It's hard for me to put into words how incredible these past few months have been here in Pittsburgh when it comes to girls and women in hockey.
Right now, growth is at an all-time high. In 2018-19, girls' hockey in western Pennsylvania increased eight percent to 1,421 registered players - an all-time high. Over the last 10 seasons (2008-09 to 2018-19), it has grown 76.7 percent in the area.
Since Sidney Crosby's Little Penguins 'Learn to Play Hockey' launched in 2008, more than 1,800 girls have participated - with 17 of them making up the entirety of Johnstown's first-ever all-girls team.
And recently, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League announced they will launch an all-girls division that will operate identically to the other varsity divisions.
But what's made this year extra special is that female youth and amateur players in the area got the chance to be inspired by some of the top players in the game at the college and national levels.
First, the Penguins hosted the U.S. and Canadian women's national teams - featuring many Olympic gold medalists - for a weeklong joint training camp. Then, the first-ever 'Battle at the Burgh' women's college hockey invitational was held in January.
They also got to watch women make history and gain visibility at the 2020 NHL All-Star Game. A year after Kendall Coyne Schofield's legendary lap, All-Stars from the U.S. and Canada went head-to-head in the first-ever Elite Women's 3-on-3, right in the middle of the Skills Competition.
For "Her Hockey Day," I took a look back at some of the great achievements and events that have happened on the girls' and women's side of the game over the past year.
The photo is perfect.
It captured Sidney Crosby rounding the bottom of the left circle during warmups ahead of Pittsburgh's game against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 10. Framed perfectly in the background behind him are the signs held up against the glass by the members of the Johnstown Warriors Girls 12U team.
The signs spelled out: "CROSBY'S GIRLS 87." And the story behind those signs is amazing.
For the first time in its 53-year history, the Johnstown Warriors Cambria Youth Hockey Program rostered an all-girls team (12-and-under) for the 2019-20 PAHL season. They call themselves "Crosby's Girls" since all 17 girls started out participating in the captain's unique Little Penguins "Learn to Play Hockey" program.
One day, head coach Shari Hudspeth was on a group chat with the parents when she asked, "Whose daughter played in the Little Penguins program?" The responses started flying in.
Quickly, they realized that all 17 girls on the roster had started out participating in the program. Now in its 12th season, the Little Penguins program provides free head-to-toe hockey equipment, including skates, to 1,500 children aged 4-9 each year. More than 13,000 kids in the Pittsburgh area have been introduced to hockey this way.
Without Crosby and the Little Penguins, said Hudspeth, they wouldn't have been able to get enough girls together to field a team.
"Every single girl, all 17 of them, started with Little Penguins. That's why we have a team now," Hudspeth said. "This doesn't happen without him. We are so grateful."
The coaches and the parents surprised the girls with a trip to Pittsburgh to watch the Penguins play that night in October. It was a truly unique, amazing way to see a tangible impact of Crosby's program, and how it has helped grow youth hockey in the area - particularly girls' hockey.
READ: CROSBY'S GIRLS
Just over a month later, the same girls that had crowded around the glass at PPG Paints Arena to watch their idol play now crowded around the glass at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex to watch the U.S. and Canadian's women's national teams face off against each other on Nov. 8 as part of their joint training camp.
"It's been great for girls' hockey and the growth of girls hockey in the area," Hudspeth said that night. "They're loving it. For a lot of them, this is the first time they've seen girls' hockey. These girls are seeing it, and now they know they can be it. There's an opportunity for them in the future and now it's real. So, it's awesome."
When I heard it was happening, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it because it was such an incredible opportunity to have some of the best hockey players in the world from one of the best rivalries in the world right here in Pittsburgh for an entire week, practicing, playing games and making an impact in our community.
Obviously, the product on the ice was fantastic, seeing as these two teams do not like each other. Both games were heated and highly competitive, with Team Canada sweeping the series. And it was truly amazing to see the turnout for those games, as fans packed the stands in standing-room only crowds.
But what I remember the most from that week is just how these women are role models in every sense of the word. These players have the weight of the women's hockey world on their shoulders, and they take that responsibility seriously - yet they manage that burden with smiles on their faces.
As Team USA captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said, "Whatever community we're on in home soil, that's our home." And they went above and beyond to do everything they could to make sure that they were visible around town, as the unofficial motto of Team USA is the Billie Jean King quote, "You have to see it to be it."
Members of Team USA took the ice with girls from EXCEL Hockey Academy; joined girls ages 6-12 for a dek hockey clinic at the Graham Park Dek in Cranberry; practiced with the 14U/16U/19U Penguins Elite girls' teams at Shadyside Academy; surprised the North Pittsburgh Wildcats 12U and 14U teams at their skate in Warrendale; and held numerous autograph sessions, meet and greets and photo opportunities.
To cap it all off, every single player on Team USA took the ice at PPG Paints Arena to coach at a girls' 10U and 12U clinic.
"This has been an excellent opportunity to inspire the next generation of girls here in the Pittsburgh area and get on the ice with them a few times," Coyne Schofield said. And that's exactly what they did.
The United States and Canadian held a five-game Rivalry Series from December through February. Team USA won the final contest, 4-3, in overtime in front of a record-breaking crowd in Anaheim on Feb. 8. The two teams played in front of 13,320 fans at Honda Center, which set a record for the most-attended women's national hockey team game ever played on U.S. soil.
READ: A GREAT WEEK FOR WOMEN'S HOCKEY
The Penguins were able to build on the momentum of the week-long joint training camp held by the U.S. and Canadian's women's national teams with another great showcase for women's hockey by hosting the first-ever 'Battle at the Burgh' invitational tournament in January.
The defending national champion University of Wisconsin women's hockey team, coached by former Penguin Mark Johnson, highlighted a powerhouse field that also featured local power Robert Morris and two other nationally-ranked teams, Northeastern and Colgate.
I'll never forget the scene I witnessed as the clock ticked down to the final seconds of regulation in the consolation game between Robert Morris and Colgate, starting when Colonials forward Kyleigh Hanzlik received a pass while heading up the ice.
Hanzlik, who made her RMU debut that weekend after transferring from Wisconsin, streaked into the offensive zone. She did a spin-o-rama around the last Raiders defenseman and beat goalie Liz Auby with a beautiful backhander for her first career collegiate goal with just 6.1 seconds left to give Robert Morris a 6-5 lead.
At that moment, not only did the Colonials bench explode with excitement - Hanzlik's former Badgers teammates, watching as they prepared to take on Northeastern in the championship, were also ecstatic, banging on the glass and cheering for their old friend.
"I don't really know how to explain it," a smiling Hanzlik said after the game. "It was a neat feeling to know everybody's behind you like that and so supportive and just wants the best for you. It's pretty cool."
That was the biggest highlight in a tournament filled with them. On every single level, 'Battle at the Burgh' was a big success. All four games were entertaining and exciting, with Wisconsin ultimately triumphing over Northeastern in overtime, 4-3, in the championship game.
"This was everything we hoped that it would be, for sure," said Kara Radeke, executive director of business operations at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. "Great attendance on Saturday and then another good attendance here on Sunday. The quality of the games and the excitement and the energy was amazing. We couldn't have asked for better games."
To top it all off, all four participating teams featured Penguins Elite alumni. It was an amazing example of how much the program has been able to do in such a relatively short period of time since being started in 2012, particularly on the girls' side.
READ: FIRST-EVER 'BATTLE AT THE BURGH' TOURNAMENT A HUGE SUCCESS
It isn't just on the ice that more women are getting involved in the game - it is happening off the ice as well.
In the 10 years since I joined the organization, 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.
The organization currently has 49 women in their front office staff, which includes the Penguins, Penguins Foundation and Hockey Operations. And this past summer, Jen Bullano Ridgley was promoted to Vice President of Media Relations. Not only is Bullano Ridgley now a member of the Penguins' senior management team; she continues to handle one of the highest-profile clubs in all of sports. She is the only woman to hold such a role across the entire league, and does a terrific job at it.
In addition, Penguins Deputy General Counsel and Director of HR Tracey McCants Lewis and Director of Strategic and Community Initiatives Delvina Morrow have been two driving forces behind diversity and inclusion in hockey.
They spearheaded the Penguins' first-ever Black Hockey History Day on Jan. 31, an event that featured a full day of activities highlighted by the NHL's Black Hockey History mobile museum stopping at Miller African Centered Academy in the Hill District and hosting the Black Girl Hockey Club as special guests.
READ: COLOR OF HOCKEY - WOMEN MAKING INCREASING IMPACT
From the top on down, there are women at every level of the organization who are leaders and role models that are breaking barriers and blazing a path. All of these women are showing the hockey world that you don't have to play in the NHL to work in the NHL. When it comes to hockey, it really is for everyone.
FOR ALL OF OUR COVERAGE ON WOMEN'S HOCKEY, VISIT OUR LANDING PAGE HERE.