During the 2016-17 season, 235 girls players ages 18 and under were registered in Central Ohio. That total represents a 35 percent increase over a five-season span.
Since former United States Women’s National Team defenseman Lisa Chesson began playing at an early age, she has seen a positive shift in the attitude of players and fans toward girls hockey.
“I was called a lot of names growing up, being the only girl playing,” recalled Chesson, who spent two seasons at Plainfield (Illinois) Central High School and currently plays for the Buffalo Beauts in the National Women’s Hockey League. “Now, you get comments like, ‘Wow, you girls are really good.’ In the NWHL, people come to watch our games for the first time and they’re hooked. You can’t have an opinion on it before you see it. It’s definitely changed for the better.”
Another reason for the shift are events like the Columbus Blue Jackets hosted on Feb. 10, their second annual Girls Hockey Day. Last year, the event was held indoors at Nationwide Arena. This year, the team wanted to create an outdoor experience, so they chose Winter Park, the outdoor community rink across from the arena. Even a moderate rainfall throughout the day didn’t dampen the spirits of the 50 girls from the Columbus area who participated.
“We’re fostering inclusive communities and showcasing that our sport is for everyone,” said Andee Boiman, the Blue Jackets’ director of fan development and community programs. “[The rain] didn’t stop anyone. Everyone had a smile on their face, including the coaches.”
The girls took part in a Q-and-A session featuring Chesson and USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager Emily West. Following the panel discussion, the players put on their gear and went out on the ice for a clinic presented by several local female coaches, along with Chesson, West, fellow ADM Regional Manager Scott Paluch and USA Hockey’s ADM Technical Director Ken Martel.
The first part of the clinic was devoted to skating, puck handling, shooting, and other station-based skill development training. Girls were then divided into groups for cross-ice games. Stinger, the Blue Jackets mascot, took part in the clinic, which ended with a fun shootout. Players were divided into half-ice groups with four goalies and four lines of shooters.
“The girls who won the shootout got signed pucks from the Columbus players,” West said. “That was pretty cool.”
While skill development is a major aspect of Columbus’ Girls Hockey Day, West believes enjoyment of the game is just as crucial to keeping girls involved.
“We want this to be a fun event,” she explained. “It’s outside, it’s back to hockey’s roots … We want these girls to sit back and enjoy and really take it in.”
Chesson, who played college hockey at Ohio State and helped the U.S. Women’s National Team capture silver in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, gave players and their parents a real treat when she let them see her medal in person.
“One of the girls actually asked if any of us had won any medals during our careers,” Chesson said. “After the Q-and-A, all the girls had a chance to come and see it and take pictures with it.”
According to West, experiences like that really emphasize the point that girls have a legitimate place in hockey.
“These girls can’t be what they can’t see,” she explained. “When she did show her medal … these girls look up to our female hockey players. I think it’s huge for those girls to have role models like that, to see the success they’ve had, and allow a dream and a path for those younger kids to take.”
A four-time participant in the U.S. Women’s National Festival, Chesson, who currently resides in Columbus, credits events like Girls Hockey Day with making a major impact for female athletes on the local and national level.
“The girls game is growing, especially in Columbus,” she said. “I started college here in 2004, [and] there wasn’t as many girls involved. Now I see, at the younger ages, a lot more girls are getting involved. They can see the college team be successful. I play with the NWHL, and they can play hockey post-college. I think it’s huge to have these events for young girls, so they can see the older players and what they’ve gone through.”
The numbers certainly back that up. During the 2016-17 season, 235 girls players ages 18 and under were registered in Central Ohio. That total represents a 35 percent increase over a five-season span. Chesson sees no reason this trend won’t continue.
“If you look at all the youth programs, and how many girls teams are now involved in the sport, it’s pretty impressive,” she said. “I don’t see it going anywhere but up.”