skip navigation

Dream Fulfilled: Jesse Compher Is A Pro Hockey Player

By Ross Forman, 02/16/24, 1:45PM CST


Northbrook Native Fondly Recalls Bluehawks, Chicago Mission

Jesse Compher skated on the ice January 1st at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in the old Maple Leaf Gardens as her Toronto team played host to the first-ever Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) game against visiting New York. Emotions were overflowing for the milestone Monday afternoon game played in front of 2,537 fans.

Compher had 4 shots, second-most on the team in a losing effort as New York celebrated its 4-0 victory. Still, Compher said the game was “surreal.”

She was officially a professional hockey player.

“Growing up, I dreamed of being a professional hockey player … in the NHL, mostly because I didn’t have this (league) to look up to,” said Compher, 24, a Northbrook native. “It’s super exciting to be a professional athlete. I didn’t know it was going to be a reality my whole life. I kind of thought that girls just played college hockey, then got a job and went on with life. To continue my hockey career and still play, and to be able to call myself a professional athlete, it’s something I do not take for granted – and I for sure am not used to saying that, yet.”

The PWHL is a 6-team league with its charter franchises: Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Montreal, New York City, Ottawa and Toronto. Four teams will ultimately battle in a postseason tournament to determine the champion. Games are broadcast nationally in Canada by CBC and TSN, plus radio outlets, and broadcast in syndication in the U.S., and worldwide are streamed on YouTube.

“Getting to play in this league has been perfect timing for me, just getting out of college,” at the University of Wisconsin, Compher said. “To know all the female athletes who put in the work for us, and those who are still putting in the work every single day to make this league happen … it truly has been exciting to step on the ice and call ourselves professional athletes, just as we dreamed of when we were little girls.

“There definitely were a lot of emotions being the first game in league history; all eyes were on us. I was super proud to be part of that game. To look around the stadium, see all those little girls and to know that they have something to look forward to … it was a special day I’ll never forget.”

Toronto returned to the ice on the road January 5th once again against New York. This time, the visitors triumphed, winning 3-2. Natalie Spooner scored the first goal in Toronto team history in the second period. Compher notched her first pro point: an assist in the third period on Emma Maltais’ game-winning goal.

The PWHL skill level is “unbelievable,” Compher said. “It’s competitive and fast, and it’s particularly physical. These first 10 games were awesome. I’m having so much fun. You can tell that the city of Toronto loves hockey. To see the fan support has been awesome.”

To that, her goal this season is simple: win the PWHL Championship, period. “To be part of the first team to win the league championship would be very special, and I think we have the right group of girls and staff to do it,” she said.

Her next goal on the ice is celebration-filled, too. She wants to return to the U.S., specifically, Northbrook, with an Olympic gold medal. Compher was a silver medalist at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

“I used to tell families (of Chicago Mission female players) that the best you can get out of (hockey) is an education and the select few get to put on that USA jersey (at the Olympics). Now those select few can possibly make a living playing pro hockey. I guarantee you it has changed every single female Mission player’s dream of the future,” said Erin Rourke, girls hockey director for the Mission. “Jesse has paved the way for the U12s, U14s, U16s and even our U19s. She has helped change the future of the female game in the U.S. and Canada, and hopefully worldwide, where females can get to where Jesse is now: living the ultimate dream.

“Jesse is a smart kid, a fun kid, a superstitious kid like many hockey players. Time and time again, she put the team on her back and carried the team to victory. I sit at home now and turn on the NHL Network and there she is … it really is unfathomable. I watched that first (PWHL) game with tears in my eyes.

“Jesse is now reaping the rewards of that saying, ‘Good things come to those who work hard.’”

Compher started her hockey career years ago playing for the Northbrook Bluehawks boys’ teams, then switched to the Chicago Mission for her U14 campaign. She finished her local skate for the Mission U19s.

“It was awesome to grow up and play hockey in Northbrook; it’s where I met all of my best guy friends, who I am still in touch with daily,” she said. “I was the only girl on my team for a while, and I loved it. Illinois hockey was supportive of me playing.

“Playing for the Mission was awesome, particularly seeing how much skill and how many good women’s hockey players we had.”

Tony Cachey, a member of the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame, coached Compher at the Mission and he had a “huge impact” on her career and who she is off the ice, Compher said. “He taught me a lot. He was an awesome support system for me. I grew up under him as a coach, and I’m forever grateful for him.

“The group of girls who I played with at the Mission, I’m still close with them today. I spent so much time with those girls over the years; they became family.”

And her Mission legacy includes winning a national championship her sophomore year.

Compher graduated from Glenbrook North High School in 2017, and though she never skated for the Spartans, she wanted to.

“Going into high school, if I wanted to be looked at by colleges for women’s hockey, I was told that girls (hockey) was the best option. But if it had been up to me, I would have played boys hockey until the day I was dragged out of there,” she said.

Compher is not surprised by the Spartans annual success, particularly since GBN is coached by Evan Poulakidas, a former coach of hers.

“You can see what he does (positively) to a program; he’s such a good coach who develops players, and the way he treats everyone is unbelievable. It’s no surprise that GBN has success with him as a coach,” Compher said.

Poulakidas said Compher had the passion and desire to be the best she could be. “She constantly challenged herself both in practice and in games, which in turn influenced and drove our team,” Poulakidas said. “The end results were championships and I credit her for setting the tone. She is an amazing hockey player.”

Jesse and her older brother, J.T., returned to the Northbrook Sports Center ice this past summer for some early morning skates.

Memories were plentiful.

“That was fun, just walking around (the rink), looking at all the banners, looking at our names in different places. What (Northbrook) did for us is special,” Compher said.

Going back to her former Northbrook home rink “brings back so many fond memories,” she said. “Northbrook has been so supportive of us; we wouldn’t be here without all the support from Northbrook families that we’ve received.”

J.T., of course, played at the University of Michigan, then had a brief minor league career before joining the Colorado Avalanche for the 2016-17 season.

J.T., Jesse and their sister Morgan remain “best friends,” Jesse said.

“J.T. and I are very close and I’m lucky to be able to look up to everything he does. Being able to train with him during the summer, see his work ethic, watch who he is as a person … he is an unbelievable role model for me and my sister. The three of us are very close and hockey has only brought us closer, especially considering how much we traveled together when we were younger. It’s created a special bond between the three of us.

“To watch J.T. live out his childhood dreams, win a Stanley Cup … I couldn’t be prouder of him and can’t wait to watch him succeed as the years go on.”

Rourke is just as proud of Jesse.

“Jesse is a wonderful kid, a great kid. She always has a smile on her face and is one of the hardest working kids around. She deserves everything she’s getting and I love seeing it,” Rourke said.  “I’ve seen a lot of players come through our program who are very talented. Jesse was just always working. You could see, when she stepped on the ice for the first time (with the Mission), she was comfortable and it wasn’t work for her.

“She was competitive and would do everything to win – and it mattered to her.”

Compher, you see, is proud to follow the female on-ice pioneers, including Chicago’s own Kendall Coyne Schofield, 31, the captain for the PWHL Minnesota and the U.S. National Team – and a Palos Heights native who attended Sandburg High School.

“I’m pretty close with Kendall, who gets credit for what she’s done, but not enough,” Compher said. “I’m lucky that I get to skate with her during the summer and have been teammates with her on the national team. To see how hard she works every single day, beyond being on the ice, it’s great to see her get (the accolades) she does.

“I didn’t know how much of an impact she would have on my life.”

Years ago, a young Compher saw Coyne Schofield at a hockey tournament and Compher asked for an autograph – on the gym shoe she was wearing, no less.

“I’m forever grateful for all I’ve learned from her over the years,” Compher said. “I don’t have that (first autograph from her), but I wish I did, just to show her.”

Photo credits: PWHL photos courtesy of the PWHL, Northbrook photo courtesy of Jesse Compher.