State of female hockey strong, steadily improving in Arizona desert
Just a handful of years ago, female hockey players in Arizona had only one choice when it came to playing the sport – to suit up on a co-ed team and compete with and against mostly male players.
But the landscape has slowly started to shift there, and more and more opportunities now exist for girls and women. From Mite programs at the in-house level through travel hockey and now women’s college hockey, all-female programs are definitely on the rise.
It’s clear that the state of girls’ and women’s hockey in the Grand Canyon State is not only as good as it has ever been, but that there’s plenty of growth to look forward to in the near future.
“I have loved seeing all the growth in Arizona,” said Lindsey Ellis, a Phoenix native and the head coach of the first-year women’s club team at Arizona State University. “I would love to eventually see multiple competitive teams across the state, and that will come with time and the work of our established programs here.
“Every year, we have more and more females choosing to play hockey on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end, we have more and more local girls succeeding in their collegiate and professional teams across the nation and internationally as well. It is so great to see that, and it is my hope that more girls will continue to reach the highest levels possible.”
The foundation for girls hockey in Arizona is the SheWolves and Wolves program. With a Pee Wee team of 18 players and a Bantam squad consisting of 15 players, they are the only female teams in the Coyotes Development Program. Now in their fifth year of existence, they added the Bantam team for the first time this season.
Some of their players are brand new to hockey. Others have played on co-ed teams before coming to the SheWolves, and still others are former figure skaters making the transition to hockey. Head coach Scott Phillips and director of hockey development Scott Gruber place a heavy emphasis on skill development and team building, and they feel the culture of the program is unrivaled anywhere.
“It’s amazing to see the girls have this opportunity to play hockey,” Phillips said. “Not many people realize that these girls compete exclusively against boys teams each and every week. They face adversity and challenges that would not typically be felt in an all-girls or co-ed league. This adversity not only builds their character, but it enables them to be leaders among their peers.
“It is wonderful to see the smiles on these girls’ faces when they step on the ice with their teammates. When you have a culture of support and fun, along with a ‘team-first’ mindset, it is the perfect setting for a successful girls hockey program.”
Gruber can envision the SheWolves program growing enough to ice two teams in a division, and added that the Ice Den in nearby Chandler is hoping to start an all-girls team in the next year or two. He’s thrilled about the progress that his program has made in just a few short years.
“The product is only growing and getting stronger,” Gruber said. “Last season, the Pee Wee team had a lot of success and won its share of games. That success has translated into having a Bantam team. As a director, I would never have thought this to be possible. I still didn’t actually believe it until the end of August. The dedication of our coaches, parents and young ladies has been unrivaled.”
The AZ Lady Coyotes are now in their fourth season of operation as the only approved all-female association in the state, and offer 19U and 14U teams that regularly compete at the national level. Sarah Dennee, the owner and general manager of the Lady Coyotes, started the program when she relocated her family from Virginia to Phoenix and was looking for hockey opportunities for her daughter.
Without a stable program in the Valley, Dennee’s daughter was considering going back east to play on her old all-girls team. Dennee’s goal became to create a girls’ program focused on skill development that would allow players to stay close to home and still get the hockey experience they were seeking.
“I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Dennee said. “We’re now starting to see the benefits of the girls getting to stay together and play together. Keeping the core together can make a difference to the team as a whole, which has positive impacts on the individuals as well.”
The Lady Coyotes have five players that have come through their program and are currently competing at the college level – including two at Arizona State – and they hope to expand on that roster of successful alumni.
Perhaps most encouraging for the continued development of female hockey opportunities in Arizona is the creation of the women’s team at Arizona State this season. Ellis, who grew up playing on boys’ teams in Phoenix until switching to an all-girls team at 16, started working on building the program two years ago and saw her hard work come to fruition in October, when the Sun Devils played their first collegiate game against the University of Colorado.
The Sun Devils have yet to record their first official victory, but know that it will come eventually and that the program’s progress will be measured not in days and weeks, but over the course of months and years. Ellis said her short-term goal is to advance to the national tournament by their fourth season, and long-term, she wants to create a championship-caliber program that brings multiple conference and national titles back to Tempe.
“Basically, what it boiled down to was the fact that all of us local Arizona girls had to travel so far across the country to follow our dreams because there were no college programs in close vicinity,” she said. “I wanted to create the program so girls wouldn’t have to decide whether they wanted to leave home to play competitively or quit to stay close to home.
“From the initial idea to the start of the program, it took almost two full years. I truly think that the opportunity for a women’s collegiate program in Arizona has had the potential for so many years now, but no one wanted to put in the work to make it happen and see it through. I pushed through all the work to make this happen for every generation after me to reach for their dreams. The girls in Arizona can now see a collegiate program up close and personal.”
Having that goal of playing college hockey locally is as important to the growth of the girls and women’s game all the efforts being made at the grassroots level. Girls from the Mite level to high school age now have players that they can look up to, and they can aspire to play collegiate hockey in their backyard.
“Now that we are building our program, I hope that the girls of Arizona playing across all our organizations push to make their dream of playing collegiate hockey a reality, whether that be at ASU or elsewhere,” Ellis said.
— Greg Ball