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Congratulations to Boston College Eagles defenseman Kaliya Johnson for recently signing a free agent contract with the Connecticut Whale of the second-year  National Women’s Hockey League.

“It’s a little surreal for me right now,” said Johnson, who inked a one-year, $13,000 deal. “Obviously, it’s always been a dream of mine since I was younger to play professional hockey. It feels like such a huge honor to be part of history and just to continue to play hockey, which I’m absolutely thrilled about.”

BC defenseman Kalyia Johnson inks one-year deal with NWHL's Connecticut Whale.

BC defenseman Kalyia Johnson inks one-year deal with NWHL’s Connecticut Whale.

So’s the Whale. Team General Manager Lisa Giovanelli said Johnson “is a great player and a strong , solid defenseman that adds depth to our blue line.”

“Coming off a tremendous senior season at Boston College, in which they finished with a record of 40-1, Kaliya knows what it takes to win games and consistently compete at a high level.”

She played 142 career games for the Eagles, scoring 43 points on 7 goals and 36 assists. The Eagles rolled through the 2015-16 regular season and lost in the  NCAA Women’s Frozen Four championship game in March to the University of Minnesota Gophers 3-1.

The California-born, Arizona-raised Johnson was one of the more compelling hockey stories of the 2014-15 hockey season. Prior to the season she learned that she suffered from a Chiari malformation,  a rare structural condition of the brain and spinal cord that contributes to a smaller than normal space for the brain, pressing it downward.

“Basically, my brain was sitting below the base of my skull. It was something I was born with,” Johnson told me in February 2015. “I had symptoms all my life  – little things like pressure headaches, getting migraines. I thought it was normal for me.”

Johnson had surgery in September 2015 that she said “opened up some space and removed the first vertebrae in my neck,  so there was more room to breathe back there.”

“It could have been a lot more damaging if I would have continued to keep playing and I got hit in the head wrong, or my back,” she said. “It would have been permanently damaging.”

She missed about two months of the 2014-15 season after the surgery and has been healthy ever since.

“I’m perfectly good,” she said.

As excited as Johnson is about joining the NWHL, Blake Bolden, an African-American defenseman for the league champion Boston Pride a former teammate of Johnson’s at BC, was excited about the possibility of the two being reunited in Boston.

“Her senior year was my freshman year,” Johnson said. “It was great having her by my side and her teaching me everything that she knows. That would have been an added bonus for me playing in the NWHL, to be able to play with her again. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.  But she’s a great competitor, and I’m real excited about playing against her because she’s a real sharp player.”

The NWHL consists of four teams – the Whale, the Pride, the New York Riviters, and the Buffalo Beauts. Players are paid and the teams adhere to a salary cap that was $270,000 in its inaugural season.

The salaries aren’t a living wage and players have to hold down jobs to supplement their incomes. Still, Johnson is proud to be called a professional.