NHL closing in on seeing its first female coach

Kori Cheverie fondly recalls the conversations she had with her grandfather, who was growing up in Nova Scotia, where he encouraged her to believe that anything was attainable in sport.

First woman to play for the Toronto Blue Jays? For sure. Hoist the Stanley Cup over your head while representing the Toronto Maple Leafs? Do it.

While that’s out of the question as a player now, Cheverie’s gender aspirations seem far more achievable today for the 34-year-old, who has spent the past five years breaking down the barrier of men-only hockey.

In 2017, Cheverie became the first female assistant coach on a Canadian varsity-level men’s ice hockey team (at Ryerson). This month, after serving as an assistant on the Canada women’s Olympic team, she graduated as Hockey Canada’s first woman behind the bench on a men’s team at the World U18 Championships.

“It’s kind of funny to look back and reflect on those conversations as a kid because I’m the first person to do some things on the men’s side of hockey,” Cheverie said, recalling conversations with her grandfather, Jack Rehill. “They speak of the limitless childhood I had growing up and what I was told I could be capable of.”

And she’s not done dreaming yet.

The rise of Cheverie, coupled with the growing number of women entering management and developmental positions in pro hockey, has quickly accelerated the timeline of when — not if — a woman will work behind an NHL bench.

As much as Pittsburgh Penguins president Brian Burke believes the glass ceiling should have been broken yesterday, he makes up for his impatience by noting that the league is trying to shatter its image as an old-boys club.

“I think we’re basically tied to our past, which is white people who play hockey and go into management,” Burke told The Associated Press.

“It might be a slower build than people like,” he added. “But I’m very encouraged by the change in the role of women in hockey over the past two years, which has gone from non-existent to significant in a very short space of time.”

Four years since Hayley Wickenheiser opened the door The Toronto Maple Leafs’ appointment as assistant director of player development has brought the league’s roster of women hockey players to nearly 30. And that doesn’t include five NHL teams with female presidents.

The Penguins are one of the premier NHL teams. With two women already on their hockey team, the Penguins added to the roster by naming US Olympian Amanda Kessel as the first participant in the team’s executive management program last month. Vancouver is the first NHL team to hire not one, but two assistant general managers, Cammi Granato and Emilie Castonguay.

“I think it’s pretty short-sighted when people didn’t think that eventually there was going to be some kind of gender equality, not just in hockey, but in every industry,” said Lindsay Artkin, president of the NHL Coaches’ Association. “It wouldn’t be unrealistic to see a woman in the NHL after next season.”

The NHLCA has played a role in accelerating the movement. With the support of her male coaching membership, Artkin started a female development program two years ago.

The program identified 50 women — including Cheverie — at various levels to work directly with NHL coaches in advanced training sessions. In addition to exchanging ideas, the program also offered women networking opportunities that they previously lacked to get on the radar as potential coaching candidates.

While Artkin said the NHL coaches were impressed by the wealth of knowledge the women bring to the table, the female attendees found that the sessions encouraged a belief in having equal rights when working with men.

“That’s absolutely affirming,” said Bethany Brausen, assistant women’s coach at the University of St. Thomas. “The terminology may be slightly different, but we all speak the same language.”

Any fears Brausen had about overseeing men melted away when a male coach said most players don’t care about gender, just one thing: Does coaching make them better?

“That’s a very easy thing to say,” Brausen said. “But I think when I hear a guy who trains at that level say that specifically, it’s ‘natural.’ As soon as he said that, I’m like, ‘Why should it matter how you look or, frankly, what background you come from? is?'”

One conversation during a 25-minute drive with Christine Bumstead was enough to convince former Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice of how competently she had recommended her for the program.

“Christine is going to be a great coach. She’s one now,” Maurice said of Bumstead, who just completed her freshman year as an assistant on the University of Saskatchewan women’s team. “There are a lot of really bright young coaches, some of them male, some of them female, and they have an opportunity now that just didn’t exist 20 years ago.”

He’s confident the gender barrier will be broken, much like other walls have fallen, as he recalls how Canada’s junior hockey leagues once shunned American-born players.

“If you’re not willing to change and evolve as a coach, you’re done,” Maurice said, before noting that “men don’t corner the communications market.”

“You hear Jennifer Botterill on TV. She speaks differently about the game,” he said of the Canadian Olympian-turned-host. “Sometimes it’s just a different perspective. It may or may not have something to do with her being a woman. But she is interesting.”

The NHL has lagged behind the other three major professional sports in North America in hiring women.

In 2019, Rachel Balkovec became Major League Baseball’s first full-time hitting coach and this year she became the game’s first minor league manager. The NBA introduced seven female assistants this year. And the ranks of NFL women coaches grew to 12 last season.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he expects the process of hiring women coaches to evolve, rather than imposing quotas or enforcing rules.

“I hope we don’t need that,” Bettman said. “I hope it develops to the point where it just becomes a part of the way you work, where you don’t need arbitrary rules to make people do the right things.”

The odds have improved significantly, NHL Vice President Kim Davis said, attributing the development program to giving women direct access to those who have hiring skills.

“The fact that they have access and you have women in these roles is what will eventually lead to these women rising to these top positions as GMs, as coaches,” Davis said. “So I am very encouraged by our progress. We still have a lot to do. We don’t do a lap of honor.”

As much as Cheverie would certainly love to be the first woman hired as a coach in the NHL, she stressed that the opportunity must be a match for working on a staff and team that is open to hearing her voice.

“I would like to be in the NHL. Of course, I think many coaches would do that. But it’s not the be-all and end-all for me. I want to do the best I can,” she said.

“I’m really looking forward to the day when this isn’t a conversation,” Cheverie added. “I wish that day was today and we’re just talking about a coach who coaches a team and tries to help them win versus how a woman fits into a group of men in a sporting environment.”

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AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

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