Women’s hockey program shines in non-traditional market

ARLINGTON — Megan Grenon was stretching outside the rink before a rare show of women’s hockey in the Washington area when a young girl approached her parents.

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

“Yes,” Grenon replied. “Did you come to see me?”

Grenon plays for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association in Calgary, which has set a goal of creating a sustainable professional league in North America after years without one. Glennon said she would be wearing a white size 5 that day, and the little girl jumped up and down with excitement.

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

Scenes like this have played out more frequently across the country since the U.S. women’s national team won gold at the 2018 Olympics and brought more exposure to the sport. NHL playoff hockey began last week in Dallas, Tampa, Nashville, Raleigh and Washington, D.C., where women’s hockey has expanded over the past decade, but remains well behind Massachusetts, Minnesota, Traditional hotbeds like Wisconsin and Michigan.

Growing women’s hockey in non-traditional markets remains a challenge due to logistical hurdles ranging from a lack of ice rinks and rink time to a lack of college and college high school programs and the need for more education. The US Hockey Association’s combined total of 3,177 female players 18 and younger registered in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and the region is still less than Wisconsin alone.

“It’s like a slow build,” said Kush Sidhu, director of the Washington area’s only top junior women’s hockey team and coach of the Under-19 prep team. “It’s always hard. I guess it’s a fight, but it’s a good fight and we’re happy to do our part.”

The NHL’s Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Chargers, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals are also working to increase participation in these areas — Arizona and elsewhere in the league are doing similar effort. From 2011 to 2021, the number of girls playing hockey in these states increased by 71.3 percent.

But the raw numbers still point to the need for growth. Minnesota reported nearly 13,000 girls playing hockey last year, adding Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Michigan for a total of 28,206.

Kristen Wright, Regional Manager of Women’s Hockey for USA Hockey who has served as the Women’s Athlete Development Manager for 5 years, is proud of the sport’s rapid growth at the youth level in non-traditional markets and believes that with more exposure and time on the ice, it would become better.

“Some of the challenges that come with it are female role models: convincing girls that hockey is for them,” Wright said. “They need to see it. You really need to see different female hockey players having female coaches and being there to be involved. Another challenge I would say is that in some of these markets, there aren’t as many rinks, so now it’s not A football field attached to a middle school or elementary school, but where you learn to run and play, well, you need to go to the ice rink.”

Nashville Amateur Hockey Director Kristen Bowness, Tampa Bay Hockey Development Ambassador Kelly Steadman and Carolina Women’s Junior and Amateur Hockey Specialist Alyssa Gagliardi all cited the lack of a rink as a major obstacle one. Sidu echoed those concerns while watching a women’s hockey game at the Washington Capitals practice range last month.

“Where do we put new girls or new kids who want to play?” said Sidhu, who has coached women’s and women’s field hockey since the late 1980s and is the director of the Washington, D.C., Washington Pride program. “At every rink we have, all of our time on ice is maxed out, so it’s a bit of a challenge. When you compare us to other metropolitan areas, the level of infrastructure we have on the rinks is still pretty high. Low.”

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 are in the finals, and the Chargers are back-to-back champions, but the girls will still be a little hesitant to play hockey.

“I would go to school, we would do hockey and stuff like that, and a lot of girls are still surprised that I actually play,” said the Chargers’ hockey development ambassador, who won two world championships with Team USA and played . In the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League, it was later renamed the Super Hockey Federation.

“They’re going to say: ‘Oh, did you play too? The boys play, but do you play? So for some of these girls, we’re still at the grassroots (level) and 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.

Since Alex Ovechkin became the face of the team in 2005, the Capitals have seen a massive influx of youth hockey and ushered in an era of success that culminated in the organization’s first championship in 2018. The “Ovechkin effect” is that teams need to go further than existing learn-to-play programs in terms of driving engagement, said Amanda Tischler, vice president of marketing for the Capitals.

“We found out that all these girls wanted to keep playing hockey,” Tischler said. “There’s another 10 to 14-year-old age group, which is why we recently launched an all-girl learn-to-play game for that age group, as well as an all-female adult learn-to-skate and adult learn-to-play.”

Canes Girls Youth Hockey likewise offers a pathway in North Carolina where players can participate in developmental programs and compete in internal league or junior level competitions to stay in the game. There’s also an under-19 team that keeps girls staying longer, rather than forcing them out of the area to go to hockey prep school.

“It’s great to see it go from basically nothing to when we got kids into the game at 5, 6, and now they can stay here and play college hockey,” Gagliardi said.

The lack of high school girls and college women’s hockey programs in non-traditional markets is also a problem. 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 games aside from the quadrennial Olympics and the annual World Championships.

USA Hockey kicks off the National High School Championship to foster more growth at that level. Wright said college classes are moving westward to places like Arizona, Colorado and Utah faster than southward, so more players are leaving home to stay on the ice to continue their progress.

Bowness’s father, Rick, who coached the Stars, spent time with the Coyotes, Chargers and now the Predators and devoted a lot of time to developing hockey in unconventional places. In Tampa, she said there was a junior varsity team that had to play against the boys, noting the need for more girls overall.

“Right now I think it’s more of a numbers issue,” Bowness said. “We just need more girls to play to get the league going.”

Growing up in Rockville and winning gold with Team USA at the 2018 Olympics, Haley Skarupa knows the numbers game like the back of his hand. After she was the only girl on the team as a child, she was impressed with the options available in the Washington area.

“They’re not limited to playing boys hockey,” said Scalupa, who played for the Pride and is now an ambassador for the Capitals. “They can form their own team with other girls and have grown a lot.”

Olympics and events hosted by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, the Hockey Premier League, USA Hockey and the NHL are already in place to spur more growth, however, Wright said, there are many areas that need to come together on this front. Now, more than 20 years since women’s hockey debuted at the Olympics in 1998, before even a college program, generations of players have returned to the community as role models, and their efforts can take years to bear fruit in shape .

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

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