CHICAGO – The atmosphere was festive. Players got pictures with members of the U.S. Women’s National Team, and fist bumps and pucks from NHL stars. They got their faces painted. They also got tons of puck touches during a day-long 3-on-3 cross-ice tournament this past Saturday at the United Center in Chicago, home of the NHL’s Blackhawks.
But maybe most importantly, says tournament organizer Jim Clare, they got to play — and hang out all day — with other girls.
This year's AHAI Mid-Season Classic Cross-Ice Tournament was an all-girls event for the first time, part of an effort in Illinois and across the country to provide more opportunities for young girls to play hockey. It brought more than 20 all-girl teams from 15 associations — about 400 10U and 12U players — to the Madhouse on Madison for an event that was not just big on hockey, but also on the kind of team bonding that can make youth sports so enjoyable.
“The focus of this event is to solidify and grow the female hockey player,” said Clare, American Development Model coordinator for the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI). “It's an all-girls environment, to be part of that locker room, to be around a bunch of like-minded kids, as opposed to [being] the one girl on a boys hockey team.”
That's something Gretchen Cockey has seen first-hand. She's the AHAI's communications director, but also has a daughter on one of the 19U teams that also played Saturday.
“If you're the lone girl, or there's only one or two girls, you're dressing in a separate locker room,” Cockey said. That made it hard to feel a part of the team.
The hope is that events like this help inspire more girls to play, and ultimately, nurture an expansion of all-girl teams.
“This is helping to grow and retain these girls in the game, long-term,” Clare said.
In the morning, the girls got to watch the Blackhawks practice. Teuvo Teräväinen flipped pucks over the boards to several girls. Patrick Kane, the NHL’s leading scorer and a U.S. Olympian, walked down the hall afterward, fist bumping the players on his way to the locker room.
“Playing in the United Center — that's a cool experience,” said Amanda Rachke, a 17-year-old left winger for the 19U Sabres of Naperville, Illinois. “[Blackhawks head coach] Joel Quenneville walked by — I almost passed out.”
Rachke said she learned to play on teams with boys, but started to really learn to do more with the puck once she made the switch to an all-girls team.
“The girls are more speed and finesse,” Rachke said.
Girls hockey is expanding, but there remains enormous potential for more growth, said Spencer Montgomery, youth hockey coordinator for the Blackhawks organization.
“The days when your brother had to play hockey for you to have an opportunity are way over,” Montgomery said.
And with the new professional National Women's Hockey League, there's also a chance for more girls to develop role models and see that girls can go far in the sport.
“You're starting to see that glass ceiling get higher and higher,” Montgomery said.
The girls also were able to meet a couple of young women who are already role models, Team USA players Megan Bozek and Alex Rigsby.
Both Bozek, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and Rigsby, said their experiences growing up and playing with boys were overwhelmingly positive — both said they had great teammates who became like a family of surrogate brothers – but both said all-girls events like the AHAI’s cross-ice tournament increase numbers and create opportunities for more girls to participate in events that they will remember for a long time. In addition to playing games and meeting NHLers, there were off-ice activities like a face painting booth and a table where kids could make hats out of hockey socks, creating a memorable carnival atmosphere
“The opportunity is there for more girls to start playing, and to continue playing, which I think is great. That's what we want – to grow the game,” Bozek said.
"I wish we had something like this when we were growing up," said Rigsby, who grew up in Wisconsin, but played for the Chicago Mission AAA youth majors team that won state and regional championships. “It's so cool how many opportunities there are (now). We're just trying to grow the game and give the same opportunities that the guys have.”
“To be at an event with hundreds of little girls who know who you are, and want their sticks signed, and picked their goalie number because of Alex, and things like that, it's really neat to see,” Bozek said.
She also said that playing in an NHL arena would make a huge impression on the younger kids.
“For these girls, watching Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, walk through the hallways,” said Bozek, who also plays for the Buffalo Beauts in the NWHL. “I think it's a great experience for them.”
“The Blackhawks have been over-the-top helpful with it in terms of allowing us to have access to the facility the whole day,” Clare said. “All the things that it takes to open that building up — that's not cheap and we're not paying for it. So huge kudos to the Blackhawks.”
“The Blackhawks have always been committed to the growth of youth hockey in Illinois, from grassroots to adults, and this year we wanted to show how important the growth of girls hockey has been in our area,” said Annie Camins, Director of Youth Hockey for the Blackhawks. “We have an astonishing number of female players in Illinois and wanted to give them the opportunity to play against other girls teams in a fun and friendly environment over the holidays, before returning to school and their regular season schedules.”
Clare reports that the response to the tournament has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It looks like it will be an annual event,” Clare said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.