As each youth sport season starts up, there are questions every family has to answer. Will the athlete do any pre-season or pre-tryout sessions? Does their equipment still fit properly? Are there any organizational changes they need to know?
And for girls’ hockey players, are they planning to play on a girls or youth team for the upcoming season?
“It’s a really difficult question for a family to have to answer,” said Kristen Wright, a USA Hockey Regional ADM Manager for Female Hockey. “The discussion comes with a lot of questions for the individual family because it really does become an individual decision for that hockey player and that family to try and determine if playing on an all-girls team or a youth team is going to be the best option for her that season.”
To make the matter even more challenging for families, the topic also tends to generate strong opinions and advice from other players, coaches, parents and administrators in the association.
The good news though is Wright, who spent five years as USA Hockey’s Manager of Girl’s Player Development and has been actively involved in growing girls’ hockey, believes families can have confidence in the fact that either route can provide a positive and successful experience for their daughter:
“We equally support our youth teams as much as our girl’s teams,” said Wright. “We understand that both options are going to be a better option for different kids.”
Why Can Girls Play Youth?
One question that occasionally comes up during the girls’ vs youth team discussion is: Why are there two classifications? Shouldn’t all players be under the youth classification? Or if the classifications needed to be gender specific, why not separate the groups into boys and girls?
“USA Hockey offers the two classifications, the girls classification, which is only open to females, and the youth classification, which is open to both males and females, because we want to give girls the opportunity to play on an all-girls team but also recognize that for girls and families in some communities, playing on a youth team may be the only option,” said Wright.
“The Women’s Sport Foundation says it the best, ‘the more opportunities we offer for girls, whether they’re co-ed or single gender, the better it is for getting girls playing sports.’”
The Elite Path
For years, the top female hockey players came up through the youth hockey ranks. Players like Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell, who have been selected as U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductees in back to back years, went directly from playing youth hockey to being girls’ high school hockey superstars, before moving onto outstanding collegiate and international careers.
Fast forward nearly 20 years and the competitive landscape of girls’ hockey has changed significantly in Minnesota.
“It’s becoming more of a myth than an actual fact that you have to play on a youth team to become an elite competitive female hockey player,” said Wright. “We look back on our 2018 Olympic team, and we have a wide variety of our team playing both girls and youth or just girls’ hockey growing up. The number of girls playing just girls’ hockey that are reaching an elite level gets higher and higher every year, and I think that’s because the opportunities are growing every year as well.”
Minnesota natives who played girl’s hockey throughout their entire career include Hannah Brandt, Sidney Morin, Grace Zumwinkle and many more.
“The best female athletes are still getting all of the development they need within their all-girls program or their all-girls team.”
A Win-Win Opportunity
“Most Minnesota communities have the benefit of offering all girls teams so you definitely have the benefit over other geographic areas where this question can be more difficult,” said Wright, noting the challenging dynamics that can occur in smaller communities.
“Until you reach those numbers, depending on what age levels, you’re trying to build, it can be really difficult because you will have players who feel the need to play on a youth team versus the girls’ team as the girls’ team is trying to grow.”
Rather than trying to influence players and families towards a specific decision though, Wright encourages coaches and administrators to look for opportunities that present win-win situations.
“There’s nothing in the rules that prevents them from practicing together, scrimmaging and sharing ice time,” said Wright. “Instead of having your 10-year-old to 15-year-old females on one sheet for practice, you could have all of your 10-year-olds, male and female, on the ice for practice.”
That way the girls who desire to compete with and against boys’ players have that opportunity while also helping build the girls program.
The Big Picture
In many cases, the hockey-related factors of development opportunities, coaching, competitive level, etc. drive the ultimate decision, but there are other important elements for families to consider.
“There’s an importance to what the female athlete wants as well,” said Wright. “Who she wants her social group to be, whether that’s a group of female athletes on an all-girls team or if she would prefer to play on a youth team.”
The social and emotional components of being a part of the team can’t be overlooked because at the end of the day, the goal is for your daughter to have a great experience and enjoying her teammates is a key part of that.
“How will your daughter thrive athletically and socially and have the most fun playing hockey,” summarized Wright.
The team that can offer all three is going to provide a great season, regardless of which classification they play in.
For additional insight, check out USA Hockey’s full list of questions on the topic by clicking here.