Over the weekend of Oct. 6 and 7 — during Girls’ Hockey Weekend — the NWHL held Futures Tournaments for skaters in Connecticut and Minnesota. There will be another Futures Tournament in Pittsburgh in December, who will also get to go to the Riveters verus Whale game on Dec. 2. The events have largely flown under the radar, the first two overshadowed a little bit by the Whitecaps’ home opener and the first games of the new season. However, behind the scenes, the league is investing in today’s fans — and tomorrow’s pros — in a big way.
The Minnesota tournament took place at TRIA Rink, where the Whitecaps would end up sweeping the defending-champion Riveters in their first weekend of NWHL competition. This tournament was 8U, while the Connecticut Tournament was 10U. The layouts of the games were the same: 5 four-on-four cross-ice games with two 15-minute halves, reffed and coached by NWHL players. Participants also received a Jr. NWHL jersey and a ticket to the game at their rink (Either Whitecaps vs. Riveters or Beauts vs. Whale) that weekend.
There was a Futures Tournament last year, but this offseason the NWHL launched the Jr. NWHL initiative, which created a structure for how junior teams can become and stay involved with the league. Given the fact that professional women’s hockey players in North America do not make a living wage from either league, many of these players are junior — or college — coaches in their “free” time. For example, a significant portion of the Pride’s roster coach for the Boston Lady Whalers. The Girls’ Director for the New Jersey Colonials — who just joined the Jr. NWHL on Tuesday — is the Riveters’ own Kiira Dosdall. Plenty of other players coach high school and college hockey, including the Connecticut Whale’s Jamie Goldsmith and the Riveters’ Kelly Nash.
The NWHL is not unique in recognizing that a significant portion of women’s hockey fans are young skaters and their parents. The CWHL’s Calgary Inferno will hold a charity skills clinic with the Grindstone Award Foundation later this month including both adult and youth players, and the Furies will hold a similar clinic in November. What makes the Jr. NWHL unique is the way that it has branded its commitment to youth hockey, extending it from clinics to a constantly evolving relationship. The NWHL’s commissioner made it clear that this was on purpose.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to grow our network,” Dani Rylan said in an interview with The Ice Garden, “and the more girls that keep playing, and start playing, the greater the hockey community grows, and the stronger it makes every level of the community. It’s important for us to embrace every level of it, from grassroots to the pros, and this is an opportunity for us to be leaders there.”
A really interesting feature of the Jr. NWHL initiative is the map that can be found on the NWHL’s website, where the logos of each club are placed on the map over their geographic location. Rylan said that she hopes the map can help serve as a database for families whose children are looking for places to play. As she put it: “This is going to be a powerful tool for hockey families everywhere.”
“They say that girls usually drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys,” Rylan said, “and with role models to inspire their athletic dreams and fuel their imaginations, we hope to see that data change.”