Editor’s Note: Join us this week as we celebrate the women who are breaking through barriers at the National Women’s Hockey League. Today’s post is interview 2 of 4 in a series titled Women of the NWHL.
Savanna Arral, director of communications at the National Women’s Hockey League, will tell you that passion is what makes the NWHL tick. And she’s also a woman who seems to be fueled by passion and endless energy.
A recent Harvard graduate, Savanna even went so far as to take out a loan in order to intern for the league as it was getting off the ground. If that wasn’t enough, after her summer internship she continued to work at the NWHL through her senior year. She’s proof that you can create your dream job. (Let that sink in a moment.)
“We weren’t in the position to be paying people a full-time salary, especially people coming in as interns,” she says. “I spent my college career working three or four jobs at a time while going to school in order to pay for college (including library work, cleaning bathrooms and working in the cognitive science lab). After my internship and the taste I got of it over the course of last summer, I realized that I’d do whatever it took to stay here. If that meant I’d put myself into a little bit of debt, then so be it.”
Savanna says working at the NWHL one has to have a startup mentality. The group growing the league is small, and the team wears many hats. “But we figure it out and we make it work,” she continues. “That’s really our day-in and day-out motto – we’ll make it work.”
Did you play hockey when you were younger?
I actually was a soccer player growing up! I played for several premier soccer teams in Maine where I grew up, including one travel team, from the ages of 14 to 17. I decided not to pursue playing soccer in college due to injuries and so I could focus on my studies.
I fell in love with hockey, because it was the sport I wanted to watch and the sport I enjoyed being a fan of rather than a player. I feel like this gives me a different view of the sport and the position I’m in now. It’s different, but it’s not a bad thing. My mom always was a big [Boston] Bruins fan, and we always watched Bruins games in the house. I grew up around it, but really came into my own as a hockey fan in high school when I realized I could go to a Portland Pirates game, and be there and watch hockey live. It spiraled from there. I thought, “This sport is amazing.”
When I got the opportunity to work for the NWHL, I jumped at it. In college, I also ran the radio station at Harvard, and we covered all of the men’s and women’s hockey games. I spent a lot of time around hockey over the last eight years or so.
With the NWHL being founded in 2015, what has this past year felt like as you and the team have worked to grow the league?
We knew there was a market for this and that there was a group of people that wanted this to exist. We were just a small portion of it. We just kind of come up with ideas – obviously we have a greater plan, we have big goals and we’re pretty on top of being organized – but we’re not afraid. We don’t shy away from doing kind of crazy things.
For example, last summer I traveled around the country and Canada with Dani and the rest of the crew. We were sitting in the office one day and I said, “Hey, we should go to Canada.” By the end of the next day, we were booked in four different cities across Canada and were going on a road trip! We ran camps across Canada and we signed multiple players. It was one of those things where we were like, “Let’s just do this!” And everyone went, “Alright, let’s do it.” And we just did.
What have been some unexpected challenges you’ve faced in the past few months while experiencing this growth?
We are very public. Our successes are very public. Our failures are very public. And people are willing to criticize us, and we can’t let the haters get us down. People really care about what we’re doing, and I think that sometimes people forget there are people running this league and it’s not just a nebulous entity that exists in its own vacuum. We’re real people in that when you tell us that we suck, sometimes that hurts the actual people behind the brand. But that’s also a part of learning and growing and realizing that people can’t read our minds. We’ve got to readjust if people aren’t understanding where we’re coming from or what we’re doing.
On the flip side, what are some of the pleasant surprises you’ve experienced in the past year?
The communities we’ve put our teams in have rallied around the teams and the players. They really love them! They’re superstars in their own right, and we want to make them even bigger superstars. It’s really cool to be out and about with one of the teams and realize that people are stopping them on the street and recognizing them. It’s incredible to see that level of stardom for the players, who at one point in time had no place to play after college. They now have a platform, and we’re providing them the opportunity to leverage their stardom. Seeing everybody online and in real life latching onto these players, and wanting to see them be as successful as possible, is so wonderful. They deserve it so much.
What is a piece of advice you’ve learned in the past year that you can share with our readers who might be considering starting their own gig, or working at a startup?
Don’t be afraid to fail. You’re going to try things sometimes, and they’re not going to work out, but you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. And for the ideas you were excited about that maybe didn’t work out? Don’t be afraid to readjust and try something different. You’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing. Don’t lose that passion no matter how big things get, or no matter how many people you have telling you that you’re not going to be successful. And that can be hard.
There have been many nights where we’ve felt exhausted and get snippy with one another. It’s because we love what we are doing and we all care about one another and the process. I think sometimes other people in the office know we need a break before we, ourselves, do. There have been multiple times where someone in the office has looked at me and said, “You need to take this weekend off.” Then I’ll do a bit of a self-check and think, “She’s right.” We work hard because we care. Hold onto your love for what you’re doing and the people who are going through it with you.
On that topic, what are some of the ways you work to prevent feeling burned out? How do you recharge yourself?
I love reading, especially because the last four years I didn’t have time to read anything I enjoyed, because I was in school. Lately I’ve picked up a lot of books that I’ve had on my list for a couple of years, or books that I remembered reading as a kid or a teenager that I have missed. (Lately I’ve been rereading the A Wrinkle In Time series.) I exercise a lot, too. It’s a huge outlet for me.
Also, I have two young sisters who are the light of my life. One of them is going into her junior year of college at the University of New Hampshire, and the other one is just starting college this year here in New York City. I spend a lot of time talking to them – talking them through their daily lives and just being around. I miss them a lot. Taking the time to connect with my family is a really big deal to me.
As the NWHL team continues to grow, what types of individuals are you looking for to add to your team?
The biggest thing we’re looking for are people who are dedicated and care what we’re doing. It’s hard to break into the sports world. It’s not easy to find a job or an internship if you don’t know somebody, who knows somebody, or who has an “in” or getting one of those limited spots on your college’s sports program. We’re really interested in providing a place for people who want desperately to work in sports, but haven’t really had the opportunity to do so. We want people who care about women’s hockey. We want people who care about the NWHL itself. And, we want people who bring big ideas to the table and are willing to share them.
I feel my best when:
I feel accomplished and I’ve gotten some things done that I want to get done.
My favorite song to sing when nobody is watching is:
Any song by Walk the Moon.
My favorite dinner is:
Anything that I don’t have to cook myself!
My go-to outfit is:
Jeans and a sweatshirt.
My favorite way to unwind is:
Sleep. I love to nap.
My favorite book of the moment is:
Loved this article? Read part 1 of 4 in our Women of the NWHL Week series featuring Dani Rylan, 29-year-old founder and commissioner of the league.
Hold onto your love for what you’re doing and the people who are going through it with you.