In Minnesota, one hockey club has made its mission to make hockey welcoming, accessible and available to girls of all ages and backgrounds.
The goal is retention of young girls that might otherwise leave the sport, as well as introducing the game to girls from a wide variety of backgrounds that might otherwise not find their way onto skates.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul Starwhals Hockey Club is a co-op of players from City of Lakes Youth Hockey, Langford Park Hockey and Edgcumbe Youth Hockey that has teams at the 10U, 12U and 15U levels.
Clayton Howatt, one of the founders of the club and the 12U coach, has two middle-school-aged daughters that he started coaching when they were younger. He saw that as girls got a little older, they were either leaving their local associations or quitting hockey altogether. He wanted to do something that might keep those girls in the game.
“I'm a strong believer in organized sports and organized activities, that kids should be involved,” Howatt said. “There are just huge benefits to being on a team, whatever sport it is. I happen to be passionate about hockey.”
Having grown up in the same neighborhood he now resides in with his family, Howatt has seen the focus in hockey move away from the cities themselves and out towards the suburbs. He firmly believes in revitalizing the city programs and making hockey available for anyone that wants to play. The Starwhals have begun to change the look of his part of the city, he said.
“We live in a neighborhood called Midway, which is a working-class, inner-city neighborhood, and for us to go to play competitive hockey we have to go out to the suburbs or some other neighborhood,” he said. “I wanted an opportunity for my own kids to be like, ‘Hey, this is our neighborhood, we play where we live, and we represent our neighborhood.’”
The state of Minnesota has laid out zones to delineate hockey associations and clubs. The Starwhals represent an inner-city zone that has a diverse population of kids who had never been introduced to hockey.
“Our zone, the demographics are such that it’s mostly Black and Brown girls. We want the game to be for everybody. We want our team to resemble the neighborhoods that we represent,” Howatt said.
“In St. Paul, we have the infrastructure physically and people-wise that we're one of the best places in the entire world to learn how to play hockey. And that opportunity just isn't there for the vast majority of kids in our own city. The infrastructure is here, all kids should have access to it.”
For many Starwhals players and their families, hockey is a brand-new sport. They’ve never been on ice skates, had access to equipment or the ability to drive to rinks around the city and suburbs. Howatt said every winter the number of outdoor rinks in St. Paul is decreasing, and the access to free or cheap indoor public skating is almost non-existent. That has closed off the pathway to learning to skate for many families.
Additionally, many of the families in this zone are immigrants who have had no exposure to hockey before moving to Minnesota. Starwhals players come from Native American, Somali, Filipino, Karen and Chinese backgrounds, among others.
While hockey is expensive, the Starwhals work with the Herb Brooks Foundation to outfit their players.
For the group to grow, families in the area need to be aware of the opportunity that hockey provides. Howatt and others are continually trying to build a network of people and organizations that can help them reach out.
The benefits of the program show in every player who is more confident, better in school, has new friends and is more comfortable in themselves and their place in the Twin Cities thanks to her time on the Starwhals. Every member of the three teams they put on the ice this past season showed growth on and off the ice, according to Howatt.
The Starwhals welcome everybody. While they do not cut players, that doesn’t mean the goal isn’t to be competitive. The Starwhals just finished their third season, and Howatt hopes that bringing hockey into these girls' lives gives them opportunities in the future.
“We really want our program to produce good hockey players, but also be welcoming to all hockey players, and for this to be sustainable and get girls ready for the next levels, whether that's high school or college or beyond,” he said.
The idea is to give kids, no matter who they are, an opportunity to have fun at the rink, make friends and be confident in themselves. With the massive amount of women’s college hockey opportunities in Minnesota — there are 16 DI or DIII programs in the state — many young women are getting the opportunity to receive a higher education through hockey.
“I'd like for some of those kids who are from St. Paul and have gone to public school in the city and be Hmong or Black or Latina, to have those opportunities,” said Howatt.
Learn more about the Starwhals at www.starwhals.com
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.