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Writing a book about hockey – putting together the words that show young girls they can break through barriers and that gender shouldn’t dictate the path of any journey – has long been on Alison Haenlin’s mind.

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When Haenlin (maiden name Maier, she was married to Zac a couple of years ago) was young, she watched in awe as women’s hockey players like Hayley Wickenheiser and Cassie Campbell set shining examples of what could be. That it was possible women could win shiny gold medals and stand tall in the spotlight stuck with Haenlin, who would herself become a trailblazer when she was the only girl playing on boys’ hockey teams in Cumberland some 20 years ago. And if you don’t think it was different for her, imagine changing on a fold-out chair next to a boiler in a janitor’s closet.

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Haenlin is still blazing trails. On Sunday, there will be an official launch for her children’s book – Skate Like a Girl – at the Ritual on Main Cafe in Stittsville (noon-3 pm). The book shines a light on the possibilities.

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“I wanted to be an NHL player,” Haenlin said. “I loved Mark Recchi, I thought he was so underrated. I met him when I was like eight. I think I asked him to marry me and he told me to come back in 15 years. I was a big fan of Joe Sakic, Wayne Gretzky, too – I went to his last game in Ottawa. But from a women’s perspective, Hayley was like God to me. I was in awe of her. Cassie, too. They were so ahead of anything I thought would be possible when it came to women’s hockey. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot being offered for girls hockey. The perception was if you wanted to develop faster and go somewhere, you had to go into boys hockey. So I did that.”

Haenlin grew up with four sisters and a brother to parents Lee and Christina, a former figure skater. At a young age – Haenlin says she was three or four – Christina bought her white figure skates.

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“I wouldn’t put them on,” Haenlin said. “I told her, ‘I want black skates like (my brother) John.’ My mom went and got me hockey skates, I was skating like the wind. That’s where it started.”

She played with and against boys until she was 14, including a couple of years of contact.

“Once the guys started growing mustaches, I thought maybe it was time to go,” she said with a laugh. “It was so strange how alienated I felt at times. I felt that sense of ‘I’m doing something wrong.’ I had a grandmother tell me it was gross I was playing hockey with the boys when I was 10.”

As a 14-year-old, she played for a women’s team – the Jr. Raiders.

“I was playing alongside 21-plus-year-olds,” she said. “We’d be going to tournaments – they’d be going out to the bars, I’d be in the room doing my Grade 9 homework.”

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She moved on to play in the National Capital Competitive Program and that turned into the Lady Sens. She played with the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees during the 2008-09 season (with her first female head coach, Shelley Coolidge). She then played for the Ottawa Ice.

The Haenlins had a daughter – Logan – 13 months ago. During the pandemic and maternity leave, the book concept came together. A senior sales manager at Brookstreet Hotel, Haenlin found a talented illustrator – Seema Haider – and everything flowed.

“This is about providing a story and a medium girls can see themselves in,” said Haenlin. “It’s impossible to manifest and dream something if you can never see yourself in it. They can see themselves doing these activities that may not be considered the gender norm. And they know they belong. The goal is to inspire young girls to follow their dreams, whatever those may be. It doesn’t have to be dictated by the gender norms that society has put forward. Gender is not a prerequisite to success or talent.

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“This idea has lived in my head for so long. I don’t know if it was everything with COVID, or if it was the you-only-live-once thing, but I decided I’d share it with some family and close friends and the support was crazy. I had these words, but I needed someone who could bring it to life. I found Seema through an online network – Ladies Who Lunch. Seema is a makeup artist in the wedding world; she has a massive following. She does some caricatures and portraits and stuff like that. She reached out, saying, ‘Hey, this exactly the project I want to get into, this is my life’s passion and no one has given me the opportunity to do it.’ ”

The two clicked and the project was underground. Haenlin started her own publishing house, Rise Little Queen. She’s got Kat Hirsch (marketing manager at Intouch Insight) as her director of marketing and talented singer / songwriter Tara Shannon (owner of Willow Sound Records and The Syndicut) as her business advisor.

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“I never had or knew the audience I was going to write for,” said Haenlin “When I got pregnant and found out I was having a little girl, I knew that was the audience. I want my daughter to pick up the book and see someone who looks like her, see herself playing this sport I love and intrinsically know she belongs. It seemed crazy to me that there was nothing really out there that was this. Even the hockey books that had animal characters, they were all male pronouns – like it was a boy bear.

“I did not sleep when the baby slept during my mat leave. I powered through to create this. The book is a very simplified, diluted version of my story. You see on one of the first pages when she says she loves to skate, she’s actually wearing figure skates in that moment. Then on the next page, she says she wants to play hockey and she’s wearing her dad’s equipment. That was kind of a little ode to my mom wanting me to be a figure skater and me kind of rebelling against it.”

Skate Like a Girl is available on several major bookstore websites and also at www.riselittlequeen.com.

“Down the road, the hope is to take on other authors and illustrators – give a voice to those who have been overlooked by those big traditional publishing houses,” said Haenlin.

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