As a student reporter at the University of Michigan, Kaitlin Urka covered the men's basketball team. She traveled to Kansas City to cover the NCAA tournament. Exciting stuff - until she hit a snag. When Urka attempted to enter the Michigan locker room for post-game interviews, an attendant at the door barred her.
"An elderly gentleman told me I was not allowed," says Urka, now a producer for NBC Sports and Olympics. "I'm 33. This wasn't the 1970s."
An ESPN reporter who recognized Urka from the Michigan basketball beat interceded to make it clear the young reporter was more than entitled to walk into the locker room. "They eventually let me in," says Urka. "I thought to myself, 'I am going to deal with this if I want to work in TV and sports.' "
Urka says when she first started talking to family members and friends about her career aspirations, many people asked "are you sure?" She says "I didn't blame them," in part because role models were rare back then. Urka says Andrea Joyce was a personal inspiration, calling her a trailblazer who covered several Olympic Games on-air for CBS during the 1990s and served as major league baseball studio host, plus handled all sorts of other breakthrough assignments including the NBA and, yes, the NCAA basketball tournament widely known as March Madness.
Let's agree the career thing worked out. Urka has worked several Olympics, Stanley Cup finals, Super Bowls, Tour de France, winning four Emmys along the way. But nothing tops Sunday for Urka. She dreamed up an all-female NHL broadcast concept-on-air and behind the camera-for NBC Sports to celebrate International Women's Day. Viewers can watch on NBC Sports Network when the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues visit the Chicago Blackhawks. Studio coverage will start at 4 p.m. Pacific on NHL Live and will continue immediately following the game with NHL Overtime.
"This game is my proudest moment," says Urka. "I am blessed to have worked on our hockey properties [NBC and NBC Sports Network] in studio and at games in the production truck. I'm grateful to have bosses who encouraged when I pitched the idea. Everyone [at NBC] has been so supportive and asked what they can do to help."
The Central division matchup marks the first NHL game broadcast produced solely by women in the U.S. Kate Scott will handle play-by-play duties, U.S. Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne-Schofield will serve as the "inside the glass" analyst and AJ Mleczko - another USA gold medalist--will work alongside Scott as an analyst.
Back in the studio, Kathryn Tappen will anchor with analyst and three-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist Jen Botterill. Producer Rene Hatlelid and director Lisa Seltzer will lead game production. Tappen is a familiar face to hockey fans, starting at NHL Network in 2011 and moving to NBC and NBCSN in 2014, also working Notre Dame home football for the network.
"I've been broadcasting for 17 years, and yet, the first broadcast I did with a female producer was just two years ago," says Tappen. "The fact we are celebrating International Women's Day with an all-female broadcast and production team tells me how far we have come in a very short time."
Tappen identifies the U.S. women's hockey team winning the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea as a "major turning point" for the growth of women in hockey roles. The resulting visibility encourages girls and young women to imagine hockey as a career path for broadcasting, scouting, management and more.
"What USA women achieved is one reason," says Tappen, "but it's important to note the team continued to stay at the forefront by showing up in communities [for appearances and hockey clinics]. They were totally hands-on, promoting women's hockey as intelligent, impressive women with college degrees."
"We aren't just bringing women together for the sake of bringing women together," Urka says. "These are professionals who are some of the best at what they do and do these jobs on a regular basis."
Urka's says the mission for the broadcast is NBCSN's usual expert game coverage, in this case pitting a strong St. Louis club against division rival Chicago, winners of three Cups since 2010 but teetering on missing the playoffs for a third straight season. There will be features celebrating women on-ice officials, female staffers on both teams and the Black Girl Hockey Club organization among other programming during pre-game, intermissions and post-game.
"My biggest hope is this all becomes commonplace," says Urka, "that we don't need future stories. We want little girls and little boys to see [female faces] as a natural part of viewing."
Like any successful activist-though Urka might not see herself as such-the NBC Sports producer turns obstacles into open pathways. Along with turning out a great Michigan basketball story on that night in Kansas City, Urka's all-female broadcast sparked last June when a colleague shared a story about bringing her teen daughter into a NBC production truck during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the Blues and Boston Bruins.
The colleague "expected to hear how amazing it was, the monitors and everything," recalls Urka. What happened instead is the daughter noticed there were no women in the production truck (working elsewhere, including back at the NBCSN studio).
The conversation stuck with Urka. Several months later, she realized her idea and International Women's Day represented her mode of reply to the teen daughter: "I hope the broadcast can be part of opening minds and doors so the next generation sees what's possible in front of the camera and behind the camera."