Women’s hockey programs show promise in non-traditional markets

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Megan Grenon lay outside the rink in front of a rare showcase of women’s hockey in the Washington, DC area, when a young girl approached with her parents.

“Are you a hockey player? Are you playing today? asked the girl.

“Yeah,” Grenon replied. “Are you here to watch me?”

Grenon plays for Calgary with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which has set itself the goal of establishing a sustainable professional league in North America after years without one. Grenon said she would wear No. 5 in white that day, and the girl jumped for joy.

“You can cheer me on,” Grenon said. “You can encourage whoever you want.”

Scenes like this are playing out more often across the country since the US Women’s National Team won gold at the 2018 Olympics and generated more exposure for the sport. There will be NHL playoffs starting next week in Dallas, Tampa, Nashville, Raleigh and Washington, D.C., where women’s hockey has grown over the past decade but remains far behind traditional hotbeds. such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Due to logistical hurdles, from a shortage of rinks and ice time to a lack of college and university programs and the need for more education, the growth of women’s hockey in non-traditional markets remains a challenge. The 3,177 players age 18 and under registered by USA Hockey in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia combined are even fewer than in Wisconsin alone.

“It’s been like a slow buildup,” said Kush Sidhu, manager and coach of the under-19 college prep team for the only top-level junior women’s hockey team in the Washington area. “It’s always difficult. It’s a fight, I guess, but it’s a good fight and we’re happy to do our part.

The NHL’s Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals are also trying to do their part to increase attendance in those areas – and similar efforts are underway. underway in Arizona and elsewhere in the league. The number of girls playing hockey in these states increased by 71.3% from 2011 to 2021.

But the raw numbers still show a need for growth. Minnesota reported nearly 13,000 girls playing hockey last year, and that total rises to 28,206 combined with Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Michigan.

USA Hockey Regional Director of Women’s Hockey Kristen Wright, who spent five years as Director of Player Development, is proud of the sport’s rapid growth at the youth level in non-traditional markets and believes it can be even better with more exposure and ice time.

“Some of the challenges that come with that are female role models: convincing girls that hockey is for them,” Wright said. “They need to see it. You really need to see different women’s hockey players having female coaches and having that commitment there. And the other challenge, I would say, in some of these markets there’s just not as many rinks, so now instead of being a football field that’s attached to your middle school or elementary school, where you learned to run and kick a ball, well, you have to go to a rink .

Kristen Bowness, Director of Amateur Hockey in Nashville, Kelley Steadman, Hockey Development Ambassador for Tampa Bay, and Alyssa Gagliardi, Carolina Girls and Women’s Specialist and Amateur Hockey Specialist, all cited the lack of rinks as the one of the main obstacles. Watching a women’s hockey event at the Washington Capitals practice facility last month, Sidhu echoed those concerns.

“Where are we going to put new girls or new kids who want to play? said Sidhu, who has coached girls and women’s hockey since the late 1980s and is director of the Washington Pride program in the DC area. “We’re pretty much at the peak of our ice time at every rink we have, so it’s a bit of a challenge. When you compare us to other major metropolitan areas, we’re still quite low, in terms of infrastructure, on the rinks.

Getting the girls on the ice is the first step, and in many places it starts with ball hockey or street hockey. The Stars, Capitals and Hurricanes have all won the Stanley Cup, the Predators have reached a Finals and the Lightning are back-to-back defending champions, and yet girls may still be hesitant to get into hockey.

“I’ll go to schools and we’ll do ball hockey and stuff like that and so many girls are still so surprised that I actually played,” said Steadman, the Lightning’s hockey development ambassador who won two world championships with the United States and played in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League which has since been renamed the Premier Hockey Federation.

“They’re going to say, ‘Oh, you’ve been playing too? The boys have been playing, but are you playing? So here we’re still kind of in that basic (level) for some of these girls, where they don’t even know what women’s hockey is.

Hence the need for programs like Canes Girls Youth Hockey and All Caps All Her, launched by the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals respectively last year.

The Capitals have seen an influx of young hockey players since Alex Ovechkin became the face of the franchise in 2005 and ushered in an era of success culminating in the organization’s first championship in 2018. While the vice president of marketing of the Capitals, Amanda Tischler, said the “Ovechkin effect” is real to drive participation, the team needed to go beyond the learn-to-play programs that were in place.

“What we were finding out was that all of these girls wanted to keep playing hockey,” Tischler said. “And there was this other age group of 10 to 14, which is why we recently launched a girls-only learn-to-play program for that age group, as well as a learn-to-play program all-female adult skating and an adult learning program to play.”

Canes Girls Youth Hockey also offers a pathway in North Carolina, where players can participate in a development program and play in house leagues or at the junior level to stay in the game. There is also an under-19 team that can keep the girls longer instead of forcing them out of the area to go to hockey prep school.

“It’s cool to see that there’s practically nothing to kids who start the sport at 5 or 6 and now they could stay here until they go play college hockey,” said Gagliardi.

The lack of women’s hockey programs in high schools for girls and colleges in non-traditional markets is also an issue. Given the lack of a major women’s professional league, such as the WNBA or the National Women’s Soccer League, colleges offer the most consistent action outside of the Olympics every four years and the annual World Championship.

USA Hockey has launched a national tournament in high schools to stimulate growth at this level. Wright said college programs are moving west to places like Arizona, Colorado and Utah faster than they are moving south, so more players are leaving home to stay. on the ice and continue their progress.

Bowness, whose father Rick coaches the Stars, has spent time with the Coyotes, Lightning and now the Predators and has dedicated a lot of time to growing hockey in non-traditional places. While in Tampa, she said there was a junior varsity team that needed to play against the boys and stressed that there was a need for more girls in the pipeline.

“Right now I think it’s more about the numbers,” Bowness said. “We just need more girls playing to get the leagues up and running.”

Haley Skarupa, who grew up in Rockville, Maryland and won gold with the United States at the 2018 Olympics, knows all about a numbers game. After being the only girl on her team as a child, she is impressed with the options available in the Washington area.

“They’re not limited to that option of playing men’s hockey,” said Skarupa, who played for pride and is now an ambassador for the Capitals. “They can be on their own team with other girls, and that’s so grown.”

The Olympics and events hosted by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, Premier Hockey Federation, USA Hockey and the NHL are in place to further spur growth and yet Wright said a lot of things need to come together on that front. Now, more than two decades after the debut of women’s hockey at the Olympics in 1998, when college programs didn’t even exist, generations of players are returning to the community as role models and it could take years. before the fruits of their efforts materialize. shape.

“Part of it is time,” Wright said. “We don’t like to talk about time, but some things take time.”


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