Carly Jackson grew up in hockey playing with boys.

That’s simply how the young woman in Nova Scotia found her way through the ice hockey ranks, often the only girl playing against boys.

And, many times, beating them.

At the end of high school, Jackson found herself in the enviable position of recruitment to play NCAA women’s ice hockey.

Nearby Maine beckoned.

“I got a scholarship from the University of Maine to play on their women’s team, and I had the most amazing time.”

As she could now immerse herself in women’s hockey, she saw a whole different culture where she could blossom as a person and a player.

“If people could see a peek inside the locker room, on the women’s side, it’s amazing how accepting we can be with each other. There’s a good chunk in women’s hockey where queer people are everywhere.

“I don’t think there’s been a women’s professional hockey team where there hasn’t been somebody who’s gay.”

It was a revelation for Jackson, who had largely played with boys before joining the Maine Black Bears in Orono, just outside of Bangor. Once there, she could see the embrace of LGBTQ identities in the women’s hockey space.

“When I came out, when I accepted being queer and different, I could be whoever I wanted to be. And being in that environment in the women’s hockey team, I flourished.

“Sports are self-expression, and I take a lot of pride in that. My character is reflected in how I play my sport.”

In April 2020 — during the midst of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic — Jackson was selected third overall in the women’s pro hockey draft, by the Buffalo Beauts. In 2021 she had a stellar season, a finalist for Goaltender of the Year and Newcomer of the Year.

Still, the Beauts struggled to put up wins throughout her tenure with the team. Over the last couple years, Jackson has become more focused, realizing that her ultimate goal as a player is, and has been, winning a league title.

And win she did.

“I decided I wanted to win a championship. So I signed with the Toronto Six and we won it all last season. Winning was exactly what I wanted to do.”

Now is a time of transition for women’s professional hockey. With the folding of the Premier Hockey Federation, the Professional Women’s Hockey League is emerging. Set for a 2024 season with six teams — and boasting the likes of legends Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss as advisory board members — the new league is hoping to build a strong foundation for a league that lasts.

Still, it leaves some of the players in flux. The league had a 15-round draft last month, and Jackson’s name was not called. She’s now a free agent, and she’s a top prospect to be signed by a team needing goaltending depth.

“It’s a lot of mixed emotions, how much I’ve put into my experiences and the love and energy we’ve put in. And now there’s a new league, and not knowing what’s next. I recognize that it’s not starting over, it’s rebuilding.”

Until she finds a new landing spot, Jackson stays busy coaching hockey, working with Baseball Nova Scotia in various roles, and spending time with friends, family and her cat.

And she’ll keep sharing her life as an out athlete openly and honestly, in hopes of inspiring others to do the same.

“People have so much power in themselves when they let themselves be who they are. Now that I have a platform to talk about it, I see it as a gift.

“Find the power in who you are and spread your life. Everyone has a fire in them that the world needs to see.”

You can follow Carly Jackson on Instagram.