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Celebrating the women of the Penguins

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

As part of Gender Equality Month, we are celebrating the women of the Penguins who are influencing and impacting the sport of hockey.

All I ever wanted to do was play hockey, and then work in hockey. Fortunately, I've been able to do both.

I put my first pair of skates on at age 4 and played all the way through college at Michigan State University, captaining the women's club hockey team my junior and senior years. It was there that a professor set me up for an internship with the Detroit Red Wings in my last semester of school that helped me land my current position.

 Tweet from @PensInsideScoop: All I have ever wanted to do was play hockey, and then work in hockey. I'm so grateful that I've been able to live my dream without feeling limited by my gender. For that, I'm especially thankful to my parents and everyone at the @penguins. Happy #InternationalWomensDay! -MC pic.twitter.com/QGOXYpm6En

I'll never forget how I felt when I got that first full-time job offer. I remember exactly where I was when my phone rang and Vice President of Communications Tom McMillan asked if I would like to come and work for the Pittsburgh Penguins as their Manager of Content.

I got hired at the start of the 2010-11 season, right when 'new media' was developing into a legitimate career option. Team websites were becoming big, and organizations were just starting to hire their own people to write for them. 

I was fortunate that not only were the Penguins one of the first teams to do so, but that they hired a woman to fill the position. It was literally my dream job, one I didn't even know existed (and it actually didn't until I was graduating), and still is to this day.

In the eight-plus years since I was brought on, the Penguins have continued to hire women into roles that didn't exist a few years ago as social media and in-house content production continues to grow - joining the women who have already been making in-roads in the organization and the sport for many years across a number of different departments.

"There are some really impressive women working at the Penguins - women who have been with the organization for longer than I've been alive, women who are leading teams, and women who love - and know a ton about - the game of hockey," said Andi Perelman, who is the Penguins' Director of New Media. 

"I appreciate being part of a team with so many strong women who do a phenomenal job of growing the game, enhancing the fan experience, and really, adding value to every aspect of our business. I've learned a lot from the other women at the Penguins and they have helped me to become a leader at the company myself. I think there's still work to do, but the men and women at the Penguins are committed to creating those opportunities."

The organization currently has 45 women in their front office staff, which includes the Penguins, Penguins Foundation and Hockey Operations. Seven of them have been here for 20 years or more.

The longest-tenured employee with the Penguins, male or female, is Cindy Himes at 41 years of service.

A graduate of Duquesne University, Himes was hired by the Penguins in 1977 as the Assistant Director of Media Relations. In 1984, the Director of Media Relations was promoted to Hockey Operations, and the original plan was to look outside of the organization to replace him. 

That's when Himes approached Bob Berry, who was the Penguins' head coach at the time. She told Berry that if they weren't going to consider her, then she might need to move on from the organization, and he reassured her that he would talk with general manager Eddie Johnston.

"EJ came to see me, and he said there's no question we're going to go to the president and tell him that you should have that job," Himes said. "It was EJ and Bob Berry, the coach and GM, that supported me and made that possible."

At the time of her promotion, Himes was just the third woman in NHL history to fill such a position. 

"We were sort of a very small club," Himes said. "In sales, there were a few ladies, but overall, in the organization, not many ladies at all. Especially in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was doing the media relations and traveling with the team. There were no other ladies. Now there's (more). But back then, there just weren't any. It would be lonely at times, being on the road. But it's much different now. The whole industry has opened up so much for women. It's neat to see how far they've come when you realize where they started."

It's been especially incredible for Himes - who has since moved on to become the Penguins' Director of Community Relations - to see someone like Jen Bullano, who is currently the Penguins' Senior Director of Communications, thrive in such a role.

Bullano, who is from New Castle and graduated from Penn State University, worked for Disney down in Florida for a few years before returning to Pittsburgh to get her MBA at Point Park University. She got McMillan's contact information and invited him to lunch.

"I remember him giving me honest advice," Bullano said. "Back then, it was 15 years ago, and I remember him saying it's hard. Getting jobs in sports is hard, and I hate to say it, but it's even more difficult for females - and in hockey, it's even more difficult."

But McMillan believed in her and knew that she was more than capable of working in sports, eventually hiring Bullano to be the Penguins' Manager of Media Relations. 

"I never thought I was at a disadvantage because I was female," Bullano said. "I just thought, 'This is what I want to do.' I had never been told that I couldn't do something because I was female, so I never even thought of it. But I also realize that times have changed and a lot of things are being done to promote females in the workplace. Back then, I didn't think of it as, 'oh wow, this is crazy.' But when Tom hired me, he took a really big chance."

About a month into that role, the director resigned, and that day, Bullano had to go into the locker room and handle the media. Ray Shero, who was the Penguins general manager at the time, put his hand on her shoulder and said "Well, kid, sink or swim," and opened the door. 

Shortly after that, McMillan promoted Bullano into her current position, where she is the only female serving in such a capacity in the entire NHL. Bullano oversees all interview requests for management, the coaching staff and the players - essentially, anyone that's on the Hockey Operations side. 

She and Director of Communications Jason Seidling serve as the gatekeepers to the locker room and coordinate internal and external coverage.

"When Tom made me director, he took a really big chance," Bullano said. "He was talking with our team services guy on a Friday and was like, 'you know, I just have this inkling to give Jen the chance.' On Monday, I was director of communications. That was a huge deal, and I didn't know. There was a female VP of communications at the NHL at the time, and she called and left me a voicemail and said 'You don't know me yet, but I'm so proud of you as a female.' That's when I learned I was the only female to have my job, and now there's so many other women getting involved and starting out in this field, and it's really exciting. I'm proud to say that my past three graduate assistants have been women."

It's incredibly significant that Bullano is the only woman in her position, but at the end of the day, she's just really good at her job, regardless of her gender. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan can't say enough about Bullano's professionalism.

"In a male-dominated environment, she carries herself extremely well," he said. "She doesn't get intimidated by the players. She commands the respect of the players. I know they have a lot of respect for her, as do all of us. And a lot of it is because of the type of person that she is and how good she is at her job. 

"I can't say enough about what she does for our team, for me personally, and the way she carries herself in a male-dominated world. She handles herself extremely well. Every one of us, myself included, want to try to help do the right thing for her because she's trying to do the right thing for our organization."

In addition to Bullano and myself, assistant team physican Dr. Melissa MacLane and PensTV producer Meghan McManimon travel regularly with the team, with Perelman and PensTV producer Tara Kavanaugh also taking road trips over the course of the season.

When we're all on a "Girls' Trip" together, as we like to say, we realize how far the sport has come since Himes' days. We know how fortunate we are that we have a (growing) group of women on the road, and feel grateful that the Penguins have given us chances in these prominent roles. 

McManimon and Kavanaugh do fantastic work behind the camera, and there are women who are excelling in front of it, doing an amazing job of representing the Penguins in the arena and out in the community. Celina Pompeani is the Penguins' in-game host, while Nicole Jelinek and Nicole Paxinos are the team's PensTV hosts.

There truly are women at every level of the organization who are leaders and role models that are breaking barriers and blazing a path from the top on down, starting with Deb Cafaro, who is a Penguins minority owner and member of the board.

There are a number of female Senior Directors and Directors within the organization and women on track to senior management. Joining Himes, Bullano and Perelman are: Tracey McCants Lewis, Deputy General Counsel and Director of Human Resources; Barb Pilarski, Senior Director of Creative Services and Publications; Erin Exley, Senior Director of Database Marketing; Kathy Davis, Director of Customer Service; Jill Shipley, Director of Fan Development and Special Events; Kat Smerdel, Director of Events and Hospitality; Amanda Susko, Director of Foundation Programs; and Kara Radeke, Executive Director of Business Operations at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

Eighteen women have been hired within the last three years across all departments, including hockey operations, digital marketing, partnership marketing, graphic design and ticket sales.

All of these women are showing the world that you don't have to play the in the NHL to work in the NHL. When it comes to hockey, it really is for everyone.

"The opportunities for women in hockey, and in sports, are now limitless," McMillan said. "You have to look no farther than the very talented women here at the Penguins, who have been trailblazers in so many areas. It's not just that they were given opportunities; they earned those opportunities and have done such outstanding work for this organization. In many ways, I believe, they are inspiring the next generation of high school and college students who want to work in sports."   

The Penguins Foundation will be hosting a "Her Hockey Night" on March 31 against Carolina. Click here for more information. 

Here are the women of the Penguins' front office:

Holly Bandish Customer Service Representative Customer Service 8.8
Devin Beahm Senior Manager, Partnership Marketing Partnership Marketing 3.3
Abbey Braddock Manager, Foundation Programs Foundation 5.1
Jennifer Bullano Ridgley Senior Director, Communications Media Relations 12.4
Kirsten Burkes Assistant Manager, Box Office Box Office 0.6
Susan Carper Executive Assistant Administration 3.9
Michele Colaianni Executive Assistant to EVP/GM Hockey Operations 2.4
Madison Connelly Coordinator, Foundation Programs Foundation 1.9
Carlianna Cottone Inside Sales Representative Ticket Sales 0.5
Michelle Crechiolo Manager, Content New Media 8.3
Taylor Crosby Manager, Partnership Marketing Partnership Marketing 0.9
Kathy Davis Director, Customer Service Customer Service 15.7
Erin Exley Senior Director, Database Marketing Database 13.7
Kelly Gabany Manager, Box Office Box Office 21.4
Bonnie Golinski Senior Ticket Sales Account Executive Ticket Sales 20.8
Abby Greenbaum Coordinator, Programming On Ice 3.7
Angela Gubala Coordinator, Youth Skating and Introductory Programs On Ice 1.7
Paige Hancher Senior Manager, Partnership Marketing Partnership Marketing 3.4
Kelly Hart Receptionist Administration 20.2
Kate Hartill Inside Sales Representative Ticket Sales 0.4
Cindy Himes Director, Community/Alumni Relations Foundation 41.8
Julia Ivery Manager, Premium Services Premium Seating 6.5
Emma Kilmer Graduate Assistant Communications 0.6
Erin Lockwood Senior Manager, Partnership Marketing Partnership Marketing 1.6
Jamie Louden Manager, Digital Marketing Digital Marketing 1.7
Tawni Love Accounts Payable Accounting 23.5
Tracey McCants Lewis Deputy General Counsel and Director of HR Administration 0.1
Ashley McDonough Manager, Group Sales Ticket Sales 2.6
Meghan McManimon Producer Game Entertainment 5.6
Dani McSweeney Inside Sales Representative Ticket Sales 1.1
Jen Navari Graphic Designer Creative 1.1
Andi Perelman Director, New Media New Media 5.2
Barb Pilarski Senior Director, Creative Services and Publications Creative 24.5
Kara Radeke Executive Director, Business Operations Administration 4.2
Nicole Rudy Manager, Ticket Sales Ticket Sales 13.7
Nicole Schaaf Executive Assistant Administration 2.0
Jill Shipley Director, Fan Development and Special Events Marketing 17.7
Kat Smerdel Director, Events and Hospitality Administration 3.1
Darya Snoznik Coordinator, Foundation Programs Foundation 0.2
Laura Spencer Manager, Fan Development Marketing 8.7
Amanda Susko Director, Foundation Programs Foundation 7.2
Erin Tirpak Manager, Publications Creative 11.6
Molly Trunzo Executive Assistant Administration 2.1
Amy Wesson Manager, Partnership Marketing Partnership Marketing 0.8
Andrea Winschel Manager, Payroll Accounting 20.5
First Last Title Group Years of Service
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