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Former NHL Player Making Girls Hockey a Force in Carolina


“Women’s hockey in the Olympics this year will be a big draw,” he said. “I think that will help our numbers jump again going into next year.”

Shane Willis played 141 games with the Hurricanes, and now is helping grow the Junior Hurricanes.

In parts of five seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning, Shane Willis had his share of challenges.

He suffered several serious injuries, including a concussion in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals his rookie season. He’s experienced the emotional roller coaster ride that comes with being traded. So he knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity and other important life lessons that come with being an athlete.

Since rejoining the Hurricanes as their youth and amateur hockey coordinator in 2011, the former right winger has tried to pass along those lessons to young kids in the Junior Hurricanes program.

“The game of hockey teaches so many things that are beneficial for young kids to learn,” Willis explained. “Nothing is always perfect. That’s one thing we try to teach our kids early on, to continue to push, continue to work hard. You’re not an NHL player at the age of 12, 13, or 14. Every day, we want our kids to have the mindset to go out and take a step to getting better.”

After playing for several AHL teams and a stint in Europe, Willis retired as a player in 2009. He took some time to be with his family and became a partner in a small business venture. But hockey was never far from his mind. When the Hurricanes invited him back to oversee their youth program, the decision was a no-brainer. His family was already settled in Raleigh, and he had previous experience working with youth programs as a player.

“It was a perfect fit, from [not only] growing up playing the game, but a lot of things I did when I was a youth player, working in hockey camps, working with young kids,” Willis said.

While Willis’ responsibility is to oversee both boys and girls hockey, the growth of the Junior Hurricanes girls program has received particular attention. Like many organizations, the Hurricanes initially faced the challenge of having enough female players to field teams and compete in tournaments. But as girls hockey has grown significantly throughout the country, the Junior Hurricanes have seen similar success, with at least one team in 10U, 12U, 14U and 16U.

Willis is quick to give credit to his coaches for that development. Keith Gleason, Mike Young, Andy Haldane and many others have worked tirelessly to attract more girls to hockey.

“The mindset going in was that we weren’t going to take no for an answer, we were going to find a team for these girls to play on,” Willis recalled. “We’ve been able to stick with a path and put a plan in place to do that. A lot of the coaches have daughters that are playing. Obviously, that helped drive them. But to see their passion, it makes my job a lot easier.”

Scott Paluch, USA Hockey’s ADM manager for the Southeast, believes Willis and his team of coaches and volunteers deserve high praise for making girls hockey a priority.

“Shane has been very committed to growing youth hockey in the Carolinas,” Paluch said. “He has been willing to host many Try Hockey events for local boys and girls. [He] has focused on many development principles that are a big focus of the American Development Model.”

Each summer, the Junior Hurricanes host a program called First Goal, dedicated to getting more equipment into the hands of youth players being introduced to the sport. Last year, 143 girls signed up. Those girls were then invited to PNC Arena Oct. 8 for a clinic as part of the IIHF World Girls Hockey Weekend. About 75 girls participated in photo and autograph sessions with several female Olympians, plus Raleigh native Alyssa Gagliardi, a 2009 USA Hockey national champion with Shattuck-St. Mary’s School who now plays for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League. Willis feels it’s just as important for youth female players to have role models as it is for male athletes.

“To be able to put women who’ve achieved these levels on the ice with [younger players] helps our program so much,” Willis said. “To see the medals they brought … These young girls know NHL players, and that’s awesome. But to see the Olympic atmosphere, and these women, it was a great celebration.”

USA Hockey’s American Development Model has been a major benefit to girls, particularly in getting them comfortable on the ice.

“When a lot of girls get on the ice, the intimidation of not being good at the game or not being a good skater [can] turn them away,” Willis explained. “The ADM has been a key to easily and efficiently teaching these skills in that small group setting.”

Willis sees interest in girls hockey growing even stronger in the years to come, particularly with the 2018 Olympic Winter Games drawing near.

“Women’s hockey in the Olympics this year will be a big draw,” he said. “I think that will help our numbers jump again going into next year.”

That, along with the unwavering dedication of directors and coaches like Willis and his staff in Raleigh, have grassroots hockey on the rise in the North Carolina capital.

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