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As girls hockey skyrockets, tips to develop players

Wednesday, 02.22.2012 / 10:56 AM / Hockey Skills presented by Canadian Tire

By Deborah Francisco - NHL.com Staff Writer

Thanks to hockey pioneers such as Angela James, Cammie Granato, Hayley Wickenheiser and Cassie Campbell, the women's game is growing faster than ever.

"We didn't always get the exposure early on and there was always a sort of attitude that women's hockey wasn't any good, so for us, we were always trying to prove ourselves," said Campbell, a two-time-Olympic-gold medalist. "We were trying to take the women's game to the next level so we would be taken seriously."

Mission accomplished, ladies.

"The best coaches I've had are the ones who encourage me in the things I'm doing right, and take the time to single me out to do that. But they are also the ones who can then point out a few areas where I can improve and give me tips on how to do so." -- Krista Prins, head coach of the Vancouver Girls Ice Hockey Association midget team

It's no secret that the number of female players in both Canada and the U.S. has skyrocketed since the first ever IIHF Women's World Championship tournament in 1990. Since that monumental year, the number of girls in Canada has increased from 11,341 to over 85,500 while in the U.S. the number has grown from 10,000 to over 65,500 while.

As girls hockey becomes more popular in North America, it's important for coaches to focus on developing their female players. When it comes to coaching girls, there are five important things to keep in mind.

One: Always be encouraging and focus on one-on-one instruction.

According to Krista Prins, head coach of the Vancouver Girls Ice Hockey Association midget team, encouragement is vital when working with girls.

"The best coaches I've had are the ones who encourage me in the things I'm doing right, and take the time to single me out to do that," Prins said. "But they are also the ones who can then point out a few areas where I can improve and give me tips on how to do so."

Vancouver native Liz Montroy started playing hockey just two years ago, at age 14, but her skill level has improved immensely thanks to the one-on-one instruction from her high school team's head coach.

"He's probably my favorite coach I've had yet, and he always does one-on-one stuff that's very specific to what I'm doing well," Montroy said. "With everyone on the team, he's making sure he talks to everybody and making sure he points out something good in everybody that plays."

Added Campbell: "If you can get an opportunity to at least say something positive to every single player at practice at least once, I think encouragement goes a long way. A No. 1 rule for a coach is to just be an encouragement and be positive."

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Two: Be mindful that with girls, the social aspect of the sport is just as important as the competitive aspect.

Girls will chat in the locker room before and after the game, and will even chat on the bench during the game. This doesn't necessarily mean they are not focused on the task at hand.

"They need to chat about their day or what's going on in their lives." Prins said. "It's not uncommon for me to hear conversations on the bench between shifts or periods about something that happened at school or on the weekend. I think most Midget C boys teams would find those chats secondary and just want to play. Relationships are key for girls, so much so that many would pass up an opportunity to play for a better team just to stay on a team with their friends. I know I've done this."

Prins hits on another important part of the social aspect which is important to girls: being a valuable member of the team.

"I love my team so much," Montroy said. "I so look forward to going to the dressing room and being with everybody and that feeling of being together and you're all working together toward one certain goal. I love that."

Three: Focus on skill development.

Obviously this is important for all players, but for girls it is especially important to work on developing their shot and upper-body strength.

"When you're a kid you just want to play games and games and games and that's really fun and it's important, obviously, but so is working hard in practice and recognizing that your skills are so important," Campbell said. "To this day, anyone who is playing in the NHL or on the National Women's team, they're always working on their skills."

According to Campbell, it is extremely important for girls to work on strengthening their forearms, arms and wrists and learning how to shoot properly from a young age. Girls should also play multiple sports, especially in the summer months when it's not always possible to play ice hockey.

"Develop yourself as an athlete and not just as a hockey player," Campbell said.

Campbell not only excelled at hockey as a youngster, she also played soccer, volleyball and basketball.

Four: Treat girls the same as everyone else on your team.

At the end of the day, coaching girls really isn't much different than coaching boys. Girls know what they are getting into when they join hockey and they expect to be challenged, so don't shy away from challenging them.

Cassie Campbell: "If you can get an opportunity to at least say something positive to every single player at practice at least once, I think encouragement goes a long way." (Photo: Getty Images)
"Girls don't want to be 'babied' or treated as a weaker species when it comes to the game," Prins said. "I've played my share of hockey with guys and when they go easy on me by letting me win a faceoff or something, it makes me want to say, 'I wouldn't be here if I didn't want you to try.'"

Five: Keep in mind that many girls don't start hockey until later ages.

Even Campbell didn't start playing hockey until age seven when her family moved to New Jersey for two years. She played two seasons with the Ramapo Saints before moving back to Canada, where she continued her youth hockey career.

"The challenge I have with the team I coach is that I have a massive disparity in skill level from girls who have been playing since they were five to some who just learned to skate last year," Prins said.

This is why it is imperative to emphasize that the game is about having fun. Remember that girls only have a few options beyond youth hockey. Some girls will go on to play in the NCAA or NCIS or maybe enter the National program, but the majority will play recreationally after youth hockey.

"You have to be enjoying it," Campbell said. "That has to be priority No. 1. It's exciting to have goals to be in the NHL or to be on the National Women's team, but you have to be there because you love it and you have fun."

That being said, just because girls want to have fun doesn't mean they don't also want to win.

"I know I'm not gonna play in the gold medal game," Montroy said. "So that school championship, that becomes my gold medal game because I know I don't have very many chances. So I play to win that game."

Women's hockey has certainly come a long way in the last 20 years, and there is still plenty of room for the sport to grow. The attitude that helped women's hockey prove itself to the world throughout the 1990s is the same can-do attitude that permeates the game to this day.

So go ahead, play like a girl.