The advent of the National Women’s Hockey League is big news.
It’s big because the other existent professional women’s hockey organization, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, has issues, and the NWHL aims to plug at least one of the CWHL’s holes by promising to pay its players. It’s big because the immediate reaction to the announcement on social media was enthusiastic, proving that the market is definitely there. And it’s big because far along the proverbial pipeline, young girls who have never stepped foot on the ice before, who would never have been taken seriously as female ice hockey players, will soon see older versions of themselves lacing up the skates, and they will dare to dream.
On February 23, one of the coldest nights of this memorably frigid winter, women’s hockey standouts Hilary Knight and Brianne McLaughlin joined Ice Hockey in Harlem’s all-girls “Lady Harlem” team for a practice at Lasker Rink. “It was definitely our most well-attended practice this year!” coach Kristin Blundo remarked two nights later, at Ice Hockey in Harlem’s annual Winter Sports Celebration. “Looking at the girls, you wouldn’t have known how cold it was—they were just so excited that two female Olympians were skating with them.”
The excitement is contagious, rippling across color lines, socioeconomic lines, and generational lines. At the Winter Sports Celebration, a middle-aged woman named Janine told me that when she was younger she played hockey “with the boys” until she could progress no further—because those were the days before the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, before the Nagano Olympics (where women’s hockey made its debut), before NCAA scholarships, and before the National Women’s Hockey League.
Since its inception nearly 30 years ago, Ice Hockey in Harlem has ensured that young girls get the same exposure to educational and athletic opportunities that their male classmates do, while making a concerted effort to promote women’s hockey at the grassroots level—hence the establishment of Ice Hockey in Harlem’s girls-only Lady Harlem team. The organization’s devotion to advancing girls’ hockey is also evidenced by its choice of honorees at this year’s Winter Sports Celebration: youth hockey maven (and Rangers alum) Pat Hickey and women’s hockey legend Angela Ruggiero, who has been instrumental in setting up the NWHL.
Ruggiero boasts an impressive resume both on and off the ice. A four-time Olympic medalist, three-time World Champion, and the all-time leader in games played for Team USA, Ruggiero made history in 2005 as the first woman non-goalie to play professional men’s hockey in North America, playing for the Tulsa Oilers alongside her younger brother, Bill.
But her influence extends past her own inimitable playing career, proving that—as the NHL is fond of asserting—the biggest assist happens off the ice.
For the past two years, Ruggiero served as the president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, a charitable and educational organization dedicated to promoting girls and women in sports and fitness. In 1998, when the Foundation named Ruggiero and her gold medal-winning teammates “sportswomen of the year,” Ruggiero was impressed by the organization’s empowerment of female athletes regardless of their skill level or Olympic ambitions.
“By playing sports, you learn about yourself as a person, and you learn about playing on a team,” Ruggiero said, checking off the statistically proven effects playing sports has on young girls, such as healthier living and higher self-esteem. “There are just so many benefits that I want every young person to have.”
As far as statistical benefits go, the all-girls Lady Harlem team is Exhibit ‘A’. Coaches Kristin Blundo and Natalie Oshin have noticed a pronounced change in their players’ mindsets since the team’s inception three years ago. “There’s certainly something to be said for the way the girls act with each other compared to the way they acted when they were playing on co-ed teams,” said Blundo. “The blossoming friendships, the confidence, and the overall skill development that we’ve witnessed over the past three years speaks volumes to what Ice Hockey in Harlem has built in this community.”
Women’s ice hockey has been on the rise ever since the sport’s medal debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, and Angela Ruggiero has been riding the crest of the wave. She was there at the very beginning, as the youngest member of that ’98 team, and she is now leading the charge for the future, acting as a role model for girls who dream of excelling at a sport that had previously maintained a pretty rigid ice ceiling.
Having female role models like Knight and McLaughlin will inspire more young girls to dream. But more than that, watching and interacting with hockey players who are a little more like them can turn those dreams into a reality—whether they strive for the Olympics or the National Women’s Hockey League or simply Saturday night pick-up games. Role models like these transform “I wish I could do that” into “I can do that”—and their importance to the confidence and development of young girls cannot be overstated.
To close his address to the gathered crowd at the Winter Sports Celebration, Executive Director John Sanful recounted a tale from the night the Lady Harlem team welcomed Knight and McLaughlin as guest coaches. “A parent of one of the Lady Harlem players said that her daughter was so happy, she was talking about the practice until she fell asleep.” He smiled, slightly teary-eyed. “That is what it’s all about.”
A version of this piece appeared in the March 2015 issue of Blueshirt Bulletin.