Ice hockey isn’t a sport people associate with the South, but one Huntsville native is making strides to change that.
Nichelle Simon is taking her shot on the ice and heading to the National Women’s Hockey League but her journey to get to this point hasn’t been as smooth as ice.
“It’s absolutely a dream come true,” Nichelle Simon said.
She’s been playing ice hockey since she was 17 years old.
“I started ice hockey later in life, and I didn’t feel like, I don’t feel like I’ve played my best years of hockey yet,” Simon said. “And I’m a better hockey player now than I was in college and I’m just not done playing yet.”
At the beginning of September, Nichelle got the chance to turn her dream into reality with a week long tryout with the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters.
“Actually after the very first practice that I had, they gave me the heads up that I’d be getting offered a contract,” Simon said.
But a year and a half ago, Nichelle didn’t know if she’d ever get to play hockey again after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had a bi-lateral mastectomy in march, a year a half ago in march,” Simon said. “And I was going to try for the league that year, but obviously that put a quick stop to that.”
The next four months would prove to be the toughest challenge as she went through chemotherapy.
“I mean I struggled to make it up a flight of stairs, I had to stop three times, and that was hard for my boyfriend to watch,” Simon said. “I mean I was extremely strong before that. I lift heavy weights and stuff and I’m working out hard and here I am I can barely walk up a set of stairs you know.”
“When she had it, she went through the ‘am I going to die?’ and I said ‘no, you’re not going to die. We’re going to get through this.’ and we did,” Simon’s boyfriend, Eric Smith said.
Nichelle and her boyfriend, Eric, set big goals to help push through chemo.
“I kept saying to her, you’re going to get through this and play hockey,” Smith said.
Simon agreed to what her boyfriend said about playing hockey and added, “all I wanted was to get through so I could start working out again, and get strong and healthy as quickly as possible.”
Nichelle might not have been physically ready to be back on the ice after her treatments, but she was mentally ready to start training again.
“It was slow the first few months,” Simon said. “It was a struggle working out. It was hard to lift a five pound weight, let alone anything heavier than that. It was hard to run. It was hard to do everything.”
Now, there’s no stopping her from shredding on the ice.
“I think girls need to see them playing, no matter what; whether you get paid a lot or a little,” Simon said. “Getting paid anything to do something you love is an incredible opportunity and I want to be there to be a role model for girls and women who are coming up in the sport and it’s a very big honor to be able to do that at the highest level.”
Nichelle told WAAY 31 that no one really knows how strong they are until they are pushed to do something they didn’t think they could do. She’s proven anything’s possible if you keep believing and working hard towards your goals.
Now, Nichelle has also been a coach at the Huntsville Iceplex for 12 years and has taught a lot of kids how to play hockey and skate. On Saturday, September 14, Nichelle signed her contract for the Riveters at the rink in front of family, friends, and current and former students. Everyone we talked to said Nichelle is going to be greatly missed, but they’re all looking forward to going up to New Jersey to watch play.
“She is not just like ‘oh we’re going to play around.’ she is a hard worker, and she says you have to do that,” Simon’s player Ian Sharpe said. “She does not let you piddle around and she’s very tough and strong she really works hard.”
“You get to see her from like when she coaches you and then when she’s actually a professional,” Matthew Brown said, another one of Simon’s players.
Nichelle was only back in Huntsville for that one day and actually is headed up to New Jersey Sunday to start practicing full time. The Riveters first game of the season is coming up quickly at the beginning of October.