Upon visiting Jean Laxton’s hockey origins, it’s easy to understand her dedication to hockey — in particular, girls hockey — and how she grew into one of USA Hockey’s most valuable volunteers.
Laxton grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Hershey Bears minor league hockey games, while family members had various roles with the rink. While a fan, Laxton wasn’t a hockey player. She spent her time on the ice as a figure skater.
But hockey was never far away. She had two kids, daughter Lindsay and son Luke, with Gordie Laxton, now her ex-husband who had a professional goaltending career that included playing in 17 NHL games with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With the family now in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Laxton children started playing hockey in the early 1990s at ages 5 and 6, with Jean doing the traditional hockey parent things such as supplying postgame snacks and monitoring the locker room. Due to a lack of other girls playing hockey, Lindsay had to play on boys teams. Lindsay’s passion began to wane around the 14U level.
That came around 2002 and was when Jean widened her horizons and, with the help of a dad in another city with a daughter in the same situation, started up a travel team just for girls. It had two driving forces: competitive opportunities and being around other girls with common interests.
“It just took off from there,” Laxton said.
Now, Laxton is a key leadership figure in not only the Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association and the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association, but one of the people USA Hockey depends on. And the efforts of Laxton and others has grown girls hockey by 37 percent over the past 10 years, seeing more than 84,000 females participate during the 2019-20 season.
“You need someone [like Jean] who really puts the time and effort into recruiting new girls and keeping girls in the game,” said Kristen Wright, USA Hockey’s ADM manager for female hockey. “She's spent a lot of time making sure that all of the organizations in Michigan are aware of the different opportunities to grow the game.”
Laxton and her methods are examples USA Hockey uses to show others at the local level across the country what can be accomplished. Her opinions are valuable, too, when discussing new initiatives.
“She gives us really honest feedback, which is super helpful,” said Katie Holmgren, USA Hockey’s director of program services. “I think a lot of times you lack that piece of the back-and-forth where we rely on the volunteers to do so much but she in a really good way holds us accountable as well. Then she always brings things to our attention that they're doing locally so we have an idea of what to maybe replicate nationally or encourages others to do the same things that they're doing locally.”
As much as it is a chance for girls to play the sport with other girls, it is also the camaraderie that Laxton values. On a similar level, it also keeps people connected. Lindsay now lives in Colorado and Luke in North Carolina. But every February, the siblings, who each played collegiately, get together to play in a pond hockey event.
“That's one nice thing about hockey,” Laxton said. “Some of their best friends and some of my friends are people that you know you grew up with like when they were little, like mites and mini-mites on these hockey teams. We have friends for life through hockey, which I think is so important. Sometimes it's too much about the winning and the losing. There's so many benefits.”
Growing girls hockey comes with challenges. As president of GRAHA and vice president of girls and women’s hockey for MAHA, not only does the financial commitment and hard-to-find ice time come into play, but so does having enough girls to fill out rosters, especially in the more remote areas of Michigan.
“It's difficult because it just becomes a numbers game so it's important to try to at least get to the Try Hockey for Free, some girls events,” Laxton said. “Even just within your own association — because oftentimes the families are in the rink and the little girls are tagging along because it's Johnny's practice and we've got to come watch, right? There's all these little girls running around and oftentimes we don't tap into them. You do things like that, bring a friend or everybody you know, if you have a sibling invite them to come out and skate. There's all kinds of creative ways to get the girls on the ice and let them try. Some like it, some don't. But if we don't offer those opportunities for the girls, then hockey certainly won't be the sport that they would choose.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.