Girls Hockey Programs Show Promise in Nontraditional Markets | U.S. News®

By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey writer

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

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

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

Grenon plays for Calgary with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which aims to establish a viable professional league in North America after years without it. Grenon said she would be wearing No. 5 in white that day, and the young girl jumped up and down with excitement.

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

Scenes like this have been playing out more frequently across the country since the US women’s national team won gold at the 2018 Olympics and brought more exposure to the sport. NHL playoff hockey starts next week in Dallas, Tampa, Nashville, Raleigh and Washington, DC, where girls’ hockey has expanded over the past decade but still lags far behind traditional strongholds like Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan .

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

“It’s been like a slow build-up,” said Kush Sidhu, director and college preparatory team coach for the under-19 team of the Washington area’s only top-rated junior women’s hockey team. “It’s always difficult. It’s a fight I think, 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 taking place in Arizona and elsewhere in the league. The number of girls playing hockey in these states increased 71.3% from 2011 to 2021.

But the bare figures still show a need for growth. Minnesota reported nearly 13,000 girls playing hockey last year, and that total reaches 28,206 along with Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Kristen Wright, USA Hockey’s regional manager for women’s hockey, who served as the girls’ development manager for five years, is proud of the sport’s rapid growth at the youth level in non-traditional markets and believes that with more presence and ice age, it can still can get better.

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

Nashville director of amateur hockey Kristen Bowness, Tampa Bay hockey development ambassador Kelley Steadman, and Carolina girls’ and women’s youth and amateur hockey specialist Alyssa Gagliardi all cited the lack of rinks as one of the biggest hurdles. Watching a women’s ice hockey event at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility last month, Sidhu echoed those concerns.

“Where do we put new girls or new kids that want to play?” said Sidhu, who has coached girls’ and women’s hockey since the late 1980s and is the director of the Washington Pride program in the DC area. “We’ve pretty much maxed out our entire Ice Age on every rink we have, so that’s a bit of a challenge. If you compare us to other major metropolitan areas, we’re still pretty low on infrastructure in terms of rinks.”

Getting girls on the ice is the first step, and in many places it starts with ball or street hockey. The Stars, Capitals and Hurricanes have all won the Stanley Cup, the Predators have reached a final and the Lightning are back-to-back defending champions, and yet there can still be reluctance among girls to play hockey.

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

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, did you play too? The boys were playing, but are you playing?’ So for some of these girls, we’re still at that grassroots level 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 last year by the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, respectively.

The Capitals have seen an influx of youth hockey since Alex Ovechkin became the face of the franchise in 2005, ushering in an era of success that culminated with the organization’s first championship in 2018. While Capital’s vice president of marketing, Amanda Tischler, said the “Ovechkin effect” is to increase participation, the team had to go beyond existing learn-to-play programs.

“What we found is that all of these girls wanted to keep playing hockey,” Tischler said. “And there was this other age group of 10 to 14 years old, which is why we recently introduced a girls’ learning program for that age group and an adult learning program for adults and an adult learning program. to play.”

Canes Girls Youth Hockey similarly offers a path in North Carolina where players can participate in a development program and play in domestic leagues or at the junior level to stay in the game. There is also an under-19 team that can keep girls around longer rather than forcing them to leave the area to go to hockey prep school.

“It’s cool to see that it basically didn’t work out that kids come into the sport as young as 5, 6 years old and now they can stay here until they play college hockey,” Gagliardi said.

A shortage of high school varsity girls and women’s college hockey programs in non-traditional markets is also a concern. In the absence of a major women’s pro league like the WNBA or the National Women’s Soccer League, the colleges provide the most consistent action alongside the quadrennial Olympics and annual World Cup.

USA Hockey started a national high school tournament to encourage more growth at that level. Wright said college programs are going west to places like Arizona, Colorado and Utah faster than they are going south, so more players are leaving home to stay on the ice and continue their ascent.

Bowness, whose father Rick coaches the Stars, has spent time with the Coyotes, Lightning and now Predators, and put a lot of time into developing hockey in unconventional places. While in Tampa, she said there was a junior varsity team that needed to play the boys, noting that more girls were in the pipeline overall.

“Right now I think it’s more of a numbers thing,” Bowness said. “We just need more girls playing to make the leagues work.”

Haley Skarupa, who grew up in Rockville, Maryland and won gold with the USA at the 2018 Olympics, knows numbers games. Having been the only girl on her team as a child, she is impressed by the opportunities that exist in the Washington area.

“You’re not limited to just being able to play boys hockey,” said Skarupa, who played for Pride and is now a Capitals ambassador. “They can be on their own team with other girls and it’s just grown that way.”

The Olympics and events hosted by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, Premier Hockey Federation, USA Hockey and the NHL are designed to fuel growth, and yet, Wright says, many pieces need to come together on that front. Now, more than two decades since women’s hockey debuted at the Olympics in 1998, before college programs even existed, generations of female players have returned to the community as role models, and it could be years before the fruits of their make efforts arrive.

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

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