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At the end of May 2024, FHL’s Denise Withers sat down with Hockey Canada’s Marin Hickox, Vice President, Women & Girls Hockey to chat about the future of female hockey in Canada. Here’s an abbreviated version of their conversation.

Denise: Let's start with yesterday's PWHL final. What's the significance of seeing the Walter Cup awarded to Minnesota after an explosive first season?

Marin: Well, I was sitting in my hotel room here in Winnipeg, where we’ve gathered for the Women and Girls Hockey Summit, and I was lucky to be able to see the whole game. I've been tuned in for the entire duration of the playoffs, and I am a season seat holder for PWHL Toronto. So I've had a vested interest throughout this year and this season.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that I had tears in my eyes when they opened up the Walter Cup for the first time, brought it out, and awarded it to Kendall Coyne Schofield and the Minnesota team.

Frankly, that was a victory for girls' hockey and such a significant moment. The blood, sweat, and tears that so many of those players and builders have put in behind the scenes—the sheer dedication and commitment to ensuring that Cup was raised—was pretty remarkable. There are so many firsts, and now just to know that the firsts are behind us, and this is now the norm, is incredible.

The professionalism and the way fans have reacted this year across the spectrum have been outstanding. We're not just seeing little girls; we're seeing girls, boys, parents, grandparents, guardians, and sports fans in general showing up in droves. It has been remarkable and really transcends the sport of hockey.

The other thing I want to say is that we haven't even seen the excitement of the PWHL truly translate into girls picking up sticks. That's going to happen next season. We had record numbers of participation this year, but I expect that number to continue to grow as families, guardians, and people are inspired by the long-term path for girls in hockey now.

Denise: So it’s clear that the PWHL is a big, literal game changer. When you look ahead, what's one other thing that you think could transform the game for women and girls and gender-diverse players in the future?

Marin: I think it's really important to hear from all diverse voices in sport. So, number one, I would like us to continue having conversations about our sport. I think talking to the customer is really vital. Understanding what keeps people in sport, why they leave sport, and what they need to feel fulfilled is crucial.

Regarding girls' hockey in particular, working with Canadian Women in Sports and discussing with Angela Ruggiero from the Sports Innovation Lab in the US, we have great research now that shows what girls need to thrive. Incorporating those findings into the game to meet the needs of today's youth is essential.

Just because hockey was built one way 30 years ago doesn't mean it should necessarily continue that way. We have to ensure that girls and women are in positions of leadership and visible roles.

We have the PWHL, and from an athlete's perspective, they can continue to advance. It's also important to continue giving opportunities to girls in coaching, GM positions, and officiating roles so they see that it can happen across all spectrums of the hockey ecosystem.

Denise: Those are all powerful strategies and for us in the lab, focusing on female-identifying leadership is a core piece of our work. We’re actually just about to run our first innovation sprint, the FHL Power Play, to radically increase the number of women coaching in hockey. So can you tell us a little bit more about what you see we need to be doing on that front?

Marin: There are 100,000 girls playing hockey in Canada today under the Hockey Canada umbrella, which is the largest number in our history. It's an exceptional number. Of that, we know that roughly 64% are playing on girls-only teams, and the remainder are playing on mixed teams.

We know from research over the last few years that girls, in general, thrive when they have a female behind the bench. We are trying to create these opportunities to keep that flow and maintain the natural trajectory throughout a hockey career. We want to ensure that those first experiences for girls jumping into the sport—whether they’re 5, 13, or 45—make them feel represented and seen at all levels of the game.

The good news is that we are up by about 23% in the number of women in coaching overall. We have over 6,000 girls and women in coaching positions this year. Similarly, we have just over 4,000 girls in officiating. These numbers are continuing to grow, and I'm hopeful that with more training, mentorship, and encouragement, they will keep increasing.

But we also need to understand the limitations for girls putting their names forward to participate. What's the environment like? Are they feeling safe and welcomed? Do they have enough education and training? I come back to the importance of mentorship. Is there a pool of mentors and an opportunity for them to continue to talk, and an outlet and allies across the country?

I think all of these things are crucial to ensuring we create a great environment for them to thrive.

Denise: That really is the heart of the issue, to be able to not only recruit new female coaches but empower them to stay. When we talk about system change and equity, we also want to make sure we’re not simply equipping women to succeed in a system that wasn’t built for them in the first place. So when we look at the actual system and the environment that they have to work in, what changes can we make so that they want to stay?

Marin: I agree with everything you've just said, and I would even take a step back to say the Canadian sports system is built on the backs of volunteers, rightly or wrongly. Whether it's coaching or officiating, they get paid to officiate the game, but it's not considerable amounts of money. Our minor hockey systems and grassroots systems, and even if you look across all sports, it's the same.

And when volunteers are put in these positions, we have to ask ourselves: are we giving them the tools they need to survive and thrive? I'm not sure that we are. Are we changing with the times? This insight isn’t just specific to girls; it really looks at our entire system.

As for girls getting into leadership, I would say we are not doing enough. I want to make sure that there is a clear win for somebody to put their hands up to coach. Many people get into it because they have a son or daughter involved. I'm hopeful that we can start a path or trajectory so that kids still playing have an understanding or familiarity with coaching at a younger age. When they're coming out of age 13, they're starting to learn the rules of the game and think about drills, so perhaps they could start to see they could have a path beyond playing.

Coaches don’t necessarily have to be just experts in the Xs and Os. You can learn that if you are a good leader, show confidence, and recognize the human aspect, not just the player, there's so much more that people can bring to the table as coaches. It's important to encourage people who might not have grown up playing hockey but can still be wonderful coaches and assets.

We should unpack what a coach looks like in 2024 and start there. Let’s look at the obstacles they’ll face, and the rewards they’ll receive, and then design what the future state should look like.

Denise: And how we might change the face of coaching, 100%. So looking ahead, what gives you hope for the future of hockey for women?

Marin: I guess there are two parts to that. One is looking at hockey and the game in general, and then specifically focusing on women's and girls' hockey.

For girls' hockey, it's no longer people investing in the sport for charity. You know, “Let's give some money over to the girls”. There's a genuine investment in developing a sport system where girls and women can thrive. Moving forward, it's mandatory; it's not just a nice-to-have.

I'm hopeful it means that girls of all ages will have the opportunity to interact with the sport in various capacities—whether as players, coaches, officials, fans, or in management. It's not an afterthought anymore, and that’s wildly exciting for me.

For the sport and hockey in general, we are at a tipping point. We can start to really analyze and ask, "What do we need to address in our game?" Do we need to make some changes? Do we need to ensure that there can be late entry? Do we need different streams? Is hockey working for all Canadians? Perhaps the traditional eight months of the year doesn’t work for everyone. Can we identify opportunities for kids to participate in hockey for just a month at a time, or three weeks, or six weeks, and learn to skate?

All these conversations are now top of mind and getting the attention they deserve, and that is exciting to me. It's not about resting on the laurels of the past; it’s about how we continue to relate, how we continue to be Canada’s favourite game, and how we give opportunities for all Canadians to participate.

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