Long before Kendall Coyne-Schofield was captain of the US women's national team and breaking barriers at the NHL all-star game, she was an ambitious young girl hoping to break into hockey.
Carrying that experience with her, the 26-year-old recognized the importance of the New York Islanders hosting a Girls Hockey Day on Saturday, as well as the impact having the national team on hand.
"I remember being a bug on the glass at the United Center when the women's national team came through in 2006," Coyne said. "That was the only opportunity I had to see them as a kid. So, to be here [today] with the national team and see all these young girls being able to be accessible to us and watch us play is tremendous. Just to see all of these girls on the ice is awesome. We definitely didn't have that when we were kids. It just shows the growth and we're going to keep growing the game."
Sixty girls between the ages of six to 16 participated in the Isles girls hockey event at Northwell Health Ice Center, which was part of an NHL initiative to accelerate and expand the growth of women's hockey. Following an on-ice clinic, the girls had the chance to watch the national team take the ice for practice in a pre-tournament camp that was set up on Long Island from March 26-31. The national team is travelling to Espoo, Finland for the 2019 International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship on April 4-14.
"The NHL and NHLPA and obviously the New York Islanders are really in the business right now of accelerating female hockey," Matt Herr, the NHL's senior director of Youth Hockey and Industry Growth said. "To see 55-60 girls out here today is a great effort on behalf of the Islanders. To get this group together and to show the excitement in the ability for these young girls to come out and see their role models."
The event began at 10:15 a.m. with a "Chalk Talk" from the Self-Esteem Rising program which works to empower women with the tools to promote self-confidence. The girls then participated in an hour-long on-ice clinic from 11:30-12:30 p.m. clinic at the Bill Torrey rink where they focused on skill development drills. The girls were split up into different age and rotated through varying offensive and defensive practice drills.
After the event, the girls were surprised with appearances from Coyne-Schofield, Hilary Knight and Kacey Bellamy who offered advice and welcomed the group to stay and watch their practice. As Coyne, Knight and Bellamy and their national team teammates took the ice at 1:30 p.m., a group of four teen girls who play for the Lady Islanders u14 and under team sat three rows back from the glass mesmerized.
"I loved coming out here today and playing with all the girls," Gia Santorello said. "I was surprised to see the three Olympians. I follow them every game. It was really inspiring to see them. It's cool to see them do some of the same drills we do in practice. Hopefully, one day we'll be at that level."
Saturday's event was just the beginning of the events and clinics the NHL hopes to continue spearheading as part of its effort to continue the growth of women's hockey.
"When you show initiative like this, people notice," Herr said. "It's not even just the girls on the ice. It's the girls that haven't played yet and haven't stepped on the ice. When they see Kendall Coyne or Hilary Knight making an appearance with these young girls it creates the excitement. It might not be this player that we're impacting, besides the fun that they're having out here. But it's the next player...I think that's the future of hockey. I think the New York Islanders really stepped up."