Despite its struggles, pro league inspiring growth in women’s hockey
Women’s ice hockey is in an entirely different place than it was only a decade ago. Across the country, leagues have formed at youth levels and more girls are playing the sport than ever.
“Over the course of the last couple of years, we’ve had pretty steady growth. In general, our girls are increasing,” said New York State Director/Girls & Women's Hockey Coordinator and USA Hockey board member Joe Eppolito. “Girls under the age of 18, for example from 14 to 15, 16 group grew at a rate of about 2 to 3 percent. Our biggest increase in that age group (under 18) is primarily in girls that are 6 and under.”
Eppolito says USA Hockey has launched a number of efforts to encourage more people to play. In the 2015-16 season, USA Hockey saw a growth of more than 1,800 girls in the 8 and under age group. The age group for both boys and girls grew by 1.7 percent, which is the largest growth in that section in the organization's history.
“Hockey, for younger aged players, males and females, has a focus on fun and skill development,” Eppolito said. “So at the very youngest levels, USA Hockey is trying and making a concerted effort to make hockey more fun and skill focused as opposed to competition focused.”
While girls youth hockey is growing, the professional National Women's Hockey League is fighting for its survival in only its second season. Players were recently informed of salary cuts to allow the league to run for the rest of the season.
The average league salary this season was $14,000 until the recent events. Still, Buffalo Beauts defenseman and team captain Emily Pfalzer dreams that someday, professional salaries can be enough to live on.
“Hopefully, it gets to a point where people can have this as their only job, like men’s hockey. That would be pretty awesome to see,” Pfalzer said.
While the league is struggling financially, there is no doubt it has made an impact on young girls who are interested in the sport.
“I’m a varsity coach and each year my team grows and grows which is great,” said Linda Mroz, assistant general manager for the Beauts and a varsity girls ice hockey head coach with the Monsigner Martin High School Athletic Association. “The Fed league itself, the Western New York Girls Ice Hockey Federation league. The numbers just keep skyrocketing, so it’s really great. With the Beauts, I can contribute to that because now these girls have professional women that they can look up to and see as their heroes.”
Mroz says there were no girls teams she could play on until she was a teenager. Pfalzer, who grew up in Buffalo, had a similar experience.
“I actually started playing with the boys. I didn’t really know there was girls hockey around,” she said. “I grew up playing in my backyard with my two older brothers and went on to play Amherst Boys Hockey for quite a few years and then transferred over to the girls. But now there are great youth programs here.”
Pfalzer says being viewed as a role model is humbling.
“You don’t really think of yourself as a role model, so you kind of have to remind yourself that, especially when you see little girls in the stands, that they’re watching you and just you want to have them aspire for something someday.”
The Beauts play their home games at HarborCenter in front of crowds of up to 1,800 people. Mroz says one of the changes in the sport over the years is the speed and skill of which the game is played.
“I have friends that come down to these pro games for the women and they can’t believe how high-paced it is,” she said. “It’s kind of frustrating and I feel like kind of a slap in the face when these guys are like, ‘Oh it's girls hockey.’ Well come watch a game and let’s see how we can change your opinion. Three of my friends walked away last week during the K-9 appreciation game and they’re like, ‘These girls can play.’”
Mroz says she wants female players to be seen in the same light as their male counterparts.
“Just because we’re women, it doesn’t matter. As soon as we put that jersey on, we’re no longer women, we’re just hockey players. That’s what we really want to be known as, just hockey players.”