Lady Coyotes opening doors for local girls
Kaley Gibson skated out of goal, a dejected owner of a freshly stinging 5-0 loss, but with her sweat-drenched head held high.
In the stands, the St. Norbert College coach scouting Gibson had seen enough. Despite the loss, she wanted Gibson between the pipes when the fledgling Green Knights’ women’s NCAA Division III hockey program dropped the puck on its inaugural season in 2010-2011.
Even in defeat, Gibson wore her passion for hockey on the sleeves of her game-day sweater.
Around the same time, a young Emily Dennee was slowly teaching herself how to skate and quickly finding her own passion for hockey one stride at a time. Those strides became stronger and, before long, a scout was knocking on Dennee’s door, also with an invitation to be a founding member of a women’s college hockey squad.
Gibson and Dennee’s similar paths intertwined this year; the former as a coach, the latter as a graduating high school senior, with an Arizona Lady Coyotes program – the only sanctioned all-girls hockey association in the state of Arizona – that’s on a mission to instill that same passion in its young players, while affording them the opportunity for the sport to take them around the world.
When Dennee committed this winter to play for Massachusetts’ Becker College, she became the first original player in the Lady Coyotes’ short history to sign on to play for a NCAA Division III program.
“What she’ll experience will be like nothing she’s ever experienced,” Gibson said of Dennee’s role as a founding member of Becker’s hockey program. “She’ll be Emily Dennee, one of the girls who started it all.”
Gibson, who grew up in the Valley, returned to the Phoenix area this year, taking on the role of goalie coach with the Lady Coyotes after graduating from St. Norbert, which is located in Wisconsin, in the spring.
An All-Collegiate Hockey Association award winner in 2011, ‘13 and ‘14, Gibson played for the first incarnation of the Lady Coyotes years ago (in addition to earlier stints with the Arizona Selects girls program and Peoria Roadrunners) before becoming a two-time captain and team MVP for the Green Knights.
That original Lady Coyotes program ended its run a few years back, but Gibson joins a staff of coaches with the “new” Lady Coyotes dedicated to once again furthering opportunities for female players while advancing the sports as a whole in the Grand Canyon State.
“We want to show these girls that they can play hockey and still be a girl,” said Gibson.
Fortunately for the Lady Coyotes, there’s no shortage of young girls eyeing their own opportunity to follow in Gibson’s and Dennee’s skates.
That means excelling off the ice as well as on it.
“My coaches have taught me perhaps the most important lesson in life,” said Lady Coyotes 19U AA forward Kyran Lackey. “They taught me that in order to succeed in anything, you have to put a 110 percent into everything you do.”
The Sandra Day O’Conner High School freshman was among the leading scorers on her team entering the New Year and has aspirations of studying sports medicine in college.
“In all my years of playing, the one thing I’m continuously reminded of is the fact that hard work pays off in the end,” Lackey said. “Personally, I take that lesson with me everywhere.
“Working my hardest in school will ensure the grades I need to be successful in entering a good college and choosing a good career.”
That same attitude extends into the Lady Coyotes’ younger team. The 15 girls skating for the organization’s 12U team might be just that – young – but the opportunity they possess isn’t lost on them.
“Seeing the other players do it, you know it can be done,” said Riley Benson, a center on the Lady Coyotes’ 12U squad, of the opportunity to play college hockey.
Benson, the team’s leading scorer heading into the New Year, has her sights set on playing college hockey. More remarkably, the 12-year-old has her future profession already mapped out, as well.
Benson, with her straight-A marks at Harris Elementary, wants to be an endocrinologist. She cites her own personal experience with Type 1 diabetes and helpful doctors as her life’s true inspiration.
But before Benson dons a stethoscope, she’s just as content in a hockey helmet and gloves. Whether it’s picking up a down teammate, taking extra skating or stickhandling lessons or switching from defense to center, Benson says it’s doing the little things she learned from her coaches that are making a difference in not only her game, but in her teammates, as well.
“In the beginning, we were losing games,” Benson said of the start of the season and the bond the girls have formed. “Then we started tying games. Now, we’re winning games.”
For Benson, one of those coaches is 12U mentor Brittany Johnson, who played collegiately at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Johnson, like Gibson, is another Arizona youth hockey native who played locally (in her case, for the former Arizona Selects girls program and the Coyotes Amateur Hockey Association) before her own college career.
Not all players will go on to play hockey in college, but the Lady Coyotes are providing the opportunities for those wishing to work for and pursue a life on the ice and in the classroom.
“In the end, it’s really up to them,” said Lady Coyotes president Sarah Dennee. “The girls in Arizona need to see that they can do this.”
Emily Dennee’s advice to the younger players is to find a balance between the ice and the classroom.
“When it comes to balancing schedule, school is always No. 1,” said the Becker-bound Dennee. “Hockey is just the cherry on top.”
– Christopher C. Wuensch