Written by Dixon Ward, Vice President
To celebrate International Women’s Day, this week’s blog will focus on women who inspire, lead and pave the way for female inclusion and participation in the game of hockey. A group of pioneers, trailblazers and risk-takers that have made a significant impact in the sport, at every level, both amateur and professional. At its core, this is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. So I thought it would be a good idea to also celebrate these accomplishments in hockey. An equal world, according to an international women’s day website, is an enabled world and it is important to celebrate women's achievement, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality. Increasing visibility and calling out inequality takes some courage and it is amazing how far we have come in the past few decades. When I grew up, very few girls or young women played the game. These days, there are so many more opportunities for female players. Minor hockey, academies, college and university programs, international competitions and professional pursuits are now options. Coaching, scouting, mentoring, managing and broadcasting headline the list of things women can do off the ice. A couple of stories caught my eye when doing some research and one of them involved one of the best young players in the game. This year’s top prospect for the NHL Draft is Alexis Lafreniere and he is represented by Emilie Castonguay a former Division 1 NCAA hockey player who got her law degree after finding a passion for player’s rights. Originally Castonguay wanted to be an NHL General Manager, but after interning with Pierre Gauthier, who was with the Canadiens at the time, she decided she liked working with players instead of trying to trade for players. “Knowledge is power,” Castonguay told the CBC last year. “Once you start talking hockey and they see you know what you’re talking about it then just becomes about business.” With a growing public profile, Castonguay is hearing from more and more women who want some advice on how to get into the business. A good sign according to the Montreal native, “When I reached out to be a hockey agent, a lot of people told me, they've never seen this before. We've never had a girl ask us to see what it was like to be an agent and to start doing some scouting. When it comes to general managers and the players themselves, I’ve had no problems. Who knows what people say behind your back, but I suppose that goes for everybody.” Castonguay joined Momentum Hockey and surprised a lot of people when she landed Lafreniere. She now hopes having such a high profile client will lead to continued success and that one day, people will want to talk to her about being the best agent in hockey and not because she is the only woman in the business. With that type of drive, determination, and mindset, I wouldn’t bet against Emilie accomplishing that goal.
Two of the greatest players in women’s hockey, one on each side of the border, have both found a unique home in the professional game. American and hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato was just recently hired by the expansion Seattle franchise, becoming the first female scout in NHL history. While in Toronto, Hall of Famer Hayley Wickenheiser landed a gig with the Leafs as the Assistant Director of Player Development back in August of 2018. While pursuing her medical degree from the University of Calgary. Over the past few months, Wickenheiser has been doing her electives in Toronto which has helped her stay close to the hockey team. “You have to have short term memory I think in the NHL or elite sport in general,” Wickenheiser stated recently. “You know I think there have been a lot of growing pains for the group. The Leafs are a young team and a very talented team and we have a chance to keep stringing wins together and anything can happen.” One player she has worked a lot with is Zach Hyman who is coming off a knee injury. Something Wickenheiser can relate too with her background in medicine. “You know just the way he has strung together 20 plus goals now, in a very shortened season. He is a glue guy and an impact player. He goes to hard places on the ice and makes things happen. It has been really fun to watch and help him come back from a really tough injury and have the season he is having this year. When you get to see the day in and day out, the time and the effort the guys put in to want to be the masters of their craft and the best they can be, it is really no surprise.” A four-time Olympic Gold medal winner and the first woman to play full-time professional hockey in a position other than the goalie, her job in the Leafs’ front office is a progressive step for a game that still lags behind some other pro sports. That said, Wickenheiser wouldn’t be surprised to one day see a woman head coach or GM in the NHL, “I think it is entirely possible and probable. I think hockey is the last pro sport that has to drop the old school mentality. It is less progressive than let’s say basketball, NFL or major league baseball. I think hockey is still quite behind in many regards. Although there are still women making gains into pro hockey. It will be difficult and I don’t think we will see it in the next 10 to 20 years. It is highly probable and will still come down to ownership having a progressive mentality.” While sport can mirror of society, and the world is moving towards more inclusion and opportunities for women, Wickenheiser still does feel that a hockey team should still hire the best person for the job regardless of gender. A smart, intelligent and forward-thinking attitude, which will no doubt serve her well moving forward.
Speaking of moving forward, Granato has had plenty of opportunities over the years to work in the game but the time just wasn’t right for her or her family. So when Ron Francis reached out and asked her to join his scouting staff and work in Vancouver, it was something she couldn’t pass up. “The club has hired a very diverse group. A lot of women have been hired already and it’s going to be really special and I am so happy I am apart of it.” Simply known as the “GOAT”, the greatest female player of all time in American hockey circles, Granato has been an inspiration for so many over the years. A true leader and hockey pioneer, she grew up in a hockey family and always felt she could do anything her brothers could do on the ice. Playing University hockey opened up a whole new world for her and helped launch an international career. Giving Granato the knowledge and skill to see what is needed to play at the highest level. With a keen hockey sense and ability to evaluate players, a move into the Seattle front office has been a massive achievement and undertaking for the reluctant superstar. “I didn’t realize the impact or magnitude of it, but I am proud and humble and if it can help other organizations realize the women are qualified for these jobs,” Granato said with pride. “It is not just me, because women have been qualified for these jobs over the years as well, but just haven’t had the opportunity. I am really thankful that Seattle can have that vision that a job like this is possible.” Not one to shy away from a challenge or bite her tongue, it is Granato’s candid approach to speak her mind and not just tell you what you want to hear, that landed her this assignment in Seattle. “I feel really confident in that because I know hockey and that’s second nature to me. It’s been around me since I could walk,” Granato summarized. “The learning curve is going to be in the reporting and how to file reports. That is probably going to take me a while to learn. Even how to word things. I am looking forward to that and the experience of it and the culture they have created already seems really positive and just a big unit that works together.” Over the next few months, the scouting process will continue to be focused on the NHL expansion draft. A process Granato will be fully invested in from start to finish. A job she looks forward to completing, in order to get the team and her career off on the right foot.
The NHL has a slogan that “Hockey is for Everyone” and the person whose job it is to make sure that dream becomes a reality is Kim Davis. Her official title is longer than Zdeno Chara’s stick, Executive Vice President for Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs, and her background is in high finance. A Chicago native, she joined the league in 2017 with no background in the sport. A smart move by the NHL as they try and become more welcoming to those who feel they don’t belong. Davis is the perfect person to initiate change because she is from the outside of hockey. Someone free of an old culture that has the vision to see something new. “Most people aren’t comfortable with change, and often when they say that, what they really mean is that they are comfortable with change but they aren’t comfortable with change happening to them,” Davis told the Hockey News. “It’s all about what happens to us, so how as a leader do you help people get through that and how we have to not only take care of our avid fans but be mindful to build stronger relationships with our casual fans. But just as importantly, how do we attract, engage, develop and retain the non-fan and the person who’s never experienced or touched our sport?” When she was brought on board by commissioner Gary Bettman, he realized right away the benefit of Davis’ powerful impact and how it could be used in non-traditional hockey markets, “Kim's professional experience uniquely qualifies her to ensure that our League is continuing to improve lives and strengthen and build vibrant communities through hockey as well as provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for anyone associated with our League," the commissioner stated. "We are thrilled to have Kim join the NHL family." In just a few short years, Davis has made some great strides in growing the game and I believe there are bigger and better things to come.
Another major player at the NHL offices in New York is Heidi Browning, an Executive Vice President, and the leagues’ Chief Marketing Officer. Leading the digital, social and environmental initiatives for the past three plus years Browning joined the NHL after spearheading the digital marketing strategies and solutions for Fox Interactive Media, Universal, and a music streaming company. “Coming into this role, I knew the fans of the NHL were passionate and that there was a tribal bond with the game of hockey, but I didn’t know how intense that passion really was — it’s truly incredible,” Browning explained after her first trip around the league to visit every city. “I think the biggest opportunities here at the league are around marketing, data marketing, and social media. All marketers are trying to figure out how can they deepen their engagement with their fans and customers. Everything our fans do shows us they want to have deeper connections with the league and the teams.” Sharing goals and great saves on social media is a key driver for hockey’s success although Browning does admit that dangles, dekes, and snipes do sometimes take a back seat to emotional exchanges between fans and players, “We’ve done a lot of research and focus groups recently to try to best understand the attitudes of younger generations about sports and hockey in general, and what we can do to entice casual fans to watch and attend more hockey games. The core of that group says they want to know more about the players, about their lives off the ice and what has inspired them in their lives.” That exchange of information is gender-neutral in her eyes and the California native feels there will be growth organically within the sport if the NHL embraces this diversity.
On the ownership front, one power broker in the game is Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula. Having recently traveled back to Buffalo to help the club celebrate its 50th anniversary, I can tell you that Buffalo ownership is as frustrated as the fans and want to win in the worst way. Kim and her husband have long supported the great game of hockey. Their donation to Penn State of $102-million dollars to build the Pegula Ice Arena helped launch NCAA Division One hockey for the university. Kim was a huge backer of the now-defunct women’s professional hockey league the NWHL. Pegula stepped away from the Buffalo Beauts just before the league disbanded. At the time she said, "Our main goal has always been fostering the growth of women's hockey across all ages. We thank our Beauts players, staff, and fans for their support this past season. We will continue to look for ways to successfully grow the women's game." Using sport to empower and engage is always something that Pegula has preached and it’s why she was named Co-Chairperson of the NHL's Diversity and Inclusion Senior Leadership Council. “I enjoy it now. I didn’t. My team will tell you it was something. Whether in business or in sports, and it's so ever-changing and you have to adapt.” Bringing a winning hockey program back to Buffalo is still her number one priority and while it won’t be an easy turnaround, she and her husband are one hundred percent committed to doing just that, “If there is any fan base that deserves it, it’s the Buffalo fans.” Pegula stated just a little while ago.
In 2010, we started our female program at OHA. We had been discussing this for a couple of years and were looking for the right time and situation to kick it off. That opportunity arose immediately following the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. Canada’s women’s team had just won the Gold medal on home soil and the buzz around the female game in British Columbia was at an all-time high. We felt that the environment was ready for us to take the next step and we started the process of recruiting staff. We didn’t need to look too far as we were introduced to Gina Kingsbury. Gina had just won the Gold Medal as a player for Team Canada and was retiring. We quickly convinced her to transition into coaching and be part of our group in Penticton. Gina was a huge part in establishing the female culture in our program and is a major reason that we have one of the strongest programs in the country. After establishing the OHA Female program, Gina moved on to coach in the NCAA and is now back with Hockey Canada as the General Manager of our Women’s National Team. Female hockey in our country is in good hands.
Throughout the years we have seen a tremendous number of great female players come through our program and move on to achieve their dreams in the NCAA, Canadian University, Pro hockey and, of course, our Canadian National Team. This past Olympics in PyeongChang, China, we saw our first Canadian Olympian, Emily Clark play for Team Canada. The next Olympics could see 2-3 OHA Alumni on the team and more from other programs around the Canadian Sports School Hockey League.
We are excited about the future of the female game and we will continue to give these young women the opportunity to achieve the success and respect they deserve through the game.
My dream is to play hockey at the highest level. My three years at OHA were instrumental in helping me move forward on that path, teaching me what it takes to be a pro both on and off the ice."