2018 was a golden year for girls’ and women’s hockey in the United States. 20 years after winning the inaugural gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the U.S. Women’s Hockey team translated its recent success on the international level to the Olympic stage and claimed its second gold medal.
This summer members of the team made an extended series of media appearances across the country and in their hometown communities, bringing awareness and notoriety to a sport that was already one of the nation’s fastest growing.
In Minnesota, the celebration has yet to wane. Just two weeks ago, Plymouth native and Armstrong Cooper Youth Hockey Association alum Kelly Pannek became the first female hockey player to have her jersey retired by Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School.
The Minnesota Whitecaps also kicked off its inaugural season in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), bringing additional excitement and notoriety to girls and women’s hockey this fall. The Whitecaps’ roster features numerous homegrown stars including Olympians Lee Stecklein (Roseville, MN) and Hannah Brandt (Vadnais Heights, MN), who have already won two NCAA titles and a gold medal together.
There’s no doubt it’s an exciting time to be a girls’ hockey player, and perhaps the most encouraging part is the future of girls hockey looks even brighter, especially in Minnesota.
Building the Pyramid
When the U.S. Women’s Hockey team won the gold medal in 1998, girls’ hockey was already growing rapidly but was still in its infancy in Minnesota and across the country.
The total number of registered girls and women went from 961 in 1990-91 to nearly 7,000 by the end of the decade. The Minnesota State High School League added girls’ hockey as a sport in 1994 and witnessed similar growth, surpassing 2,000 players by the 1998 Winter Olympics.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, girls’ teams were being added at an unprecedented rate and girls entered the sport at any and all ages. In some communities, the first team added was at the high school level, creating what some referred to as a top-down or an inverted pyramid, in which there were more players at the high school level than at the youth levels.
Fast forward 20 years and much has changed in the world of girls’ hockey. One thing which hasn’t changed though is the sport’s upward trajectory as girls’ hockey has continued to grow at an impressive rate.
New records for the number of 8 & Under (8U) girls and for total girls/women in Minnesota have been set in four consecutive seasons. The evolution of girls’ hockey has been so incredible that last season there were nearly as many Girls 8U players (4,803) as there were girls and women of all ages (5,668) back in 1998. Expand that number to include 10 & Under girls, and there were 7,101 in Minnesota last season, which is more than the countries of Finland (5,858), Sweden (5,341), Czech Republic (3,435) and Russia (2,650) have total girls and women today.
Needless to say, the foundation of the pyramid is stronger than ever before.
A Growing Peak
Legendary coach Herb Brooks will forever be associated with the “Miracle On Ice” in 1980, but in Minnesota, he was much more than that. In a way, his leadership, philosophy and beliefs are evident in the transformation of girls’ hockey in Minnesota, even though he never coached a girls or women’s team.
Brooks was an ardent supporter of the community-based model in Minnesota. One of his philosophies, which was publicized in John Gilbert’s biography of Brooks, emphasized that, “the broader the base of the pyramid, the higher the peak”.
It’s a saying that has become a motto for youth and high school programs in Minnesota and has undoubtedly played a role in the countless amount of time and effort volunteers have put into growing girls’ hockey in the state.
Those grassroots efforts by parents, coaches and supporters over the past 20 years are beginning to showcase the truth of Brooks’ philosophy as the rise in participation at younger levels of play and has fueled increases in the skill level of girls in Minnesota at the high school, collegiate and international levels.
For instance, there were only two Minnesotans (Jenny Potter and Alana Blahoski) on the U.S. Women’s team that won gold in 1998. There were three Minnesotans on each Olympic team thereafter, until 2018 when the number spiked up to seven.
NCAA Division I Women’s hockey was just getting started in 1998, but the number and percentage of Minnesotans playing at that level has increased as well, rising from 137 in 2007-08 up to 152 this past season, despite definitive growth of hockey and girls’ hockey throughout the country.
At the high school level, a simple eye test is enough to display the improved quality of play, but a better comparison from a national scale is the U.S. Under-18 Women’s Team, which won gold in three out of its first four tournaments (2008, 2009 & 2011) and has now won four consecutive IIHF World Championships. In the team’s first four years in competition, there were 15 Minnesotans to play on the team (including future Olympians Hannah Brandt and Lee Stecklein) and no team had more than five. From 2015 to 2018, there has not been fewer than eight Minnesotans on the team, and there was 16 from the state on the 2016 team.
These incredible numbers will be difficult to sustain as the game increases in popularity around the country and across the world, but for now, it’s safe to say we’re in a golden age of girls hockey in Minnesota.