Girls hockey programs show promise in nontraditional markets

Girls hockey programs
AP Photo/Nick Wass

ARLINGTON, Va. — Megan Grenon stretched outside the rink before a rare showcase of women’s hockey in the Washington, D.C, area when a young girl approached with her parents.

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

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

Grenon plays for Calgary with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which has set a goal of establishing a sustainable professional league in North America after years without one. Grenon said she would be wearing No. 5 in white that day, and the young girl jumped up and down in excitement.

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

Scenes like that are playing out more often across the country since the U.S. women’s national team won gold at the 2018 Olympics and generated more exposure for the sport. There will be NHL playoff hockey starting next week in Dallas, Tampa, Nashville, Raleigh and Washington, D.C., where girls hockey has expanded over the past decade but still lags far behind traditional hotbeds like Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Because of logistical hurdles, from a shortage of rinks and ice time to a lack of college and varsity high school programs and the need for more education, growing girls hockey in nontraditional markets remains a challenge. The 3,177 female players aged 18 and younger registered by USA Hockey in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia combined is still fewer than in Wisconsin alone.

“It’s been like a slow buildup,” said Kush Sidhu, director and under-19 college prep team coach for the only top-tier junior women’s hockey team in Washington area. “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 also trying to do their part to get participation numbers up in those areas — and similar efforts are taking place in Arizona and elsewhere around the league. The number of girls playing hockey in those states is up 71.3% from 2011 to 2021.

But the raw numbers still show a need for growth. Minnesota reported almost 13,000 girls playing hockey last year, and that total reaches 28,206 combined with Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Michigan.

USA Hockey regional manager of female hockey Kristen Wright, who spent five years as manager of girls player development, is proud of the sport’s rapid growth at the youth level in nontraditional markets and thinks it can be even 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 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 amateur hockey Kristen Bowness, Tampa Bay hockey development ambassador Kelley Steadman and Carolina girls’ and women’s youth and amateur hockey specialist Alyssa Gagliardi all cited a lack of ice rinks as one of the major hurdles. While watching a women’s hockey event at the Washington Capitals practice facility last month, Sidhu echoed those concerns.

“Where do we put new girls or new kids that want to play?” said Sidhu, who has coached girls and women’s hockey since the late 1980s and is director of the Washington Pride program in the D.C. area. “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 girls to get on the ice is the first step, and in a lot of places it starts with ball or street hockey. The Stars, Capitals and Hurricanes have all won the Stanley Cup, the Predators reached a final and the Lightning are back-to-back defending champions, and yet there can still be some hesitation for girls taking up 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,” said Steadman, the Lightning’s hockey development ambassador who won two world championships with the U.S. and played in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’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.”

Hence the need for programs like Canes Girls Youth Hockey and All Caps All Her, launched by the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, respectively, last year.

The Capitals have seen an influx of youth hockey since Alex Ovechkin became the face of the franchise in 2005 and ushered in an era of success culminating with the organization’s first championship in 2018. While Capitals VP of marketing Amanda Tischler said the “Ovechkin Effect” is real in boosting participation, the team needed to go further than the learn-to-play programs that were in place.

“What we were finding out is all these girls wanted to continue to play hockey,” Tischler said. “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 similarly providing a pathway in North Carolina, where players can go into a development program and play in house leagues or at the junior level to stay in the game. There’s also an under-19 team that can keep girls around longer instead of forcing them to leave the area to go to prep school 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 said.

A lack of high school varsity girls and college women’s hockey programs in nontraditional markets is also an issue. Given the lack of one major women’s pro league, like the WNBA or National Women’s Soccer League, colleges provide the most consistent action aside from the Olympics every four years and the annual world championship.

USA Hockey started a national high school tournament to prompt more growth at that level. Wright said college programs are going west to places like Arizona, Colorado and Utah faster than they’re moving south, so more players are leaving home to stay on the ice and continue their advancement.

Bowness, whose father Rick coaches the Stars, has spent time with the Coyotes, Lightning and now Predators and put a lot of time into growing hockey in nontraditional places. While in Tampa, she said there was a junior varsity team that had to play against the boys and points out there’s a need for more girls in the pipeline overall.

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

Haley Skarupa, who grew up in Rockville, Maryland, and won gold with the U.S. at the 2018 Olympics knows all about a numbers game. After being the only girl on her team as a kid, she’s impressed by the options available in the Washington area.

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

The Olympics and events put on by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, Premier Hockey Federation, USA Hockey and the NHL are in place to spur more growth and yet, Wright said there are many pieces that need to come together on that front. Now, more than two decades since women’s hockey debuted at the Olympics in 1998, when college programs weren’t even in existence, generations of players are back in the community as role models and it could take years for the fruits of their efforts to take shape.

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

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    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

    WELCOME HOME, LU

    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    “I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

    “It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

    REMEMBERING JIMMY

    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

    ANTHEM POISE

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

    SLAP SHOTS

    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.