show up to the rink with a smile and put everything into it and know that doing so is helping to grow the game as well.The hope is that they’ll have a league where their salaries are enough for them to just be playing hockey if that is what they want to do.”
But for now, Dempsey just keeps showing up to practice and enjoying the sport she began playing at 5 years old.
Hockey fans know her as one the NWHL’s all-time greats. Students know her as ‘Ms. Dempsey.’ For Jillian Dempsey, her dual-career as a hockey player and teacher gives her the best of both worlds.