The North Wright County RiverHawks girls’ hockey program has grown right along with the communities it serves.
In addition to one 14-and-Under travel team, two 12U and two 10U teams already in place for girls, North Wright County has a group of 8U girls playing together for the entire season for the first time.
North Wright County, in central Minnesota about 50 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, is a co-op of two associations, the St. Michael-Albertville Youth Hockey Association and the MAML, which serves Monticello, Annandale and Maple Lake.
The 8U team, called an initiation team, hosted one jamboree and went to another this season. In the past, the available girls in that age range were pulled together once or twice a season for jamborees. This year, they formed a team throughout the season and played against boys’ teams within the house league.
“The numbers for girls at the youth ages have been progressively getting better and better,” North Wright County girls’ director Nate Allen said.
Allen said there are 34 girls currently at the 12U level, and he expects that number to exceed 40 next year.
North Wright County has been able to encourage growth, because it has always been able to manage it with a plentiful group of available volunteer coaches and organizers.
“We really have been fortunate with some of the people who have been in the program for a number of years,” Allen said. “We have a few strong families here who really have put a lot of time and energy into growing a strong girls’ program. There’s just a passion for it.
“And we really have been lucky to get great parent/coaches on the girls’ side. I think sometimes there is a reluctance from parents on the girls’ side to get involved coaching, but we have not ever been short of phenomenally talented dads — and I should say moms, too — who contribute a lot of time and energy. That has continued every year.”
Among those Allen said were heavily involved in the program’s early years were Doug Foster, Todd and Diane Achterkirch, Kurt Sjelin and Steve Hinkemeyer.
St. Michael-Albertville and MAML began working together on girls’ hockey in 1998. They formed the East Wright County Lightning girls’ teams in 2001 and changed the name to North Wright County RiverHawks in 2004 to mirror the co-op on the high school level between St. Michael-Albertville and Monticello.
Allen said the number of people willing to go through coaching certification as volunteers has allowed the association to have a quality program without its players having to seek opportunities with teams that feature additional costs for paid coaches.
The progress is shown by the number of participants, the success in competition across multiple age levels and the growing reputation around the state for North Wright County girls’ hockey.
The RiverHawks won the 14U state title in 2011 with a group of girls that has since reached the state high school playoffs together in two of the past three seasons.
“That has given the younger generation of kids the opportunity to go to high school games, follow those kids and get excited about the culture of girls’ hockey,” Allen said. “We have been fortunate to have younger sisters who are involved, but we have some other links to the high school program.
“We try to bridge the gap between the youth program and high school.”
The younger girls are following the example of the successful graduates of the program who are now playing high school hockey.
North Wright County has enjoyed tournament wins since on the 10U level and those girls have progressed to 12U, where both RiverHawks teams had tournament championships this season.
With more youngsters on the way, that success should continue and the excitement it generates can only help bring in more players.
The youth hockey players participate in a Skate-with-the-Hawks Night in which the high school girls lead them through drills. North Wright County also participates in a program throughout all of Minnesota District 5 in which girls in the programs invite a friend to join them for a hockey jamboree to expose the game to more potential players.
“There are a lot of people, when they look at North Wright County, who are starting to identify us as a place where girls’ hockey is really growing,” Allen said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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