With a dozen female coaches lining the WCHA's benches, it is becoming clear that the present of our sport, not just the future, is female. More and more women are stepping up to take their place as leaders in hockey every year as former players return to the high school and collegiate levels in order to give back to the institutions who helped put them on their paths.
Honoring the past while securing the future seems to be the theme that unites these women who are committed to growing the game. It would be impossible for our coaches to ignore the work that the giants before them accomplished in order for women to have the opportunities they have today, but in their current roles these coaches have the chance to leave behind something greater, to bridge the gender gap and motivate the women that will come after them.
"I think women belong in both men's and women's sports, just as men are found in both," Minnesota Duluth assistant coach Laura Bellamy asserted. "When 97 percent of head coaches in men's sports are men and 57 percent of head coaches in women's sports are also men, I find myself thinking there is still progress to be made."
The question of 'How do we continue this progress?' remains.
As wonderful as it is for our coaches to serve as an example of what is possible for the young women in our league, not to mention the girls watching the WCHA or following the careers of their favorite players, we have the power to do more.
Amplifying the ability of women in sports is one way to do so. Many of the well-known female athletes are using their platforms to spread awareness and bring attention to their capabilities, and more avenues of promoting women's hockey on this side of the Atlantic are cropping up each year.
"When I graduated, we didn't have any opportunity to play in North America at that time. It was pretty much that, if you weren't an elite National Team player, then your only other option was to go over to Europe," Wisconsin's Jackie Crum said, explaining just how far the post-graduate opportunities for her players have come since she completed her undergraduate playing career.
The Wisconsin assistant coach competed in both Switzerland and the Czech Republic before hanging up the skates and returning to the Crimson and White to coach. "That's obviously where my path led," Crum said. "Nowadays, even if you're a very good hockey player but not at the national team level, there are still opportunities. There's the NWHL and the PWHPA, so you have those options. If you're American or if you're Canadian you can now play in your home country, so it's awesome that women can have those opportunities."
Even in the past few years, more and more WCHA student-athletes have earned National Team roster spots for the USA, Canada, Sweden, the Czech Republic and other countries or been drafted to the National Women's Hockey League.
"I think for a player to be able to stay in hockey beyond college in whatever capacity it may be, whether it's the PWHPA or the NWHL or the Olympics as a player or coach as well as professional roles working in the NHL or AHL teams is important." Minnesota Duluth's Maura Crowell agreed. "Not only for us as female athletes. I think it's important for society, for men to see us women in sports and in powerful positions and to understand that competency doesn't require you to be male, that expertise can come from females as well. It's important for our society to see that and get used to seeing that. It will make our culture a much better place down the line." Opportunities for female hockey players continue to grow, even if said growth is still slower than we would like it to be. With the NWHL and the PWHPA both increasing their fan bases and closing important sponsorship deals, women's hockey is on the way to gaining its financial legitimacy as a professional sport in North America.
The recent visibility of women's sports has been a turning point. Women's sports are getting more airtime on national television every season. An increasing number of journalists are searching out their stories and advertising the reality that women's sports are powerful and worth watching.
"I think it is awesome that my daughter can see women play professional sports," Minnesota State's Shari Dickerman agreed. "I also smile every time there is any sporting event on TV at home and my four-year-old son asks, "Mommy, are these girls or boys?' He only knows a world where girls can play and be on television and that is pretty great."
"'Oh, I never thought a woman could do that,' should be a revelation when children are young," Crowell said, unknowingly echoing Dickerson's experience with her son. "If little kids can see women doing those things, it'll help." Increased visibility, as it often does, brings a corresponding increase in participation.
"Girls hockey is one of the fastest developing youth sports in America," said Ohio State's Nadine Muzerall. "There will be more opportunities for women coaching that follow that rise, and now that we have 20 years in our league of outstanding athletes, the opportunity is greater and the clientele of who could return has greater development and depth."
The former Minnesota great now serves as the head coach at Ohio State, where she had been able to fill her staff with capable coaches irrespective of gender.
"It's really about who is the best for the job," Muzerall said. "Zoey [Hickel] was the best. Emily [West] was the best. It happens to be not just because of their Xs and Os and their technical/tactical skills, but because of their experiences and the value they bring to our staff."
Beyond hiring women who serve as an example for our student-athletes, we can choose to be proactive in seeking out the women who will follow us; not just welcoming women but recruiting them, proving through actions that we see their value and what they can contribute to our league. That work starts long before our student-athletes turn their tassels and begin seeking post-graduate opportunities to remain in hockey.
We choose to lay the foundation now by showing them that their voice matters, that they deserve autonomy in their own undergraduate experience.
"I think Jen [Flowers] has done a fantastic job involving more of our student athletes now with her Commissioners Corner, monthly WCHA Leadership meetings, College Hockey for Diversity Equity and Inclusion, and other opportunities," said Bemidji State's Emma Terres. "This has given players a voice and feel like they are a part of a league that empowers women, encourages their voice, and supports them. I think that is a great start to keeping student athletes involved in the WCHA post-graduation."
That being said, working within the sports industry is not the only calling for our many student-athletes. The WCHA proudly boasts scores of alumni who are out in the world working in countless other fields and still living and thriving.
For those who are so inclined towards a career in women's hockey, the WCHA has an entire network of support and encouragement on standby, but competing and coaching aren't the only avenues for women to make their mark on the sports industry.
Despite being a primarily male-dominated field, women have been breaching that barrier for decades. Sportswriters like Jackie MacMullan have been on the beat since 1982 with names like Sarah Spain, Kate Fagan, Mina Kimes, Katie Nolan, and Kathryn Tappen and countless others following in her footsteps ever since. Emily Kaplan has become a respected voice in hockey as a reporter for the NHL and a four-woman production crew filled the control room on August 17th, 2020 to provide the NHL Playoff coverage during this past summer's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Talent comes in too many forms to set limits on feminine capabilities.
"There are so many more roles that our alums can fill that match up with other professional interests," Crowell agreed. "Marketing, social media, writing, stats. The sport of hockey is growing on the women's side, and the more positions that are available on staffs and within leagues is great and important."
The other women in sports, those who operate behind the scenes or off-camera are as necessary to the rise of women in our industry as the TV personalities or the head coaches.
We talk about the importance of women supporting women, but having a community of women who are willing to go the extra mile and put their words into actions makes all the difference. It took so many years to get women into position at the top of their fields. Now that they are situated there, that support has to trickle down and continue to lift other women up alongside them.
A perfect example of a woman in power supporting another woman's rise is Ohio State's Diana Sabau. "She is a woman, a deputy athletic director at Ohio State, and she backed me up when I took over the program," explained Muzerall. "Together we chipped away at my vision, working until 1 or 2 a.m. in the morning many nights.
"I missed a lot of things with my kids," Muzerall admitted. "But I really believed in the possibilities of the program, and Diana and the department supported me. My husband supported me. It's hard to be a woman with kids at this level trying to be elite because it requires a lot of time away from your family, a lot of effort, a lot of tough choices to be on the road versus at taekwondo lessons or birthday parties. It's tough."
Sabau went the extra mile, literally, in support of her new head coach when the athletic director drove to pick up Muzerall's family-her mother, her two-year-old and her five-month-old baby-to make sure they all saw Muzerall coach her first game at the helm of the program.
Actions like Sabau's serve to bolster confidence, to remind us that, while it may not be easy or without sacrifice, we can have a career and a family and still succeed.
That success comes at a cost. These women are full-time people as well as coaches, something that so many forget when looking in from the outside. A handful of the league's coaches are mothers, and motherhood isn't a hat, or a helmet if you will, that anyone can take off at the end of a game.
"Balance does not exist." Crum laughed. "For me it's trying to be in the moment and be present wherever I'm at. There's no balance. There's always something to do. You're missing out on something at both ends. I think at the end of the day you just have to sit back and say, "I did the best I could at my job and I did the best that I could as a mom and as a wife. That's all I can do.'"
Fortunately, sometimes these roles can come together in harmony and remind our coaches of the rewards that their hard work reaps.
"When we won [the NCAA Championship] in 2019, my daughter was about eight months old," Crum said. "Obviously it's always special to win a national championship but to have her and my husband there was really cool."
"You know, the sacrifices that you make as a working mom and then a coaching mom can be pretty tough," Crum continued. "So, for it to all come together in the end and have her and my husband on the ice with me was amazing. I just never really thought I'd be a mom or have a daughter to share a moment like that with."
If there's any lesson that these coaches want their players to learn, it is that we gain nothing without hard work. In our search for greatness we cannot avoid mistakes. There will always be something left on the to-do list, another skill upon which we can improve, another helmet to don.
Blending those roles and carving out a space for women to be more than one thing is what bridges the chasm between 'what the world expects of us' and 'what we are capable of being.'
"I love being able to connect with my players and do life with them," St. Cloud State's Jinelle Siergiej agreed. "I love bringing my boys to the rink and seeing their faces light up with joy when the players are just as excited to see them as the boys are to see the players. My favorite moments are those when mom-life and work collide and it all becomes one."
These women of the WCHA are reminders that being a woman in sports or in a leadership role doesn't come at the exclusion of being a friend, a partner, a mother. Women are people: flawed and inspiring, exhausted and triumphant, frantically running out of practice to pick their kids up from school on time and hoisting NCAA Championship trophies over their heads.
As Siergiej said of being a female coach during the first of our National Girls and Women in Sports Week panels, "It's real, it's hard, but it's worth it."