Those who have frequented local rinks over the years can agree on this:
Girls’ hockey has changed.
“It’s really not even the same game anymore,” said Jessica Christopherson, president of the Minnesota Girls Hockey Coaches Association and head coach of the Wayzata girls’ varsity program. “It has improved tremendously over the years. It has become much more of a team game and the skill level has gotten to be quite impressive.”
Minnesota leads the way in girls membership, Division I and III college production, Olympians, etc. The lists can go on.
And the best part is it’s only going to get better. Tremendous growth continues to be seen at the grassroots levels throughout the state. Minnesota Hockey has set new 8U girls membership records in each of the last three seasons, and that growth is leading to growth at older age groups such as 10U, where there will be 18 more teams this season – up about 12% from 2016-17.
“I feel the skill level and competition is going to increase which will lead to an even better and more exciting product on the ice,” said Natalie Darwitz, three-time Olympic medalist, Hamline University women’s hockey head coach and Eagan legend. “You are seeing more and more depth in the game – there are no longer blowouts at the D-I level – much more parity. That makes for more exciting hockey.”
More growth has led to better players.
“I think the skill level has increased dramatically,” said Lee Stecklein, Roseville native and U.S. Women’s National Team defenseman preparing for the 2018 Winter Olympics. “It is hard when you’re in it to know if you’re just biased. Looking back, so many women are continuing to play for longer, and our level keeps getting better and better. And then when you have the high school levels and college levels – just having that many more girls playing hockey has had a huge impact on the sport.”
Age-appropriate training has been crucial.
“I think that a lot of it can be attributed to age-appropriate skill development throughout the younger years,” said Christopherson. “And then overall, players and coaches have really committed a lot of time to their training on and off the ice.
“Whether you are watching 10U B or the U.S. Women’s National Team, the game is better at every level now.”
The Need for Speed
They want it. Bad.
“I know speed is something that this team emphasizes a lot,” Stecklein said of the U.S. Women’s National Team. “I do think the game has gotten faster and faster, but I do know, on the flip side, watching some clips from the ‘98 team, they were incredible skaters. Knowing we’re trying to play like they did, and even increase it even from there, is definitely something we’re focused on.”
Can’t Stop Now
Where do we go from here?
“Truly, the sky is the limit,” Christopherson added. “As spoiled as we are in Minnesota, the growth of the game nationwide and worldwide is critical to the overall future successes of our sport.
We must continue to grow the game.
“It’s all of our responsibility to do what we can to keep getting new kids and new coaches and fostering their growth, as well as our own,” Christopherson said. “Hockey is starting to boom in some non-traditional areas and that means good things for all of us.”
Let’s take advantage of the Olympic fever and the wildly popular U.S. Women’s National Team.
“The successes of our women at the college level and national/international levels have also really created opportunities,” Christopherson said. “Little girls have big-time role models to look up to. They have always been there, but now it’s magnified. Those little girls get to see their role models playing on TV, in magazines and even in pro leagues. You have all-girls camps, clinics and networks. With this being an Olympic year, we really have to capitalize on the ‘star’ factor of the Olympic games and use that window to grow the game.”
More Players, More Depth, More Competition
Growth fuels depth, competition and skill development. And while the golden age of growth in girls/women participation may have been in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it’s still one of the fastest growing team sports in the country, exploding by 27% over the past 10 years.
“The best things in life take time to grow and I think the women’s game has grown the right way – strong and steady,” Darwitz added. “I think it is progressing nicely from the skill level increasing to more depth and competitive teams which has led to venues selling out or being close to full on a consistent basis. Hopefully in the future that consistency will continue and that women’s hockey can move to bigger venues and again they are full on a consistent basis.”
The game will get even better.
“The growth of the game has exploded,” said Darwitz. “From walking into local arenas and seeing all-girls teams, to the Gophers winning a National Championship at a packed Ridder arena, and more females behind the bench.
“The product on the ice from youth to high school to D-III to the Olympics has climbed the ladder and it is more skilled and competitive than ever.”