Just two weeks ago at the 2020 NHL All-Star Weekend, representatives from the Little Preds Learn to Play program traveled to St. Louis with a group of youth hockey fans to watch the festivities. Superstars like Shea Weber and Nathan Mackinnon were easily recognizable faces to the children, but when some of the female players walked out onto the red carpet, Amateur Hockey and Fan Development Coordinator Jennifer Boniecki turned to the youth to explain who they were looking at.
"I thought I was going to have to point out to those kids that this is Cammi Granato, this is Kendall Coyne Schofield," Boniecki said.
Before she could say anything, one of the young boys blurted out, "That's Kendall, she skated in the fastest skater last year!"
"I was really pleasantly surprised to hear that," Boniecki said. "That's trainable. That's so big that our youngest generation is able to say, 'Hey, these women are incredible, they're at the highest level of our game.'"
On Wednesday, the Nashville Predators joined the rest of the sports world in celebrating Granato, Coyne Schofield, and all the women who work in or play sports in any capacity. Feb. 5, 2020, marks the 34th annual National Girls & Women in Sports Day.
"Sometimes it takes a commemorative day like this to escalate awareness to a point that it's appropriate to make progress," Predators COO Michelle Kennedy said. "I, frankly, am very pleased with progress in this arena. Over the last couple of years, you see so much more about women in sports and I think it's because it's happening now in even more non-traditional ways - the first woman who was a part of the coaching staff for a Super Bowl, the Women's National Soccer Team and all the salary chat that's gone on, and I think all those things are great to bring visibility to the issue."
"It's super important," Boniecki said. "Sports, in general, are very male dominated, so I think being able to see women, not only in the front office, but as coaches or players, is so inspiring to young girls. They're not going to be able to do anything that they don't see, and so having that representation is so huge."
Kennedy spoke about the importance of young girls being involved in sports and how organized sports can teach young girls skills that are applicable later on in life, particularly for jobs within the sports industry.
"I started playing sports when I was a little girl, who grew up in a neighborhood full of boys," Kennedy said. "I wasn't going to sit inside and not do anything, so I just did everything they did. But then when you get into organized sports and particularly when you get into organized sports at advanced levels, it does so much for you… I think the infrastructure that sports create for anyone is awesome because it is a great laboratory to learn things that you're going to have to put to use in life."
Video: The Preds continue to grow girls hockey in Nashville
Over the past few years, the Predators have instituted programs in order to encourage girls to start playing hockey. With the opening of Ford Ice Center Bellevue, The Preds Girls Hockey initiatives have expanded exponentially, with all girls' hockey leagues for ages 4-16, in addition to girls-only GOAL!, Little Preds, and PREDecessor programs.
"That's our hub for girls' hockey," Boniecki said of the Preds Girls Hockey program. "Every program we have now has a female component, and it's girls only, so they now have a safe space. It's really important that girls feel that they can come in, play a sport and have that bonding experience in the locker room."
The Predators aren't alone in pushing women's hockey to the forefront of sports. As of the end of the 2018-19 season, more than 79,000 women were registered with USA Hockey, a huge jump from the 6,336 female players registered in 1990. More than 33,000 of those girls are ages 10 and under. The future of women in hockey is bright.
Video: NWHL All-Stars teach youth girls hockey in Nashville
"It's grown tremendously. When I came 12 years ago, it would have taken us a few days to find enough women who play hockey to put together a team," said Kennedy, who played college basketball at Vanderbilt University before working in professional sports. "We have a platform that we are interested in, we and every other team that does what we do, so I think then it becomes incumbent upon us to be responsible about that platform."
"Doing those things on our end is incredibly important for not only the game of hockey but for all women in all sports, and if we keep doing it the right way, we could be a leader among NHL teams and maybe in all of professional sports," Boniecki said.
Video: Preds host women, black history and inclusive events
Throughout the day, Preds employees will join women around the country in posting on social media to celebrate National Girls & Women in Sports Day with the hashtag #NGWSD.
"We want to be on the front porch," Kennedy said. "We want to be progressive, we want to be supportive, we want to be a part of the evolution."