NEW YORK—Amanda Kessel, like most elite women’s hockey players, grew up playing on boy’s teams.
There were few female role models as all her coaches were male. She usually had a separate locker room from the rest of her teammates, and in some rinks she had to get dressed in a public bathroom.
“I didn’t have local role models that I could really look up to that were women,” said Kessel, a gold medallist for the United States national team at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. “That’s why I’m very excited to be a part of something like this that can expand opportunities for girls to get involved in a really great sport.”
“Something like this” is an incredibly ambitious program sponsored by the Rangers that could be a game-changer for young girls in the Tri-State area who are interested in playing hockey.
The Rangers announced recently that they are sponsoring a recreational hockey league for girls ages 11 to 14. Junior Rangers Girls Hockey will have teams competing out of 13 regional rinks, including the Long Island Sports Hub in Syosset, Long Beach Arena and Dix Hills Ice Rink. Kessel is the Rangers’ girls youth hockey ambassador for the program.
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Though there are a number of NHL teams, including the Islanders, who sponsor elite girls teams that compete on the tournament level, the Rangers are the first NHL team to establish an entire girls league designed to build up interest from the grassroots. The league will have female coaches and play a 10-game schedule starting in November.
“There’s elite level all-girls hockey teams now but there’s not many places for girls to learn the game, play recreationally, get better and advance or not,” said Kristin Bernert, senior vice president of business operations, MSG Sports. “There hasn’t been the opportunity for girls in hockey like there was for me growing up in basketball. Think of the number of girls who might have tried hockey but didn’t because they didn’t want to change in the boys dressing room or they wanted to be in an environment with other girls and create bonds with them.”
Last month, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sat with the Billie Jean King and announced a female hockey advisory committee with the stated goal of “accelerating the growth of female hockey in North America.” Though the league has stayed pretty much on the sidelines when it comes to getting involved in the women’s professional game —there is no WNHL after all —it’s hard to deny the growth potential that exists in the unsaturated female market as young players become adult fans.
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The grassroots effort shows the Rangers to be both savvy and altruistic. Youth hockey, after all, is a sport that requires a gargantuan amount of parental participation. The same sort of parents that are willing to get up and drive their sons to practices at the crack of dawn are the same parents who will take their daughters.
Right now, according to Kessel, only 12 per cent of youth hockey players in the area are girls. In other words, there are a lot of young girls out there who could become lifelong Rangers fans.
Thirteen-year-old Wantagh resident Bethany Vollaro is already a lifelong Rangers fan, and she jumped at the chance to be a part of Junior Rangers Girls. Vollaro, according to the Rangers, was the very first player to sign up for the program. She will be playing out of the Hub in Syosset.
Said Vollaro, who will be a freshman at Wantagh High School this fall, “I used to play in a boys house league when I was first starting. Some of them were nice and some of them were, well I like the idea better of being on a team with other girls. I think this is a really great opportunity.”
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