Raising kids is one of the most difficult and rewarding pursuits on earth. Parents are almost continually making decisions based on what is best for their kids’ current situation and long term development.
When it comes to youth hockey, some of those decisions are magnified because of the excitement and passion surrounding the game. One common decision and discussion topic this time of year is whether girls should play on girls only or youth (co-ed) teams.
There was a time, not so long ago, when girls’ hockey was in its infancy and any girls that were interested in playing hockey had to play with the boys. Then, there was another stretch of time when, even though communities were able to offer girls’ hockey, it was typical for the top girls’ players to play on youth teams for development reasons.
“The level of play in the girls’ game now has completely changed this conversation,” said Jessica Christopherson, President of the Minnesota Girls Hockey Coach Association. “The girls’ game has gotten much better and can provide those opportunities.”
We sat down with Jessica, who is also the head girls’ varsity coach at Wayzata High School, to find out what has changed and how this decision can impact young girls across Minnesota.
At one time, girls who wanted to play hockey at a high level needed to play on youth teams, but much has changed since then.
“The girls’ game is totally different than it was 15-20 years ago,” said Christopherson. “Female players have so many resources available to them, and the result is high talent levels and production.”
Not only has the popularity of girls’ hockey has exploded over the past 15-20 years, but the skill level and depth of talent has significantly increased. Just this summer, over 30 of the girls invited to the U.S. Under-18 Select 66 Camp, which features 66 of the top U-18 girls’ hockey players in the country, were from Minnesota.
There have also been a growing number of instances where elite female players participated on girls’ only teams throughout their youth hockey career. A notable example is Hannah Brandt.
The 2012 Ms. Hockey Award winner, Hannah Brandt, grew up playing girls’ hockey at Roseville. After finishing high school at Hill-Murray, Brandt went on to set the Gophers’ all-time single season scoring record for freshman in 2013 with 82 points in 41 games and won three NCAA Division I titles in four years. She has also been selected two times to play on the U.S. Women’s National Team.
“I think it is a rare situation where a female player benefits more from playing on a youth team than she would playing on a girls’ team,” said Christopherson.
Certainly, girls playing on youth teams will develop their skills, but Christopherson’s point is that with over 140 girls’ teams at each age level most are able to play on a girls team in their community that fits their skill level and can provide very similar development opportunities.
A Long Term View
When considering the two options for young girls, most of the discussion centers on potential outcomes for the coming season. However, parents should also remember to look at how the season will impact their daughter’s long term development on and off the ice.
“Preparedness for any level of play should be of utmost concern to any family,” said Christopherson. “It is so easy to get caught up in always wanting more for your child, and it’s so important to look at the big picture.”
That includes considering how physically, mentally and emotionally mature a young player is.
“My general rule of thumb has always been unless the female player will be a major contributor on the boys’ team, then they should not consider it,” said Christopherson.
The reason for that is she’s seen more situations in which female players struggle on youth teams than succeed. When that happens, it’s not good for anyone. The player may lose confidence, have trouble feeling accepted on the team and the season can turn into a lost development window.
Even if you’re certain your daughter will be one of the top players on the youth team in question, it still may not be the best long term choice for her.
“The boys’ game can be faster and more physical, depending on the level and age of the players, but that does not always mean it will be a better fit,” said Christopherson. “The intangibles are equally, if not more, important to consider when making this decision for your player.”
“It’s all about knowing your player and where they are at. Parents should really think about why they are making the decision and weigh the pros and cons of both sides. The child’s feelings should be considered as well, obviously.”
Setting the Tone
Leadership may be one of the most important intangibles to consider when evaluating which team your daughter should play on. Few girls playing on youth teams are looked at to fill leadership roles. On the other hand, your daughter may not only be a leader for a girls’ team but for younger girls throughout the association.
“It’s awesome for little girls to watch older female players and see the opportunities that are available to them,” said Christopherson. “It gives them something to strive for and forms connections with the young women that will lead to great mentorship opportunities.”
The growth of girls’ hockey in Minnesota has outpaced the rest of the country, and while that can be attributed to our passion for the sport, much of it is also related to our community based model. In other parts of the country, the top girls often have to leave their community to play at a high level. In Minnesota, our model allows the top girls to play at a high level while shining on their hometown 12U, 14U and girls’ varsity teams and inspiring the next wave of young girls to join hockey.
“Continuing the growth of girls’ and women’s hockey starts in each community,” said Christopherson.
For the Fun of It
There are advantages to both paths and a ton of variables to consider. If you need more help making the decision, check out USA Hockey’s comprehensive guide on the issue.
But if you really want to make the decision simple, ask yourself (or your daughter) this: On which team will she be the most excited about going to the rink and playing hockey?
“Hockey is a game and games should be fun,” said Christopherson. “Putting your child in a situation where they feel good about their surroundings and comfortable with the people around them is extremely important.”
After all, if your daughter is having so much fun she’s dragging you to the rink, chances are good everything else will take care of itself.