Girls’ hockey shows are showing promise in non-traditional American markets

Megan Grenon stretched out of the rink before a rare women’s hockey show in the Washington, D.C. area when a young girl approached 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 in Calgary with the Professional Hockey Players Association, which has set a goal of creating a sustainable professional league in North America after years without a league. Grenon said she’d be wearing the number 5 in white that day, and the little girl jumped up and down in excitement.

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

Scenes like this have been shown quite often across the country since the US women’s national team won the gold medal at the 2018 Olympics and sparked more exposure to the sport. There will be a National Hockey League playoff starting 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 centers like Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

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Due to logistical obstacles, from a lack of rinks and ice time to a lack of college and university high school programs and the need for more education, growing girls’ hockey in non-traditional markets remains a challenge. There are still 3,177 players aged 18 or younger registered with USA Hockey in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia combined, lower than they were in Wisconsin alone.

“It was like a slow buildup,” said Kush Seidow, coach and coach of the Under-19 Prep team for the only first-class women’s hockey team in the Washington area. “It’s always difficult. I think it’s a struggle, but it’s a good struggle and we’re happy to do our part.”

Participation is growing, but the need for growth remains

The Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals are also trying to do their part to increase participant numbers in those areas — and similar efforts are underway in Arizona and elsewhere around the league. The number of girls playing hockey in those states increased by 71.3 percent from 2011 to 2021.

But the preliminary numbers still show the need for growth. Minnesota reported that nearly 13,000 girls played hockey last year, bringing that total to 28,206 girls with Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

USA Hockey Regional Director Kristen Wright, who spent five years as Director of Girls Player Development, is proud of the sport’s rapid growth at the youth level in non-traditional markets and believes it could do 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 female hockey players who have coaches and have that involvement there. And the other challenge, in some of these markets, there aren’t a lot of ice rinks, so now instead of a football field attached to your middle school or In your primary school, where you learned to run and kick the ball, well, you have to go to an ice rink.”

American hockey player Haley Scarupa, front, shows a practice during a hockey clinic provided by the Washington Capitals and the Professional Hockey Players Association in March. (Nick Wass/The Associated Press)

Nashville amateur hockey director Kristen Bowness, Tampa Bay hockey development ambassador Kelly Steadman, and Carolina young and amateur hockey specialist Alyssa Galliardi cited the lack of ice rinks as one of the major obstacles. While watching a women’s hockey event at the Washington Capitals training facility last month, Seydoux echoed those concerns.

“Where do we put new girls or kids who want to play?” Said Seydoux, who has coached girls’ and women’s hockey since the late 1980s and is the director of the Washington Pride program in the metropolitan area. “We maxed out all of our time on the ice at every rink we had, so this is kind of a challenge. When you compare us to other big urban areas, we are still very low, in terms of infrastructure, at rinks.”

It starts at the grassroots level

Convincing girls to get 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 Predator reached the final and the Lightning team are the defenders by heart, yet there is still some reluctance for the hockey girls.

Steadman, a hockey development ambassador for Lightning who won two world championships with the United States and played in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the Women’s National Hockey League which has since been renamed First Hockey League.

They’d be like: ‘Oh, did you play too?’ The boys played, but do you play? “So here we are still kind of at that grassroots [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 Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, respectively, last year.

Ovechkin . effect

The Capitals has seen an influx in youth hockey since Alex Ovechkin became the face of the franchise in 2005 and ushered in an era of success that culminated with the organization’s first championship in 2018. While Amanda Tischler, Capitals Vice President of Marketing, said the “Ovechkin effect” is To really promote engagement, the team needed to go beyond the learning and play programs that were in place.

“What we’ve been discovering is that all of these girls want to keep playing hockey,” Tichler said. “And there was this other age group from 10 to 14 years old, which is why we recently launched an all-girls learn-to-play program for that age group, as well as a group of adult females learning to skate and adults learning to play.”

Sonnet forward Brittany Howard celebrates with goalkeeper Erica Howe and forward Jesse Eldridge after a game at the Dream Gap Tour in March. (Nick Wass/The Associated Press)

Canes Girls Youth Hockey similarly offers a track in North Carolina, where players can enter a development program and play in the leagues or at the entry level to stay in the game. There’s also an under-19 team that can keep girls around longer rather than forcing them to leave the area to go to middle school for hockey.

“It’s great to see it go from nothing to that we have kids getting into the sport at the age of 5 and 6 and now they can stay here all the way to play college hockey,” Gagliardi said.

No higher competition

The lack of high school girls and college women’s hockey programs in non-traditional markets is also a problem. Since there is no major women’s professional league, such as the WNBA or the Women’s National Football League, colleges offer the most consistent action along with the quadrennial Olympics and annual World Championships.

USA Hockey started a national high school championship to drive further growth at that 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 their homes to stay on the ice and continue their progress.

Bowness, whose father Rick stars stars, has spent time with Coyote, Lightning and now the Predator, dedicates a lot of time to his growing game of hockey in funky places. While in Tampa, she said there was a junior team that had to play against the boys and noted that there was a need for more girls in the pipeline overall.

“Right now I think it’s more about the numbers,” said Bowness. “We just need more girls to play in order to set up and run leagues.”

‘take time’

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

“They’re not limited to that option to play boys’ hockey,” said Scarupa, who played for Pride and is now an ambassador for the capitals. “They could be on their own team with other girls, and that has grown a lot.”

The Olympics and events held by the Professional Hockey League, First Hockey League, USA Hockey and the National Hockey League are in place to stimulate further growth, however, Wright said there are many pieces that must come together on this front. Now, more than two decades after women’s hockey debuted at the Olympics in 1998, when college programs didn’t even exist, generations of players are back in society as role models and it can take years for the fruits of their efforts to take shape.

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

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