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FEATURE: United Center Holds Deep Meaning for Kendall Coyne Schofield

The UC has played a pivotal role throughout Kendall Coyne Schofield's life, and Saturday she'll play a game there for the first time in her adult career as part of the PWHPA Dream Gap Tour

by Kendall Coyne Schofield @KendallCoyne / A Special to

 I was 5 years old when I put on a Blackhawks jersey for the very first time. This one was special. 

I didn't buy it at the store. It didn't have my favorite Blackhawks player's name or number on it. No, my very first Blackhawks jersey was a JuniorHawks one I received when I arrived at my favorite team's home, the United Center, for the very first time in my life. 

It had a Blackhawks logo on the front and my number on the back. When I started playing, my Papa had bought my brother and I each Eric Lindros hockey bags with his No. 88 on it. I noticed all of the older kids at the rink had their hockey number on their bag, and I wanted to do the same. Thus, my first-ever hockey number was 88.

Sorry, Patrick Kane, I was actually the first No. 88 Blackhawk. 

Anyway, this Blackhawks youth hockey initiative allowed youth hockey teams in Illinois to play a game at the United Center and then watch the Blackhawks play right after. My house-league team, the Orland Park Ice Arena (O.P.I.A.) Penguins, was one of the lucky teams. I don't remember much from the on-ice game but remember the thrill of playing shinny (mini-stick) hockey in the 300 Level of the United Center after our game with teammates and friends.

Kendall Coyne Schofield during her first JuniorHawks game at the United Center in 1997.

A year later, I had a second opportunity to go back to my favorite place to play shinny hockey, I mean hockey, and participate in JuniorHawks once again. I was an O.P.I.A. Ranger this time around. We donned colors that aligned with the New York Rangers -- or Team USA, depending how you look at it. 

By now, not only was it my dream to play on the Blackhawks, but to wear No. 7 like my favorite player, Chris Chelios. In one short year of watching the team, I ditched Lindros and was all about Chelios. 

I arrived at the United Center with my hockey bag, my hockey sticks, and, most importantly, my shinny sticks. I saw my No. 7 JuniorHawks jersey and was ecstatic that I would get to play for the Blackhawks. 

Like the first game, I don't remember much, except for this: It was tied coming down to the wire and I scored the biggest goal of my life with 0.1 seconds left on the clock. The extremely loud goal horn went off and we won. I celebrated with my arms up in the air long enough to last the rest of my career. I haven't brought that same excitement to any goal I've scored since that day in 1998. Of course, more United Center shinny hockey soon followed. 

Kendall Coyne Schofield as a member of the Orland Park Ice Arena Rangers in 1998.

While I was relishing the biggest goal of my career, there was none bigger that year than Shelley Looney's game-winner to capture gold for the U.S. women at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. It was the first gold medal for Team USA in the first appearance of women's hockey at the Olympics. 

Another game I don't remember much from -- I was probably playing more shinny hockey -- but I remember everything from after, and more.  

That summer, I met Downers Grove native and Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato at her hockey camp in Woodridge. While I didn't bring my shinny sticks to her camp, I brought a feeling of not belonging in hockey -- a desperation to belong and a desperation to fit in. At that point, I never saw any other girls in hockey. There were none on the Blackhawks, even though that didn't deter my dream of wanting to be a Blackhawk. There were none in my class, none on my team, none to be found. That was until Cammi's camp. 

I walked in and saw 200 girls who played hockey. I saw a role model, a ground-breaker and a mentor in Cammi. That has lived with me to this day. I saw a dream, a vision and a pathway to get there: playing for Team USA, going to the Olympics and winning a gold medal. Little did I know that camp would change my life forever, but it did. As Billie Jean King says, "You need to see it, to be it." I saw it that weekend and, in my 7-year-old head, I was ready to put in the work to become it. 

Kendall Coyne Schofield (middle left) and Cammi Granato in 1998.

For the next few years, I continued to find my way into the game of hockey. Some days more difficult than others, whether it was people telling me girls don't belong in hockey, getting cut from teams because I was a girl, or simply the feeling of being left out -- dressing in the women's bathroom or the car while everyone else was in the locker room. 

There was always one arena in my hometown that I felt I belonged: the United Center. 

Often times, my parents would bring my siblings and I to watch the Blackhawks play. At the time, the team wasn't very good. The tickets were $7 with an AHAI membership. Every time we went to the game, I always had my shinny sticks. I don't know if I ever watched more than 10 minutes of a game because I was more concerned with the shinny game. 

Our net was the back-end corner of the 300 Level where there was a door to the press box -- a door I would view much differently later in life as a Blackhawks media relations intern. Every time I went to the United Center, no one ever told me that I didn't belong, to cut my hair or called me a tomboy. I was simply another fan in the stands. I would wear my No. 7 JuniorHawks jersey and deep down knew one day I could be on this team and play for Team USA.  

I would go back to school the next day and tell everyone about the game and my shinny game. Most of my classmates would ask me, "What is hockey?" or tell me they don't know who Chris Chelios is, but I loved it because I got to tell them all about the Blackhawks and Chris Chelios. I don't think they ever listened, but I would still tell them. Little did I know, maybe that was the beginning of my broadcasting career.  

In 2001, I played in my third JuniorHawks Game. I must say, this was a luxury. To do it once is special, to do it three times is spoiled. While there weren't as many kids playing hockey back then as there are today, I feel very fortunate to have been able to play three times on the United Center ice by the time I was 10 years old.  

While the Blackhawks were still going through a rebuild, I started to notice more and more girls playing the game. A lot of credit is due to the '98ers like Cammi. They were visible. They were players who looked like us and who showed us that there is a path for us in this game. It was a very slim path, but there was a path to the top. In my third trip to the United Center, you will notice three other girls on my team. That shows the growth. (You may also notice my now co-worker, Nick Anderson, Assistant General Manager of the Rockford IceHogs). 

Team photo from when Kendall Coyne Schofield (front row, middle) skated in a JuniorHawks game for the third time in 2001.

Less than a year later, I was back at the United Center -- not playing or watching the Blackhawks, though. I was there to watch the U.S. Women's National Team play Team Canada. It was January 5, 2002 and they were in final preparation for the Winter Olympic Games. It was a collision of my worlds. I wasn't sitting in the 300 Level for this game. In fact, I didn't sit at all. I stood with my hands plastered on the glass the entire time, in awe of everything I was witnessing. I had my eye on No. 21, my hockey camp coach, Cammi Granato the entire game. I watched that game knowing I wanted to play in the same game, in the same building -- my home -- when I was old enough. 

I have thankfully been able to play in that game I witnessed -- Team USA vs. Team Canada -- many times in my career. But never in the rink I played in three times as a little girl. 

After capturing gold at the 2018 Olympics, I was able to step onto the United Center ice for the first time since I was a kid. It was a moment I will never forget. The Blackhawks honored my teammate Alex Cavallini and I and, in typical fashion, went above and beyond any expectation. We dressed in our full gear on and stood on the ice during the National Anthem. We got a standing ovation from the 22,000-plus crowd at the UC that night. 

Kendall Coyne Schofield on the ice at the United Center pregame on March 11, 2018.

A few months later, the Blackhawks welcomed the Women's National Team to hold practice in preparation for a Four Nations Cup in Saskatoon. I couldn't help but to peek up at my shinny rink in the 300 Level bowl, think about my favorite JuniorHawks moment on the very ice I stood, or look up at the press box where I sat in as a media relations intern, preparing for a Blackhawks game while watching a new generation play in their own JuniorHawks game. All of those memories in this building truly led me to where I was on that day, and am today. 

A little over a year ago, the Blackhawks became the first NHL club to support and welcome the PWHPA to their home. They treated us like true professional athletes and have supported our mission to create a sustainable and viable professional league ever since. As part of that weekend, I got to step foot on the United Center ice once again for a clinic with over 60 young girls alongside my heroes, Cammi Granato and Angela Ruggiero, who I watched on the same ice 20 years earlier.

Finally, this weekend, I will be playing in a game in my home rink, the United Center, 22 miles from my home, alongside the best players in the world with the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association.

Kendall Coyne Schofield and Cammi Granato on ice at the United Center for a girls hockey clinic.

For all those who ask who we are, what we are doing and why, it goes back to that slim path I talked about earlier. The path for women to succeed as players in the game of hockey is so narrow, that players are still not able to make a living as pro hockey players. There is no infrastructure or vision for girls to see, and know, they can make a career as a pro player. That was the case when I saw all of those women on the ice at the United Center in 2002, and it is still the case today. 

For all the people who have seen me skating solo in the rinks around town and working out alone on a regular basis day after day, year after year since graduating from Northeastern University -- that is why. Alongside the Blackhawks, and our partners, we at the PWHPA are out to change that future for girls in this sport. 

We are fighting for the generation who will come after us, so they can live the same dream as the boys they grow up playing alongside in this game. 

This group of 175 of the best players in the world is working tirelessly to change that trajectory, to close the gap between what a young boy and a young girl can dream to be as a player in the game of hockey. 

It's so that the 60 girls skating a couple hours before our game at Fifth Third Arena in the CCM 'Get in the Game' clinic (which I am dearly missing coaching right now), can grow up knowing that there is a place for them to make a living playing this game. It's so the hundreds of boys and girls I work with at the Blackhawks Youth Hockey Camps every summer know they have the same dream. 

Kendall Coyne Schofield on the ice at Fifth Third Arena as part of the CCM 'Get in the Game' clinic in February 2021.

As the first female player development coach in Blackhawks history and a youth hockey growth specialist, I know there is always a place right here, at home, for any girl to grow up and know she can make a career in hockey, beyond playing. I am living it every day. 

The Blackhawks have welcomed me as a fan, a player, a coach, a broadcaster, an employee, a friend and, most importantly, a family member since I was 6 years old. Even if I am not bringing my shinny sticks this time, I will still be bringing the same love my 6-year-old self had for the Blackhawks and the game of hockey to the United Center this weekend. 

This weekend, not only will we be making history as one of the first-ever women's professional games on national TV, it's the second year in a row that women have made history at the United Center around International Women's Day. Last year, I was a part of the first-ever all-female crew for an NHL game on NBCSN as the Blackhawks faced the St. Louis Blues. I was inside the glass for that historic moment and today, together, we will be shattering the glass and widening the ever-so-slim opportunities for girls and women in this sport, showing them who they can become and more. 

I am honored to do it alongside an organization that has supported the game and all players within the game for, quite literally, as long as I can remember. It is fair to say I feel like I have had home-ice advantage my whole life. 

Kendall Coyne takes part in NBCSN's all-female broadcast on May 8, 2020.
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