by Devin Lowe / Wild.com December 16th, 2016
This story appears in the December issue of Wild Magazine.
Minnesotans have an image in their heads of how kids first fall in love with hockey.
They lace up their skates (often with their parents' help), feel the chill of the rink, and from the moment they glide (and maybe crash) onto the ice, they just know.
For Taylor Johnson and Sarah McDonell, senior captains of the Minnetonka Skippers girls' hockey team, the introduction was a bit rockier.
"It wasn't always fun," Johnson said. She described long nights filled with practices and games, how tired she got, how frustrating the game could truly be at times.
"You have to get past that awkward boundary where it's uncomfortable, it's hard," McDonell said. "But the challenge, and overcoming that challenge, is why you stay."
Johnson and McDonell are two of thousands of girls in the state of Minnesota that play high school hockey. They've been playing the game for the better part of their youth, skating side by side in the Minnetonka Youth Hockey Association.
As part of the dynastic Minnetonka girls' hockey program, which won three straight state championships from 2011 to 2013, they've played with their best friends, worked their hardest, and become role models for younger girls on the team.
"All my friends are pretty much from hockey, so it's been really fun to grow up together," Johnson said.
A little more than 20 years ago, their experience wouldn't have been possible, even in a hockey-crazed state like Minnesota. Eric Johnson, their coach and Taylor Johnson's uncle, remembers that time.
Eric Johnson graduated high school in 1991 and went on to play college hockey at St. Cloud State.
Back then, girls' hockey was not yet a high school sport. It wouldn't become one until 1995, 50 years after boys from Eveleth High School won the first Minnesota State High School League hockey state championship.
Johnson recalls that he had a girl on his team through peewees and that she was as good, if not better, than some of the boys. Still, at the next age bracket, her options were limited. When faced with the reality of either giving up hockey or playing with the boys, the girl chose basketball instead.
"There was the occasional girl that played with the boys," he said. "A girl's only option was to play boys hockey."
Glen Andresen, the executive director of Minnesota Hockey, has seen firsthand how girls hockey has grown in the state, especially since the arrival of the Minnesota Wild in 2000.
"There's always been girls that have played, but the opportunities haven't always been there until the last 20 years or so," Andresen said.
Two years after the Wild's arrival, girls' high school hockey teams began splitting into Class A and AA as the boys' teams had done in some form since 1992. That meant more teams and more opportunities.
Part of the problem then, though, was that many high schools with girls teams didn't necessarily have the youth hockey structure to feed and support the high school team.
That caused its own set of headaches for both high school coaches like Johnson and youth coaches. With girls jumping up to their high school rosters at such young ages, other girls' youth teams in Minnesota couldn't always compensate for those missing pieces because the numbers simply weren't there.
Now, after years of steady growth, that's no longer the case.
According to Andresen, Minnesota has such successful youth programs because of its commitment to something called the community-based model.
"Basically, if you live in Roseville, you play in Roseville," Andresen said. "If you live in Roseau, you play in Roseau. If you live in Stillwater, you play in Stillwater." So on and so forth.
The success of Minnesota's approximately 150 community associations is a result of this model. In other states, playing hockey is much more expensive because rinks are privately owned, and the owners of those rinks go on to field teams comprised of players from different towns, and sometimes completely different states. Travel costs are higher. So is the cost of ice time.
Next to the relative affordability factor is another key reason why Minnesota has such high participation numbers in both boys and girls: kids play where they live, which means they have ready-made friends in their neighborhoods and next to them on the bench at hockey practice.
"When you're a mite, your teams get assembled by neighborhood and by school and you don't have to drive more than a couple miles to an indoor rink in most towns," Johnson said. "You sit across the lunch table from kids you played hockey with last night at the rink. You talk about it, and you know you're gonna be able to do it again tonight or on the weekend."
These connections carry girls through their youth associations all the way up to the high school level. Most of Johnson's players have been in hockey together since they were in elementary school.
"Those friendships, those bonds, that's what makes Minnesota special," Johnson said. "It makes it hard to stay in the game if you don't have this community-based model."
With a solid foundation for keeping girls in the game, the question, then, is how to draw them there in the first place.
With "more than enough" boys interested in playing hockey, the numbers disparity persists, according to Andresen. Girls make up around one-third of the youth hockey population in Minnesota.
"I think with girls, you have to work a little harder to show them that hockey is great for all aspects of your life," Andresen said.
Because young girls and their parents can be put off by how challenging and expensive the game is compared to other sports, Minnesota Hockey associations are using girls-focused events that allow girls to try hockey for free and without pressure.
New Prague hosts an annual girls' hockey celebration in the form of a girls-only pizza and skating party that brings together young girls, some just learning to skate, and the girls' high school team.
The Bemidji Little Lady Lumberjacks Program, coordinated by Bemidji's girls' varsity coach Jacqueline Robertson, encourages young girls to try hockey in a pressure-free setting. It drew 74 girls in its first year.
"We can't take our eye off the ball," Andresen said. "We have to keep coming up with girls-focused events so if they're not comfortable entering into a co-ed setting or a boy-dominated setting, they don't have to, because there's girls' hockey there. And a lot of those little girls are growing up to be some of the best in the world in hockey."
Even with the gap in boys and girls participation numbers, Minnesota has more girls in youth hockey than the next-closest state by a margin of almost 3,000, and 18 percent of girls enrolled in youth hockey across the country are playing in Minnesota's associations.
And at the collegiate level, Minnesota leads the way with the most women's hockey players, 139 in total playing in NCAA Division I last season.
Still, the goal, at least to Andresen, is to keep as many people involved in the game as possible, no matter their age, gender, or ability.
"In all athletics, we don't want any boy or girl to just quit at some point where they didn't make a team. We want girls to aspire to those high levels of hockey, but just like boys, it really doesn't matter where they end up," Andresen said. "We're all just lifelong hockey players, hopefully. We just want them to keep playing, whether it's bar league or adult league or intramurals in college or whatever. And hopefully those men and women have kids that will also play hockey."
'A big, positive part of my life'
For girls that grow up in their youth associations and continue playing hockey in high school, the life lessons the game teaches and the lifelong friendships they develop give them a sense of respect and appreciation for the game.
McDonell sees how hockey has shaped so many aspects of her life, even if she didn't always realize it at the time.
"It's made me so hard-working," McDonell said. "If you want to play hockey, you really gotta want it. You can't be 50/50 because it's just not how the game works. It's just made me such a hardworking person."
McDonell hopes to play college hockey, but Taylor Johnson wants to take a step back after finishing her senior season. Still, she'll do it with an awareness for all that she's gained from playing the game.
"It doesn't matter if you're the best at it, because I've never been the best at it," Johnson said. "But as long as you work hard and have a positive attitude, it'll be one of the best things in your life. It's been such a big, positive part of my life."
Tag(s): Tip of the Month