It is a Sunday morning at 8:00am at Lynnwood Ice Center in Washington state, and a group of young female hockey players have just finished one of their regular ice sessions with the Seattle Girls Hockey Club. As they step off the ice, they race to see who can get changed the fastest in order to get first pick of the donuts supplied by a parent. The girls often spend several hours together, eating donuts and watching the next game (or two) that take to the ice. This sight is just one of the signs showing that over the past few years, Washington’s female minor hockey community has been blossoming.
While the Seattle Junior Hockey Association (SJHA) was the minor hockey home of 2006 Olympic bronze medallist Kelly Stephens and 2002 Patty Kazmaier award winner Brooke Whitney, there has never been enough girls playing in Seattle (or most of Washington state) in order to maintain the creation of a separate girls program.
For years, many female hockey players have needed to leave Washington in order to access high-level female competition. For example, NWHL player Lexi Bender, who grew up in Washington, moved to Minnesota at a young age to pursue a hockey career. Recently however, she has seen opportunities for female players in Washington increase.
“I mean, I love my experience (in hockey),” Bender told The Daily Herald. “But if there had been an opportunity for me to stay home when I was 14 (instead of moving to Minnesota), I would have done that. So for girls to be able to have opportunities (to advance in hockey) and to give girls the opportunities to stay local and pursue their dreams, that’s very relevant to me.”
The number of girls in Washington playing hockey has been growing. In the 2005-06 season, there were 737 registered female hockey players in the state of Washington, 310 of which were under the age of 20 and 87 of which were ages eight and under. 10 years later, in the 2015-16 season, there were 1092 registered female hockey players in Washington, 579 of which were under the age of 20 and 237 of which were ages eight and under.
But even with these growing numbers, Washington still has a ways to go until it can sustain several multi-team female associations. It has one, the Western Washington Female Hockey Association, but many girls in the state have no option but to play with boys.
So how can minor hockey associations in Washington create a fun, welcoming atmosphere that makes girls want to stay in the game? How do they effectively meet girls’ psychosocial needs and provide high-class player development? How do they increase the number of female players? These questions are exactly what hockey parent Jim O’Brien was hoping to answer when he came up with the idea to form the Seattle Girls Hockey Club under the SJHA two years ago.
The SJHA has 14U and 16U girls-only rep teams, but all other girls in the association play with boys. Girls who are a part of the Seattle Girls Hockey Club play and practice with their regular team, but are brought together as the Girls Club two to three times a month for skills training, small area games, and team building. At the end of the season, Girls Club teams are formed to compete in the Richmond Ravens Female Ice Classic Tournament in Canada. This unique opportunity for female players is driven by dedicated volunteer parents and coaches such as O’Brien and Jon Sloan.
As Seattle Girls Hockey Club coach Jerry Weir has discovered, there are a lot of potential female players in the state — most of them just need to be introduced to the sport.
“One of the … coaches showed up and said ‘Where did all the girls come from in the beginner program?’” Weir said about the significant increase in the number of girls attending the beginners hockey program he runs. “I said, ‘Well, I asked them’ … it was literally that simple. I think it’s kind of old school where it’s the brothers that get asked, and so the girls get kind of bypassed in getting an introduction to the sport.
“I’m a huge believer in the power of sport. I know that [hockey is] one of the best sports to teach life … why would we want our daughters, our girls to miss out on that?”
This past season over 90 girls were involved in the Seattle Girls Hockey Club. These players come not just from Seattle, but from all over the state, including places such as Wenatchee and Tri-Cities.
“In the Wenatchee program, their minor hockey association only has two females in the entire program,” explained Weir. “And for us … that’s kind of what [parent Jim O’Brien] saw, because he has daughters and he just thought, well, what if that girl walks away from the game?”
Five Seattle Girls Hockey Club teams competed in the Richmond Ice Classic tournament this past March. Three of the teams made it to their respective championship games, and two returned to Washington with championship banners. While their wins on the ice were a definitive success, Weir and the Girls Club see this tournament as more than just an athletic competition.
“Seeing that there’s all these other females playing and that they can play at a very high level … it was exactly what we were hoping for,” said Weir. “Around [Washington] there isn’t lots, and so you want to show them that there’s this path, you can stay in this game, and kind of take a run at it if you like.”
The benefits of having girls involved in the Seattle Girls Hockey Club are plentiful, but challenges still persist, the main one being cost. This is an obstacle that exists in all areas of hockey, but for girls already paying fees to play with a boys team, participating in the Seattle Girls Hockey Club further increases the price families pay.
“How do we serve them like we have been and continue to keep the cost manageable for families? That’s the biggest challenge,” said Weir. “Since they already play on one team, there’s this [other] thing that we’re doing that we have to pay for ice for and then a tournament … families see the benefit in it, but regardless of that we would still like to mitigate the costs through sponsorships and other things we can do.”
The other big challenge is keeping girls in the sport as they age. “At 14, 15, the attrition rate for players is pretty high [for boys and girls], they run into high school and jobs and school sports and all kinds of other stuff,” said Weir. “I think our challenge is to make sure that we make the sport interesting enough, approachable enough, fun enough, dynamic enough, that it remains a part of their life.”
Seeing young girls having fun not just on the ice, but after practice times with their teammates, and seeing them fall in love with hockey so much so that they stick around for hours after their own ice times to watch others play has been a promising and exciting thing for the Seattle Girls Hockey Club to witness. It is proof that they are headed down the right track, and that female hockey in Washington is in fact growing.
“I think we really have an opportunity to do something neat here,” said Weir. “The fact that it’s just really in its infancy is really exciting.”
Photos courtesy of Jerry Weir