It’s not every day that a professional sports league commissioner can be found at a lakefront camp in Maine, wearing a shark hat on her head, carrying a tambourine, and belting out Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” around the player piano.
But Reagan Carey ’01, the new head of the Premier Hockey Federation, a seven-team women’s ice hockey league in the U.S. and Canada, is no ordinary sports commissioner. She brings her A-game to just about everything she tries, whether that’s an impromptu jamboree at her family home on Long Lake in Naples or the Olympics.
Carey spent eight years as director of USA Women’s Hockey, when the team won the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang and the silver at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
She’s looking forward to taking her best shot at ushering the seven-year-old Premier Hockey Federation into its next phase.
“I love a good challenge. I love a good opportunity to create something that has an impact and that’s purposeful and sustainable,” said Carey, who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., “I’m lucky, again, to be in a spot where I’m working with terrific people that care and that have the experience to make it happen.”
The power of sports
In many ways, Carey’s life has been shaped by sports. Her grandfather was Wendall “Chummy” Broomhall, an avid cross-country skier from western Maine who served in the legendary 10th Mountain Division in World War II and competed in two Winter Olympics after the war as a member of the United States Ski Team. Broomhall also designed the ski courses for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
“He’s a pretty solid legend in that sport,” Carey said.
Her parents grew up in Rumford, and although the family moved a lot to accommodate her father’s career as a corporate executive, they always considered Maine their home base.
“Sports were essential to just getting into these new areas, making friends, being able to be part of something,” she said. “I think for anybody that plays sports, you’re connected to something that’s bigger than yourself. And that you feel pride in being able to represent a team.”
When she was growing up, ice hockey wasn’t a typical girls sport. Like lots of girls back then, Carey picked it up from her older brother, who had her play goalie for his street hockey scrimmages. Eventually, she got tired of getting “pummeled with pucks” and expanded to other positions. Although she was often the only girl and sometimes had to fight her way onto the team, hockey became a constant for her.
“You really have to love the sport to manage some consistent adversity as a young girl,” she said.
Thriving on the Colby ice
As a high school senior, Carey sought out colleges with women’s hockey. Colby’s program began in 1972, the early days of the sport, and in February 1973 the College hosted the first intercollegiate women’s ice hockey game. By the mid-’90s, the Mules were competing, and often winning, against much larger Division I schools.
“That was a huge draw for female hockey players to have such a storied program,” she said. “To be part of it felt special. It felt like a privilege to be in that locker room.”
The College stood out in another important way from other schools she considered.
“When I went to visit the Colby campus, I fell in love with just the positivity and the warmth and fun kind of spirit that seemed to be there,” she said. “To have this powerhouse hockey program as well was just incredible luck and a great fit for me.”
Before the hockey season of her first year on campus, Colby moved to the Division III New England Small Athletic Conference. Head coach Laura Halldorson, who had recruited many of the players, left to build a new program at the University of Minnesota, with many of Colby’s star athletes following her there.
But Carey stayed and thrived, ultimately becoming captain of both the ice hockey and volleyball teams.
“It was another one of those lessons in adversity,” she said. “There were still a lot of great things to still achieve and be part of. We just had to shift our mindset a bit on what that would look like.”
Professional sports and Olympic hockey
After graduation, Carey went to work in the marketing department for the Atlanta Thrashers, a National Hockey League expansion team. She spent the next decade doing sports development, performance, and marketing for both the Thrashers and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
“Sports and entertainment is a very fun industry, especially when you’re young,” she said.
Carey had great mentors in Atlanta, and though she did experience some of the sexism that can make it difficult for women working in traditionally male-dominated industries, she drew on the inner strength she developed playing ice hockey as a girl to get her through hard times.
“My mom told me very early on that if I was going to play this ‘boys’ sport that I could never cry in front of my teammates, or all the boys and the male coaches. People are looking for a reason for you, ‘the girl,’ to not be here,” she said. “My love of the game, my love of just working with the team always outweighed the challenges.”
In 2010 Colby honored Carey with its Carl E. Nelson Sports Achievement Award. That same year, she had the opportunity to oversee the women’s program for USA Hockey, and jumped at the chance.
“To be able to lead an Olympic program in the sport I love and have so much respect for was a privilege and a no-brainer,” she said. “As my grandfather always said, he just wanted to give back to the sport that had given him so much. I could hear that echoing every time I got to take on a challenge for USA Hockey.”
Bringing home the gold
Carey chose coaches, helped pick players, and served as general manager for the Olympic teams. She even coaxed Halldorson out of retirement and onto the USA Hockey staff. Under Carey’s leadership, the women’s hockey program achieved notable success, winning the Olympic gold in 2018. It was the USA’s first gold medal in the sport since the women’s hockey team won the inaugural event in 1998.
“Every four years you’re getting ready for that one moment, if you can make it to the moment, and then you have to win it,” she said. “And the pressure just mounts every time there’s an opportunity to do that. So to be part of a team that made it happen and secured the gold medal, it’s something hard to describe and just uniquely special.”
For Carey, the moment was bittersweet. Her grandfather, who always decked himself out in red, white, and blue to watch Olympic women’s ice hockey in front of the television at home in Rumford, had died at the age of 98, just a few months before the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“He was my biggest cheerleader, and so to be able to get the gold medal, that was something I certainly wanted to share with him,” she said. “But I’m sure that one way or another, he was part of it.”
Moving the needle
After the 2018 Olympics, Carey pivoted to independent consulting work. Earlier this year, when officials from the Premier Hockey Federation asked if she was interested in being the commissioner, she thought about it hard and said yes.
The league, founded in 2015 as the National Women’s Hockey League, has experienced some growing pains. It was the first women’s professional hockey league in North America to pay players a salary, but in its second season financial pressure caused it to slash salaries by more than half. Currently, it’s facing competition from a rival North American pro women’s ice hockey league, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, which formed in 2019. A bid for the two entities to join forces failed this spring.
But Carey is optimistic. There are lots of positive signs for the future of the league, which includes the Boston Pride, the Buffalo Beauts, the Connecticut Whale, the Metropolitan Riveters, the Minnesota Whitecaps, the Toronto Six, and the newest team, the Montreal Force.
The new season will start in early November, with games broadcast on ESPN+ thanks to a two-year contract with the cable sports channel. Sponsors and investors are coming to the league rather than the league going to them, she said, which feels good.
All told, Carey is excited about building on the league’s recent growth and creating more possibilities for professional women’s ice hockey.
“This is a chance to really move the needle for our sport,” she said. “It seems like another opportunity to leave the game better than we’d found it.”