By Randy Uens
So you have enrolled your little girl in hockey. Like every good parent you want her to experience the joy of playing team sports, understanding commitment, work ethic and camaraderie of sports. All very pertinent and altruistic reasons for having your little girl start to play the great game of hockey. You can’t help thinking to yourself, “What if she is really good at this?”. Where do we play? What level do we play at? There are no right or wrong answers here. I’ll Try to pass along the best information I can supply based on my experience coaching and following girls and women’s hockey for over 25 years now.
Do I enroll my daughter in boys or girls hockey to start?
Before you start here, I recommend that you consider putting your little player into a figure skating program or Learn to Skate program. The program should be run by your local figure skating club or a very accomplished power skating instructor with experience working with little ones. A strong skating foundation is critical to this decision. And it needs to be fun. If it isn’t fun…your daughter will not want to continue.
The decision to play boys or girls is both a social and a regional decision. Socially, girls enjoy playing more with other girls, especially when they are younger. If you have a strong regional girls program this may be the best way to get your daughter hooked on the game. Unfortunately, there are still many regions that do not have robust girls programs and often girls do not have many options. This next point depends a lot on your little player. Many women’s hockey advocates will insist that you need to keep your daughter in girl’s hockey to help grow the game. I totally agree with that sentiment. The challenge is that you want your little player to have fun, but you also want them to be challenged. If your player is very motivated to play, having her play mites or Tykes with the boys is a very good option. The boys are often more puck focused in general at this age and the girls learn to be more offensive. Girls (this is a generalization) tend to be way more concerned with defending their net then boys are. Girls who play with the boys will often get placed on defence because they naturally tend to gravitate to that position. In a perfect world where everyone had lots of money and time, you could enroll your daughter in both boys and girl’s hockey programs at that early age of 4, 5, 6. That is not reasonable for many families. The best advice is to evaluate your daughter’s abilities. Evaluate the importance of the social aspect for your daughter and find a good coach and program, whether it’s boys or girls associations.
By the time your young player starts playing on a rep team you can make further decisions about continuing with the boys or staying with the girls. There have been a number of successful women’s players that played with the boys well into Bantam and even midget. More goalies than skaters, but nonetheless the numbers may surprise you. Often these players develop particular skills that definitely give them some advantages over those girls that play girls hockey right through. You definitely notice that many of the girls that played boys hockey are more experienced at protecting the puck, especially in small areas and tend to have a better understanding of the offensive strategies of the game at an earlier age. Often the stronger girls that stick with the girl’s game become puck rushers and dominate games singlehandedly. A lot of that experience depends on the caliber and region your daughter plays. Most of this will level out by the time they reach bantam. One of the consistent downsides is the tendency for boys’ coaches to put their young female players on defence or never encouraging them to be offensive. Often the girls playing defence in boys games tend to be stay at home defensemen and never transition out of this when they move back to elite women’s hockey. Women’s hockey has evolved into a very fast five player attacking game where the defence is activated even more than male hockey. The amount of strong offensive defense is limited comparatively to men’s hockey. Some of that is the tendency for many young girls to be very focused and conscientious of their own zone and the fear of getting caught out of position. Taking risks is sometimes difficult for many young female players.
Fifteen to twenty years ago it would be noticed that the majority of elite women’s players played boys hockey for most if not all of their minor hockey careers transitioning around bantam to girls hockey. Now that is in the minority. The level of play and the level of coaching at the minor level for girls has improved exponentially. Most of the NCAA and USports players have come through the girl’s ranks. This is not a scientifically backed statement with quantitative data. This is simply one guy’s hockey opinion. By the time the girls reach prep school or junior, the elite girls that played strictly girls and the elite girls that played strictly boys are almost on par across the board. No one stands out to the point where you say…”That girl played boys hockey longer than that one”. That era has gone. You may see certain tendencies like aggressiveness or puck protection, but in general it is negligible. As a parent, be agnostic to girls or boys hockey. Find a situation where your daughter is happy and comfortable and having fun. The second decision is to find a strong program with great coaching. And finally, make sure she can skate.
How do I get seen by a college or university?
This is a challenge for many girls but it’s actually more of a challenge for the coaches of the schools. The NCAA does not allow teams to have scouts. The coaching staff manages all scouting. U Sports programs may have some informal scouting done by part- time regional scouts but often due to a lack of resources, they too are limited to scouting by committee by the coaching staff. These coaches rely heavily on word of mouth, showcase tournaments and recruitment tools such as hockey schools and summer hockey programs to identify players. This is why it is so important for elite junior and prep school programs to have all of their games on streaming services such as Hockey TV. This provides the coaches the opportunity to watch games remotely and develop a broader understanding of the players out there. The NCAA changed the recruiting timelines within the last couple of years to eliminate underage recruiting. This has made it much better for the families and the teams to make sure they are making well-informed decisions about their futures.
Should I get a Family Adviser?
The old adage “If you are good enough they will find you” holds true in many circumstances. If you are playing in an elite league with elite players, most likely someone will see you. The challenge is to be seen enough to get the confidence from the program that you have the skills to play at the next level. A good family adviser can assist with getting the player in front of teams. Often these advisers are only as good as their contacts. Is the adviser well connected and respected by the various teams? Do they have an established track record of opening doors? These are key questions to ask before paying fees for their services, which can get costly. $2500 – $10 000 is not unusual.
Some of this initial groundwork does not require an adviser and can be done by the player. Accumulate some game video and create a highlight reel. Write a cover letter to the schools that you are interested in and let them know you are interested in attending their school. Specify if you are looking for a scholarship or would consider being a walk on. Depending on your age, you may not get a response (See graphic of timelines) . Teams do appreciate these types of letters. Some receive more than others and may or may not reply, but it is a worthwhile endeavour for the young players to get themselves into the discussion. It must come from the player. Teams appreciate a player taking the initiative to reach out.
NCAA OR U SPORTS Which Route is Better?
This is where the waters get murky and the discussions become filled with biases and misinformation around the lobbies of hockey rinks.
In male hockey the traditional Canadian route was to play CHL. Once you played CHL you were not eligible for NCAA hockey. If you do not play pro, you take a school package from the junior team and play Canadian University (U Sports hockey). Male players in the U.S. have always gravitated more to the NCAA route. More Canadians are taking this NCAA route by playing “Tier 2 Junior A” to maintain their NCAA eligibility. Cale Makar being the most noticeable of late.
For women it is not so defined. NCAA teams play U Sports teams quite often early in the season in exhibition games. NCAA teams win the majority of these games but the games are very closely contested. Generally speaking, the NCAA attracts more (but not all) of the top players in Canada. This decision often depends on the player’s needs or wants. Many high-end Francophone players will stay and play in Canada for language reasons. Some players want the “big school “ U.S. experience. As for academics, In Canada the university academics are very strong in every institution as the schools are more controlled and government funded. In the U.S. it varies greatly. There are private schools, state schools, Ivy Schools, Small IVY schools, State Ivy Schools etc. etc. To navigate this takes some due diligence. The player must take their time and be sure the academics are strong and that the courses will be recognized back in Canada should they decide to do their post graduate in Canada.
The biggest consideration is cost. First bit of misinformation that is out there that I would like to clarify. IVY SCHOOLS DO NOT OFFER ATHLETIC SCHOLARSHIPS. These schools among others operate via financial aid to provide subsidies. Some academic scholarships are available but are very competitive. Many of these schools cost $60 – $100k Canadian per year. With financial aid they become much more affordable depending on your own personal situation and your financial needs. Often the reduction takes it into similar financial costs as going to a Canadian University.
The majority of NCAA hockey programs do have scholarships available. The amounts of scholarships vary depending on the program. On average teams will have between 12 and 16 full scholarships available. Coaches will sometimes split up scholarships to offer partials to some players. The balance of the team is made up of walk on or full tuition paying players. The scholarships are not guaranteed. They are year to year. It is not often that schools decommit before the player arrives or suspend scholarships while active, but it has happened on rare occasions.
Canadian schools do not have athletic scholarships in the way that the U.S. schools do. Canadian schools have however become very creative and competitive by offering bursaries and financial aid that allow for players to get very economical deals to play hockey at Canadian schools. With the level of play being so high and the costs being so reasonable, do not overlook the Canadian schools. Coaching at Canadian Universities is exceptional and the ability for players to play 5 years of hockey as opposed to 4 years of NCAA eligibility is attractive for these players. If you are offered a partial scholarship in the U.S. it may make more sense to play in Canada. Once again, depends on the player’s wants and needs.
What is the difference between Division 1 and Division 3? Is there a Division 2.? Which league is better?
The highest level of hockey in the U.S. is NCAA Division 1. The NCAA has not sponsored a Division 2 level as there is a lack of teams at that level. The Northeast 10 conference does have a few Division 2 hockey teams but none are women’s teams. Many programs operate other sports through Division 2 or 3 but are considered Div 1 in hockey.
Women’s NCAA is predominantly Division 1, Division 3 and club teams. Only Division 1 teams offer scholarships for athletics. The ACHA is an independent Association from the NCAA and has Division 1 and 3 teams as well. ACHA Div 1 teams are on par with NCAA Div 3 teams in general with a few of the better ACHA Div 1 teams playing and competing well against some NCAA Div 1 teams in non conference exhibition type games.
With Title 9 enforcement in the U.S. schools must offer an equal amount of female scholarships as male scholarships. This has created some situations where schools have female programs without male Div 1 programs. Going forward it is expected that many more schools are contemplating both men’s and women’s hockey programs.
Division 3 hockey has some tremendous programs however they are all financial aid based and do not offer scholarships. Generally speaking both Div1 NCAA and U Sports programs are of a higher caliber. There are however some tremendous academic opportunities at these Division 3 schools. It is important to remember that every school has academic scholarships even if they do not do athletic scholarships.
Often schools can top up an athletic scholarship with academic scholarship money or financial aid schools (like Ivy schools) can offer academic money to aid the student athlete. These academic scholarships are competitive so keep your grades up ladies!
Opportunities for young women are endless in sports now as it relates to university and college. As the sport evolves and develops we are all hopeful that a viable and sustainable pro model is developed in the near future. A few semi pro leagues have popped up in North America, NWHL, as well as the PWHPA which are both angling to create an association with the NHL. (We will not tackle that discussion here). Similar to what was established by the NBA and WNBA. There are semi-pro leagues in Europe, with Sweden being the most recognized. Parity at the professional level is a long way away however we are hopeful that something significant can be done for these tremendous athletes. The level of play is always highlighted at the National team levels in Canada and the U.S. with other countries closing the gap. The more players, the better the product will be.