The NHL likes to talk about growing the game. In places such as Dallas, Carolina, Nashville, Washington and Tampa Bay, they’re not merely talking the talk. The league and its member teams are walking the walk.
There’s been an emphasis in those markets toward growing girls hockey programs and the evidence is showing that the fruits of those labors are beginning to bloom.
USA Hockey is showing over 3,000 girls are registered across Dallas, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Raleigh and Washington, D.C, five non-traditional hockey markets that all qualified their teams for Stanley Cup play during the 2021-22 season.
True, those numbers may still pale in comparison to USA hockey hotbeds such as Michigan, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Minnesota alone counts some 13,000 girls playing hockey across the state.
However, these digits are also displaying significant progress being made in the development of girls hockey programs in new areas. The number of girls playing hockey in those states and in the District of Columbia were up 71.3 percent from 2011 to 2021. That is impressive, considering that in each market, they were basically building from Ground Zero.
Grassroots programs such as Preds Girls Hockey, operated by the Nashville Predators, Canes Girls Youth Hockey, set up by the Carolina Hurricanes and All Caps All Her, developed by the Washington Capitals, are building a solid base of hockey participation among girls in their communities.
“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,” Hurricanes girls’ and women’s youth and amateur hockey specialist Alyssa Gagliardi told Associated Press.
During the season the Dallas Stars provide a Rookie Girls program. It consists of free four-week programs with 30-minute on-ice sessions for girls ages 4-14 who are interested in playing the game of hockey. Each Saturday during the program, kids are provided with all equipment necessary for a fun and safe experience. Trained coaches help the girls discover and learn about hockey.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are offering a girls-only summer hockey camp at AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel from July 29th – 31st. Along with on-ice sessions, they also include an off-ice training event as well as chalk talks on hockey rules and strategies.
But getting these programs off the ground is always a struggle.
“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,” Kelley Steadman, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s hockey development ambassador, told AP.
Steadman won two world championships with the USA and played women’s pro hockey. Generally, this is news to the young girls she’s introducing to the game.
“They’ll be like: ‘Oh, did you play?” Steadman said. “So here we’re still kind of at that grassroots (level) for some of these girls, where they’re not even aware of what women’s hockey is.”
Kristen Wright, USA Hockey’s regional manager of female hockey, insists that in order to develop interest in the game, young girls need to see and meet mentors such as Steadman. Only then can they become infatuated with hockey.
“Some of the challenges that come with that are female role models,” Wright explained to AP. “Convincing girls that hockey is for them, they need to see it. You really need to see different female hockey players have female coaches and have that engagement there.”
Certainly, there are other factors that often inhibit the broadening of a girls hockey base in these areas. Economics, the cost of playing the game, is sometimes an issue. Another detriment can be the lack of available ice rinks.
“Right now I think it’s more of a numbers thing,” Nashville director of amateur hockey Kristen Bowness said. “We just need more girls playing in order to get leagues up and running.”