Girls, women’s game keeps growing in Colorado, shows no signs of letting up
Greg Johnson has been the vice president of women’s and girls hockey for the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) for the past four years and has seen firsthand the tremendous growth of the game for females in the state.
He said one of the biggest components to continued growth is “keeping the sport fun and affordable for as long as possible.”
“The keys are early entrance in hockey, keeping the experience fun and relatively inexpensive, and retention at the critical 14U level where girls try many more sports in high school,” said Johnson. “Having access and the ability to grow as a player, whether in a boys program or in an all-girls program, is key to have the players build confidence and want to take the next step in progressing their hockey abilities.”
For the 2016-17 season, both the Colorado Select and Rocky Mountain Lady RoughRiders field Tier I teams – the Select at 16U and 19U and the Lady RoughRiders also at 16U and 19U. And the Mountain States Girls Hockey League (MSGHL) has in-state teams from Aspen, Boulder, Breckenridge (Summit), Colorado Springs, Durango, Gunnison, Steamboat, Telluride and Vail, as well as from the Select and Lady RoughRiders.
“These programs (Select, Lady RoughRiders) place a handful of girls at mostly NCAA Division III schools with a couple a year playing D-I,” explained Johnson. “This is good, but the real success is not the few that go on to play D-III or D-I, but rather the majority of serious girls hockey players that play in the ACHA and the college club teams. These girls number in the hundreds and come from the mountains, as well as from the Front Range. These girls are keeping their joy of hockey going strong by playing in college leagues and keeping the passion strong.”
One of the standouts that made the D-I ranks – Lakewood native and Select alum Nicole Hensley – said seeing the girls and women’s game continue to progress only means great things down the line.
“I think the girls game has grown tremendously, especially at the younger age groups,” said Hensley, who graduated in 2016 from Lindenwood University in suburban St. Louis. “The number of girls playing hockey has increased so much. The Select is a well-known program across the country and now there are other organizations coming on board with all-girls teams. I think that will help the competition within the state and hopefully push girls hockey to a higher level in Colorado. Not to mention, more teams means girls can play closer to home, not having to travel across the state to play on an all-girls team. That will make the sport accessible to more families.”
Hensley was also humbled when asked what it’s like to have the Colorado youth looking to her as a role model.
“It’s such an honor to be looked up to by female hockey players,” Hensley said. “It’s humbling when I am in Colorado to have girls ask to get a lesson with me. It’s really important to me to give back to the game and help it grow in any way I can. I love going to local camps and meeting all of them as well as passing along my knowledge. I hope I can be someone that inspires them to believe in their dreams and go after them.”
For Justin White, the first-year coordinator of girls hockey for the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association (CSAHA), keeping the game sustainable at the female levels is all about priorities.
“In the recent past, hockey was one size fits all in Colorado from a girls perspective,” White said. “As the girls game grows, we need to look past association boundaries and work hand-in-hand with each other to ensure that girls are provided a hockey experience that best fits their needs. Some will need the highest level, AAA experience, while others will need the more social experience of recreational leagues. For example, no single association within our community has enough girls to support a stand-alone girls program, so the five associations in the Pikes Peak Region (CSAHA, Colorado Rampage, Air Force, Woodland Park, Pueblo) have opened their doors and allowed their girls to come together to create the Tigers Girls Program.
“This, in my opinion, is not the norm for the hockey community at large, which can be very territorial, but to the credit of these associations, they have shifted their focus from what is best for themselves to what is best for their girls.”
Still, a couple issues that have seen registration numbers stall at times are the financial aspect of high-level youth hockey and when other sports grab the players’ interests.
“In the past four years, the growth of girls hockey in Colorado has been somewhat problematic,” said Johnson. “CAHA and the associations have done a really good job in running programs to grow the game and showcase the sport to young girls and the access to hockey opportunities have never been greater for young girls to get involved. The issue is retention, especially moving into the high school years. So many other sports come into play and keeping girls in hockey is sometimes tough as the costs increase and the ability to play on challenging teams becomes an issue for some players and their families.”
Once players graduate high school and even play a season or two on a 19U team, college hockey is an option.
Jamie Hazelton is the head women’s hockey coach at the University of Colorado and is optimistic that more NCAA Division I women’s teams will see the light of day in the future.
“I am super optimistic for the women’s college hockey game,” said Hazelton. “Girls hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in America right now and with that is this competitiveness within these awesome young girls to get better and be the best athlete they can possibly be. Because of such a rapid growth in the game, there is some great optimism for women’s college hockey. As the talent pool keeps growing, the NCAA isn’t expanding fast enough to give these talented players a place to play, which is good for associations like the ACHA, which has doubled the number of teams during the course of a few short years. As we keep building girls hockey, the talent level in the NCAA D-I and D-II levels and ACHA are going to just keep growing.”
Johnson noted that the future is bright for the continued growth or girls and women’s hockey and the pros by far outweigh any negatives or obstacles.
“Colorado girls hockey does ebb and flow with the number of players and we have been relatively stable with some small growth in certain years,” said Johnson. “There are some big positives in Colorado girls hockey, including the MSGHL – the premier girls recreation hockey league in the Western half of the United States. The MSGHL offers a great league for girls from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to play. The girls Tier I and Tier II teams have done a great job in leading the Rocky Mountain District and we now have girls coming from all over the district to play high-level hockey in Colorado.
“Overall, even lacking huge numbers, he variety and depth of competition in girls hockey in Colorado is very high and is a positive sign for the future.”
Hensley photo/Riku Laukkanen
— Matt Mackinder