Last month, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sat with the legendary Billie Jean King and announced a “Female Hockey Advisory Committee” with the stated goal of “accelerating the growth of female hockey in North America.”
Since then, the New York Rangers became the first NHL team to announce a new program in line with this goal - the “Junior Rangers Girls Hockey League” with Amanda Kessel as the program ambassador. The New York Islanders have sponsored a girls hockey program of their own since 2016. The two teams have approached girls hockey in different ways, both seemingly with the aim of “growing the game.”
Why would the NHL and its teams bother with girls hockey when they are adamantly staying on the sidelines regarding the women’s game? There is, of course, the utterly mercenary explanation of “youth players become adult fans.” They are tapping into the enormous growth in girls hockey as they are looking to expand their own future fan bases. While the debate over the future role of the NHL in the women’s game continues, let’s look at the Rangers and Islanders differing approaches to girls hockey. While they are potential NHL fans, these girls are also the future of the women’s game.
On July 2, the Rangers announced the Junior Rangers Girls Hockey Platform. It includes a 13 team recreational hockey league, for girls aged 11-14. In addition, they announced All Girls Try Hockey For Free clinics to be held at the rinks hosting the rec league over the annual IIHF Girls Hockey weekend in October. Finally, there will be a Pee-Wee Tournament team for 11-12 year old girls, with tryouts at the Ranger’s practice facility in early October.
It is interesting that all of the new Rangers programs are aimed at middle school aged girls. Most children start playing hockey in elementary school or even younger, typically in co-ed programs. By welcoming older newcomers to the sport, this program appears to, in part, be an attempt to counter the prevailing wisdom that players have to start skating and playing hockey as pre-schoolers.
In past years, a number of NHL clubs have organized girls hockey clinics and other events during the annual IIHF Girls Hockey Weekend. In 2018, the Islanders and Devils both participated, as did the Vegas Golden Knights, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Junior Rangers organized a clinic at a rink in New Jersey, but there was nothing at the Rangers’ facility in Tarrytown, NY. The formal addition of the Rangers (and eventually all other NHL clubs) to this program feels inevitable.
There are very few details about the Rangers’ new tournament team. Tryouts will be in October at the Rangers’ practice facility, but there is no information given about practice schedules, potential games or program cost. Most other local programs held tryouts in March & April, with practices and games starting in September, so it is unclear where potential players will be found.
Their recreational league is the most interesting part of the overall program. It appears to be attempting to fill a gap between “house league” hockey (almost always coed) and the high-cost/high-pressure world of tournament-bound travel hockey. For a wide variety of reasons, many girls stop playing sports as they enter middle school, hockey is no exception. This league will give girls an option to continue playing hockey with other girls at a competitive level, with less of a time commitment or financial commitment than travel hockey.
The league also extends deeply into both New Jersey (home of the Devils) and Long Island (home of the Islanders), while neglecting the Rangers’ own home in New York City. On the surface this may be due to the lack of year-round rinks in New York City, but there are certainly enough to sustain a division of their rec league -the Aviator and Abe Stark rinks in Brooklyn, City Ice Pavilion in Queens and Chelsea Piers in Manhattan all seem like suitable locations. The lack of a New York City division appears to be a marketing decision - focused on planting the Rangerstown flag in “enemy territory.”
Of the rinks that are being included, Brewster (in Westchester), Floyd Hall (in New Jersey) and Dix Hills (on Long Island) all have competitive girls travel hockey programs. It does not appear that the Rangers will have any involvement with the pre-existing programs.
In 2016, the Islanders announced the creation of the Islanders Girls Elite hockey program, a tournament-bound travel program, run by Alexis Moed, an employee of NY Islanders. The girls teams practice and play their home games at the Islander’s practice facility in East Meadow, NY and are permitted to use the team’s logo on their equipment and uniforms. Expenses are partially subsidized by the Islanders, although there is still a cost to the families. The players have been featured at appearances during Islanders home games.
The program has expanded from an initial two teams (U12 & U14) to field teams in age-groups ranging from U10 to U19 and play competitive travel schedules. Teams at various age levels were invited to the NYSAHA State Championships in the program’s second and third seasons.
In conjunction with USA Hockey, the Islanders also hosted a girls hockey clinic, with appearances from members of the US National team, while they were using the Islanders practice facility prior to the IIHF World Championships in March. This was in addition to a girls-only hockey clinic organized as part of the annual IIHF World Girls Hockey weekend in October 2018.
The Rangers and Islanders are taking two different approaches to the same problem - how to get more girls playing (and watching) hockey. The Islanders are using a traditional route - supporting a tournament-bound travel program in an area that is underserved (there is only one other such girls program on Long Island - two counties with a combined population of just under 3 million people). The Rangers approach - creating a recreational league - is novel. Let’s hope it succeeds beyond all expectations (and that they expand into New York City itself).