Meet a women breaking down barriers and helping grow women's hockey in Washington

SEATTLE -- She’s just 12 years old, but Megumi Whisman loves the speed, the work and challenge of sports.

“It was love at first sight,” she said. “It’s not called the fastest game on earth for nothing. You always have to be on your toes.”

Which sport? Hockey.

“It’s the ultimate team game,” she explained. “You have to work together with your teammates, and you build special bonds with your teammates through hockey.”

But most of all she loves to win.

“I was the captain of the 12 U’s Seattle Junior Lady Admirals this year,” Megumi said. “We were the only girls team in our co-ed rep hockey league, and we had a really great season. We went to the state tournament. We got second place, which is great.”

Megumi started playing when she was 6. Inspired by her idol Lexi Bender, a two-time All-Star defender in the National Women’s Hockey League.

The two met four years ago at a youth hockey camp where Lexi was a guest instructor, and the connection quickly turned into friendship.

“Just her hard work and passion for the game,” Megumi said of Bender. “I think is what really impresses me, how committed she is.”

Little does Megumi realize, it’s kids like her that inspire Lexi.

“It reignites my love for the game every time I see a girl get so excited about the sport and want to go, want to break down things, want to get better,” Bender explained. “It just makes me really proud of what we’re doing and makes me want to try 10 times harder.”

Lexi plays for the Boston Pride, one of five teams currently in the league.

“At the end of the day, it is a start-up, and sometimes when you’re playing in a professional league you might expect things to go one way, and when they don’t you get frustrated," Bender explained. "It’s important for us to remember why we’re doing it.”

For Lexi, that reason hits close to home. Growing up in Snohomish, Lexi played youth hockey through the Seattle Junior Hockey Association until she was 14. Unlike kids today, she was the lone girl on her team.

“That was always the thing, I’m the girl,” she said. “If we were playing certain teams, sometimes I would tuck my hair in my jersey so it wouldn’t even be an issue.”

And it wasn’t until her opponents hit puberty that the difference became a problem.

With no real options to advance in girls hockey locally, Lexi and her parents made the tough choice to let her attend Shattuck St. Mary’s Boarding School in Minnesota, where hockey was built into the curriculum.

“It was the best decision I ever made for me,” she said.

Lexi thrived playing with other girls her age, and it quickly set her on the path she’d always dreamed of.

“Won two national championships there. Went to Boston College, went to three Frozen Fours there, one Frozen Four national championship game,” Lexi said. “And then I was drafted in my junior year at Boston College to the NWHL.”

It’s a journey she knows would not have been possible without her family’s support.

“They’re amazing. I can’t speak enough,” she said. “My mom running me in the car at 5 a.m. to come skate, to moving to Minnesota, my dad being my biggest advocate. It’s been amazing, and then beyond them, the whole support system; it really does  take a village.”

That's exactly what she hopes for Megumi and her team.

“I don’t think I would have gone to Shattuck if there had been the opportunity here when I was growing up,” Lexi said. “No parent wants to send their 14-year-old across the country, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about growing hockey in Seattle is because I see the market. I see girls like Megumi coming up.”

And it’s working. In Seattle, the growth of the girls game has outpaced the boys, and it’s allowing players like Megumi to dream - and dream big.

“It’s really great because before, a lot of girls my age drop out at 12, 14 because they don’t really see their hockey career going somewhere,” Megumi said. “But now that you can see there are places you can go, it’s encouraging more girls to start and keep playing.”