More women in NHL roles could lead to a bigger wave of hockey hiring

Caley Chelios is a story in Tampa because she is a female radio analyst working for an NHL team. The bigger story is that Chelios, 26, is a broadcasting wunderkind with national potential.

“She is as knowledgeable as anyone I talk to in the game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, “and it comes natural to her.”

Listen to her broadcasts and you’ll hear her smoothly weaving in and out of partner Dave Mishkin’s play-by-play with crisp, insightful commentary. Chicago goalie Corey Crawford’s glove hand, she says, is rendering the Lightning’s traffic in front of him ineffective. Brayden Point “mishandled” the puck on a scoring chance. She points out that the Lightning’s “failure to clear” has led to Grade-A scoring chances by the Blackhawks.

Mishkin says Chelios is always able to report “in a plain-spoken way, who is carrying the play and why.”

Although Chelios played hockey in high school, she was a lacrosse player at Northwestern University, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism. Her mastery of the game’s finer points was helped by her father, Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman Chris Chelios.

Along with Chelios, more women are making their mark in the NHL. Emilie Castonguay is one of the few female player agents, and she represents Alexis Lafreniere, the potential No. 1 draft pick in 2020. Hall of Fame player Cammi Granato was hired by the expansion Seattle franchise as the NHL’s first female pro scout.

“It’s progress, but there is still a long way to go,” said retired journalist and broadcaster Sherry Ross, who made history in the 1990s when the Devils made her the NHL’s first full-time female radio analyst.

The NHL is currently under the microscope following the recent resignation of Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters amid allegations of racial slurs and abuse. Other coaches have also been accused of abuse, sparking a conversation about race and power dynamics in the league.

Those are issues women have faced for years, and recently they have seen a more welcoming league.

Last year, Hayley Wickenheiser was hired as the Maple Leafs’ assistant director of player development. Kim Davis (executive vice-president, social growth, growth initiatives) and Heidi Browning (chief marketing officer) both hold league senior management positions, reporting directly to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. And Sabres owner Kim Pegula also serves as president of the NFL’s Bills and the Sabres.

“From the business side to hockey operations, there is a growing number of women in leadership roles across the NHL,” Bettman said, “confirming our belief that diversity and inclusiveness make hockey stronger.”

However, as the Athletic recently reported after reviewing the 31 NHL teams, men hold 96 per cent of the hockey operations jobs.

“It is exciting now, but this did take a long time,” said Susie Mathieu, who in 1976 became the NHL’s first female public relations director. “It’s crazy that hockey remained a male-dominated sport from the front office perspective.”

Mathieu said when she was hired, a local reporter asked Blues general manager Emile Francis “how he expected him to work with a woman.” Mathieu recalled that Francis said, “If you can’t work with her, you can’t work with the St. Louis Blues.”

She eventually became a team vice-president and was viewed leaguewide as one of the team’s most powerful voices. Mathieu was popular with players and management. After she left the Blues, she was hired by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association to run the World Cup of Hockey and as an Olympic liaison from 1995 to 2000.

“I felt a lot of pressure,” Mathieu said. “It got very lonely because when I travelled with the team or went to big league events like the draft, I’d be careful what the perception is out there. I had to be on guard all of the time. That’s what I felt internally.”

She paused. “I couldn’t fail, because if I did I wasn’t just failing for me, I was failing for every woman. Nobody said that — that’s pressure I put on myself.”

Ross started in hockey as a writer in the late 1970s with the Daily Record (in Morristown, N.J.) and then the Bergen Record in New Jersey.

“I was tested at first,” she said. “It was like other reporters wanted to test my knowledge. It was like I had to become a trivia expert.”

But Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, considered an old-school executive, appreciated Ross’s expertise enough to hire her twice as a radio analyst. She did it for three seasons, then returned in 2006 for 10 seasons.

“It was an accidental career … but it ended up a dream job,” Ross said.

The Seattle franchise has added several women as it gets set for its first season in 2021-22, including Granato and analytics expert Alexandra Mandrycky as director of hockey administration.

“I’ve definitely noticed a more positive impact that women are having,” NBC broadcaster Kathryn Tappen said. “I would say the acceptance of women has grown.”

Even the idea of a female NHL coach or general manager is more plausible.

“That is not only conceivable, but it is conceivable in a short time frame,” Davis said. “There are just too many capable and equipped people in our sport and society.”

Davis said she hears regularly from girls and young women encouraged by the number of women they see working in key NHL jobs.

Engaging women at all levels has been a strategy for good reason. Roughly 40 per cent of NHL fans are women, and girls and women’s hockey is growing three times faster than men’s hockey.

“It is smart business for us to be looking at how to grow our sport through the lenses of girls and women,” Davis said.

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The NHL created a female advisory board to help promote that idea. The committee doles out grant money and it is having an impact. Last year, only six of the 31 NHL teams had all-girls youth hockey programs. This season, it’s 24 teams.

“Before, women didn’t have the experience or it was all about who you already know; now there is more openness to saying, ‘Who is out there who can help our organization be better?’” said Aimee Kimball, the Devils’ director of player and team development. “Now, more women have various experience — whether it’s through education, playing or through other jobs — to put them into a position to influence hockey.”

When Kimball was a junior in high school — playing soccer, basketball and softball — she took a psychology course and became fascinated by the brain and how it contributes to an athlete’s success. She has been working with players for 13 years, starting in 2006 with the Penguins. She believes women offer a different perspective.

“I think if it were my 18-year-old, 19-year-old or 20-year-old (self), what kind of support would I think they would need?” she said.

Tappen said she felt a difference for women after U.S. star Kendall Coyne Schofield was competitive against NHL stars in the fastest skater competition at the NHL all-star game in January, and when A.J. Mleczko became the first woman to work a Stanley Cup playoff game as an in-booth analyst in 2018. She is working as an analyst on Islanders telecasts now.

Said Chelios: “Without seeing or hearing A.J. on a game, I don’t think I would have felt confident that my voice, or a female voice providing colour, would be accepted.”

Chelios also credits Sportsnet broadcasters Cassie Campbell and Christine Simpson and even Gayle Sierens, the first woman to do NFL play-by-play, for serving as inspirations.

“Those women had to cross a lot more barriers than I have in my career,” Chelios said. “And because they were able to, they have opened up a path for me.”

She said she hasn’t found it difficult working in a male-dominated sport.

“The only thing is, you are scrutinized for mistakes a little bit harder,” Chelios said. “And if one woman makes a mistake, it unfortunately has a trickle-down effect. But in the same instance, if a woman is really good at her job she seems to be recognized.”

Katie Guay, 37, was the first female referee to work Division I men’s hockey, and she worked at the 2018 Olympics. This fall, she was one of four women chosen to officiate at NHL rookie tournaments in September.

“It was a fun experience,” Guay said. “My goal is always to be treated equivalently to my male colleagues, and that was the case … Fighting was probably the biggest eye-opener.”

She also sees a female NHL referee at some point. “I think we are starting to take steps in that direction,” she said.

Granato is considered one of the greatest players in women’s hockey history, and she could have found a job in hockey previously had that been her objective. She said she senses momentum now for bringing more women into the game. Her children are the right age now, and she will be able to do much of her scouting work by attending Canucks games. She lives in Vancouver.

“The timing wasn’t right before, but this job seemed perfect,” she said.

Ross said she anticipates the next big wave of hiring in the NHL will come from the increase in girls playing hockey. She believes top players such as Coyne Schofield, Amanda Kessel and others are so bright and articulate that they will step into NHL roles.

“And they are going to be great at those jobs,” Ross said. “And girls 8, 9 and 10 will see them in those jobs and say, ‘I love hockey, and I’m going to do that someday.’

“It’s been a glacial movement,” Ross said, “but the glacier is going to start speeding up.”

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