Girls hockey packages present promise in nontraditional markets | Ap

ARLINGTON, Va. — Megan Grenon stretched exterior the rink earlier than a uncommon showcase of girls’s hockey within the Washington, D.C, space when a younger woman approached along with her mother and father.

“Are you a hockey player? Are you playing today?” the woman requested.

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

Grenon performs for Calgary with the Skilled Girls’s Hockey Gamers Affiliation, which has set a aim of building a sustainable skilled league in North America after years with out one. Grenon stated she can be carrying No. 5 in white that day, and the younger woman jumped up and down in pleasure.

“You can cheer for me,” Grenon stated. “You can cheer for whoever you want.”

Scenes like which might be taking part in out extra usually throughout the nation for the reason that U.S. girls’s nationwide staff gained gold on the 2018 Olympics and generated extra publicity for the game. There might be NHL playoff hockey beginning subsequent week in Dallas, Tampa, Nashville, Raleigh and Washington, D.C., the place women hockey has expanded over the previous decade however nonetheless lags far behind conventional hotbeds like Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Due to logistical hurdles, from a scarcity of rinks and ice time to an absence of faculty and varsity highschool packages and the necessity for extra schooling, rising women hockey in nontraditional markets stays a problem. The three,177 feminine gamers aged 18 and youthful registered by USA Hockey in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia mixed remains to be fewer than in Wisconsin alone.

“It’s been like a slow buildup,” stated Kush Sidhu, director and under-19 faculty prep staff coach for the one top-tier junior girls’s hockey staff in Washington space. “It’s always hard. It’s a struggle, I guess, but it’s a good struggle and we’re happy to do our part.”

The NHL’s Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals are additionally attempting to do their half to get participation numbers up in these areas — and comparable efforts are going down in Arizona and elsewhere across the league. The variety of women taking part in hockey in these states is up

71.3 p.c from 2011 to 2021.

However the uncooked numbers nonetheless present a necessity for progress. Minnesota reported nearly 13,000 women taking part in hockey final yr, and that complete reaches 28,206 mixed with Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Michigan.

USA Hockey regional supervisor of feminine hockey Kristen Wright, who spent 5 years as supervisor of women participant improvement, is happy with the game’s fast progress on the youth degree in nontraditional markets and thinks it may be even higher with extra publicity and ice time.

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

Nashville director of beginner hockey Kristen Bowness, Tampa Bay hockey improvement ambassador Kelley Steadman and Carolina women’ and girls’s youth and beginner hockey specialist Alyssa Gagliardi all cited an absence of ice rinks as one of many main hurdles. Whereas watching a girls’s hockey occasion on the Washington Capitals follow facility final month, Sidhu echoed these considerations.

“Where do we put new girls or new kids that want to play?” stated Sidhu, who has coached women and girls’s hockey for the reason that late Eighties and is director of the Washington Pleasure program within the D.C. space. “We’re pretty maxed out on all our ice time at every rink that we have, so that’s a bit of a challenge. When you compare us to other big metropolitan areas, we’re still pretty low, infrastructure-wise, on rinks.”

Getting women to get on the ice is step one, and in quite a lot of locations, it begins with ball or road hockey. The Stars, Capitals and Hurricanes have all gained the Stanley Cup, the Predators reached a last and the Lightning are back-to-back defending champions, and but there can nonetheless be some hesitation for women taking on 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,” stated Steadman, the Lightning’s hockey improvement ambassador who gained two world championships with the U.S. and performed within the Canadian Girls’s Hockey League and Nationwide Girls’s Hockey League that has since been renamed Premier Hockey Federation.

“They’ll be like: ‘Oh, did you play, too? The boys played, but do you play?’ So here we’re still kind of in that grassroots [level] for some of these girls, where they’re not even aware of what women’s hockey is.”

Therefore the necessity for packages like Canes Girls Youth Hockey and All Caps All Her, launched by the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, respectively, final yr.

The Capitals have seen an inflow of youth hockey since Alex Ovechkin turned the face of the franchise in 2005 and ushered in an period of success culminating with the group’s first championship in 2018. Whereas Capitals VP of promoting Amanda Tischler stated the “Ovechkin Effect” is actual in boosting participation, the staff wanted to go additional than the learn-to-play packages that had been in place.

“What we were finding out is all these girls wanted to continue to play hockey,” Tischler stated. “And there was this other age group of 10-14, which is why we recently launched an all-girls learn-to-play for that age group, as well as an all-female adult learn-to-skate and adult learn-to- play.”

Canes Girls Youth Hockey is equally offering a pathway in North Carolina, the place gamers can go right into a improvement program and play in home leagues or on the junior degree to remain within the sport. There’s additionally an under-19 staff that may hold women round longer as a substitute of forcing them to go away the world to go to prep faculty for hockey.

“It’s cool to see it go from basically nothing to we’ve got kids coming into the sport at 5-, 6-years old and now they could stay here all the way to going to play college hockey,” Gagliardi stated.

A scarcity of highschool varsity women and faculty girls’s hockey packages in nontraditional markets can also be a difficulty. Given the shortage of 1 main girls’s professional league, just like the WNBA or Nationwide Girls’s Soccer League, schools present essentially the most constant motion other than the Olympics each 4 years and the annual world championship.

USA Hockey began a nationwide highschool match to immediate extra progress at that degree. Wright stated faculty packages are going west to locations like Arizona, Colorado and Utah sooner than they’re shifting south, so extra gamers are leaving residence to remain on the ice and proceed their development.

Bowness, whose father Rick coaches the Stars, has hung out with the Coyotes, Lightning and now Predators and put quite a lot of time into rising hockey in nontraditional locations. Whereas in Tampa, she stated there was a junior varsity staff that needed to play towards the boys and factors on the market’s a necessity for extra women within the pipeline total.

“Right now I think it’s more of a numbers thing,” Bowness stated. “We just need more girls playing in order to get leagues up and running.”

Haley Skarupa, who grew up in Rockville, Maryland, and gained gold with the U.S. on the 2018 Olympics is aware of all a few numbers sport. After being the one woman on her staff as a child, she’s impressed by the choices obtainable within the Washington space.

“They’re not limited just to that option to play boys hockey,” stated Skarupa, who performed for the Pleasure and is now an envoy for the Capitals. “They can be on their own team with other girls, and that’s just grown so much.”

The Olympics and occasions placed on by the Skilled Girls’s Hockey Gamers Affiliation, Premier Hockey Federation, USA Hockey and the NHL are in place to spur extra progress and but, Wright stated there are a lot of items that want to come back collectively on that entrance. Now, greater than twenty years since girls’s hockey debuted on the Olympics in 1998, when faculty packages weren’t even in existence, generations of gamers are again in the neighborhood as function fashions and it might take years for the fruits of their efforts to take form.

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

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