Becki Winckler was never a hockey fan. Growing up in south Orange County, she came from a sports family, where football and baseball reigned, but hockey was never on their radar. When the Mighty Ducks debuted in Anaheim in 1993, during her senior year of high school, Winckler's family, who were already season ticket holders for the California Angels, thought they would give hockey a try as well and picked up a ticket package for the inaugural season.
Despite the enthusiasm for the new team, Winckler recalls that they just couldn't get into the sport. It just wasn't for them. Following that first season, Winckler can't even recall going to another game.
While hockey may not have been her thing, it came back into her life years later when she took her daughter, Lily, skating for the first time. Winckler remembers that it was an unusually miserable winter in Hawthorne, California, so her and her husband were looking for indoor activities they could do as a family.
One day he suggested they go ice skating, so they hopped into their car and went to the Toyota Sports Center in nearby El Segundo. After they finished skating, Lily, who was around two years old, spied a game of youth hockey on the next sheet of ice over and asked her parents to stay and watch.
"She made use sit down and watch a bunch of kids we didn't even know," Winckler said. Lily was captivated by the sport. It wasn't long before she started taking weekly skating lessons. But after a few years of classes, Lily's skating instructor pulled Winckler aside one day and suggested that it was time to consider developing her daughter's skills further.
Winckler asked Lily if she wanted to play hockey and soon she was playing on a co-ed house team. Among the boys on the team, her daughter was also part of a strong contingent of girls and Wickler recalls how the coach would sometimes put all the girls out on the ice during a game.
"The girls play differently when they play together than when they play with boys," Winckler said. She liked seeing her daughter and the other girls playing together, so Winckler began thinking about great it would be if they could do that all the time.
The next season, Lily was enrolled with the Jr. Kings when Winckler approached the organization's brass about forming a girls team. She remembers that, at first, they just kind of groaned and said it has been tried before but no one has ever been able to get it off the ground. But Winckler was undeterred. Although she was a kindergarten teacher who had no experience managing a hockey club, she was determined to make it happen.
Winckler rallied the core group of girls Lily had been playing with and entered the Tinseltown Labor Day Tournament in El Segundo in the 8U Track II division. Although the girls had only been practicing together for a couple of weeks, they finished third in the tournament and people took notice.
Following the tournament, interest in the team grew and the ranks swelled. Winckler began working with Megan Rivera, an LA Kings employee who played on the women's varsity hockey team at Boston College. While the girls remained affiliated with the Jr. Kings, Winckler and Rivera soon became frustrated by the perception from some within the organization that the girls team was an afterthought.
It was at that point that Rivera suggested bringing the girls hockey program to the LA Kings. "Megan pitched it to Luc [Robitaille] and he was all over it," Winckler said. Things moved quickly from there. Early into the season, the Kings announced the affiliation before a home game and, on November 4, 2015, the LA Kings Youth Girls Hockey Program officially began. Now they just needed a name.
Although the girls were now under the Kings banner, Winckler recollects that the club felt strongly about them having their own identity. "The story goes that they had an office pool for different names for the team," she said. The top two names wound up being the Royals and the Lions and they ended up going with the LA Lions.
When Winckler started the team she did it for her Lily, but it soon it became much bigger than her daughter. As they attracted more families and more girls, Winckler realized the impact they could have on young girls. "It's about the girls for me," she said. "It's about empowering girls and making strong girls."
While the core focus was on developing the girls on and off the ice, Winckler, remembers how it was still a challenge to get the buy-in early on from some of the families. Even among families who already had boys enrolled in hockey, there just wasn't the same commitment for the girls.
"They would happily pay for their sons to have these clinics and do all the extras to develop, but they wouldn't do it for the girls because for the boys, there's an NHL end, but for the girls there's nothing," Winckler said.
But now she finally feels as though they have created that buy-in for development on the girls side. The 8U team that started the program is now a 14U team and some of the players are already being looked at by colleges. With the growth of the women's game over the last decade, families are starting to see where hockey can take their daughters. "A lot of families are looking at the NWHL and PWHPA and, before COVID hit, we had families who were travelling to see these events," Winckler said.
While Winckler has focused on developing the Lions' founding flagship team, she always looking to give girls the chance to play hockey. "We've had older girls that want to play and I will try to make a team for them," she said. "It may not be the best team but I will have a team for them."
Not long ago, they graduated their first group of players to college with some girls going off to play division III or club hockey. Winckler recalls that to make the occasion the Kings hosted a signing event at STAPLES Center. While the girls committed to their respective institutions, Winckler stood behind them with tears streaming down her cheeks. "It was so amazing," she remembered.
Although the Lions, like many youth hockey programs, have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a silver lining for the club. While they haven't been able to play any games yet this season, they have had some extra help on the ice with development. Dominque Petrie, who grew up in Hermosa Beach and won gold with USA Hockey at the 2018 U-18 Women's World Championship, is spending her third year of Harvard University learning remotely from home and working for the Lions as an assistant coach.
Winckler says her presence has been invaluable to the girls. "She's been a great role model," Winckler said. "It makes our girls realize that level is attainable. Here's this local girl who grew up here and now she's part of the U.S. women's national team and at Harvard."
After she's finished her education, Petrie has told Winckler that she wants to come back and run the Lions, but she will have some competition. "My daughter said to her, 'you're going to run the Lions while I'm in college and then I'm going to come run the Lions,'" she laughed.
The Lions also reached a milestone during the pandemic. After failing to earn AAA status for the 14U club from USA Hockey, despite being one of the top teams in the country, the Kings went to the mat for the club.
"They rallied support from the Ducks and the Sharks and the NHL," Winckler said. "All those clubs and the league wrote letters on behalf of the Lions to USA Hockey stating that we should be granted AAA status."
Winckler was overcome with emotion when she read the letters. "I was just sitting in my house crying," she said. "They are writing these letters for 12 year old little girls. You hear that hockey is for everyone, and out here in southern California that seems like such a cliché, but when the NHL and the Kings stepped in on our behalf it really did make me feel like hockey is for everyone."
This past June, following the outpouring of support, the Lions received their AAA designation.
Although Winckler acknowledges that the Lions have come a long way from when the program was founded nearly six years ago, she hopes that the girls game in southern California will continue to grow. "I just feel like if we could get sticks in every little girls' hand at a young age, I just think that would make the sport explode," she said.
From there she hopes to see the development of girls' leagues in the region. The Lions still continue to play tournament hockey and hopes that one day that girls going through the program can have a league of their own. And as he own daughter starts to thinking about going off to college, she hopes there will be a day when there is an NCAA program for women's hockey in southern California.
"We need it on the west coast to keep girls here because my 14U team are all looking at prep schools because there are no colleges her to play for and when there are no colleges here, they feel they need to go play where the colleges are so they will be seen," she said.
Winckler hopes to see these changes in the coming years, but for now she remains committed to introducing more girls to hockey through the Lions program. While she continues to do what she does because of the impact that she knows it has on the players on and off the ice, she also keeps at it because she knows she has the backing of the Kings.
Every once in a while she will happen to spy Luc Robitaille strolling through Manhattan Beach and she is always tempted to go up him and introduce herself. "I'd say 'hi, I'm Beck Winckler, I'm the mom who is running your girls program," she said. "We've never actually met but I know he's so, so supportive and to have the support from the top really sends a message."
Winckler firmly believes the Kings have led the way in supporting girls hockey at the local level and hopes that their example will inspire other NHL clubs to follow suit.
Photos credited to: MC Finney (@MCFinney)