Katey Stone stepped onto the stage at the USA Hockey 75th Anniversary Gala in June, moments after she was introduced as the first female head coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team and thought to herself, “It’s great to be the first of something, but I don’t want to be the last.”
Donna Guariglia, meanwhile, sat in the audience that night as Stone made her way to the stage.
“I had chills,” said Guariglia, USA Hockey’s Girls’/Women’s Section director. “I knew it was going to happen, but I was thrilled for her. I believe things are moving forward.”
Stone’s appointment as the coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, is a milestone moment. And it’s another sign that the influence of female coaches on the game is both growing and advancing.
“It’s about USA Hockey getting who they think can get the job right,” said two-time Olympian Shelley Looney, who ran the New Jersey Colonials female program for the past seven years.
“And it might open doors, encourage other women to continue coaching. It shows that USA Hockey is open to finding the best coach, male or female.”
After blazing a trail for future generations of female hockey players and coaches, Looney has a cautious optimism that this is just another step in the evolution of women’s hockey in the United States. It’s a sentiment that is shared by Stone.
“Obviously, it’s an honor,” said Stone, who during her 18-year tenure at Harvard has become the winningest coach in the history of Division I women’s hockey.
“I hope that over a long period, I’ve earned the opportunity. And I’m looking to make the most of it. And I hope that more females fill more coaching roles all over hockey.”
According to USA Hockey membership records, in 2011 there were 2,752 registered female coaches and 82 women working in college programs around the country.
More young female athletes – nearly 51,000 girls across the country played hockey at some level in 2011-12 – are getting the opportunity to play for women who once played the game, who share their passion and who want to impart their own experiences.
But there is much to be done. At the college level, many women lament the too-frequent departure of their female peers from the coaching ranks, young coaches choosing to leave programs because of the difficulty of balancing the demands of coaching and family life.
Looney, who scored the game-winning goal against Canada in the 1998 Nagano Games, said that balancing act can be a challenge.
“I think it’s a little tougher for women. That’s what people have said in the past,” she said. “I’ve seen a flood of college and youth women coaches coming in, and they stay for a couple of years or so and then it’s time to get out or do something else.”
But as Mark Tabrum, the director of USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program pointed out, that may just be the natural evolution of the profession. Approximately 10,000 new coaches join the USA Hockey ranks each year, and another 10,000 leave the game for a variety of reasons.
Of the 36 NCAA Div. I women’s hockey programs in the country to start the 2012-13 season, only eight will be coached by women. Add to the mix another 43 women who are serving as assistant coaches within women’s D-I programs.
Nevertheless, there is little debate that these women are also serving as important role models for a generation of younger coaches and their players.
But role models can also be found at the grassroots levels, in places such as Allen, Texas, which is not the likeliest location to breed up-and-coming hockey coaches.
“I have seen a lot of women who are not necessarily wanting to do it for a career, but are doing it to give back,” said Kendall Hanley, who runs the hockey programs as a recreation specialist in Allen’s parks department.
Hanley, who grew up in North Carolina and played college hockey at Elmira College in upstate New York and abroad in Australia, knows the value of good coaching and relishes her role as a mentor for a group of young women who are working with her.
“It is really great to have these girls,” Hanley said. “Hockey is a passion for them. They just want to come to the rink and help out.”
Guariglia came to USA Hockey from the Atlantic Amateur Hockey Association and as a director at the Girls’ Player Development Camps. She has worked extensively at the youth levels.
She admits that she has seen girls who assume male coaches are more knowledgeable about the game.
“Because that’s what they get and what they are living and seeing and learning,” Guariglia said. “But they are starting to see that a female coach has the skill, just as much knowledge and is definitely a mentor, someone to look up to.”
Guariglia said she has seen many women gain confidence in their skills and their experience.
“Over the years I have seen a number of young girls who have gone through pure female youth programs around the country and are now giving back as coaches in the organizations they grew up in,” she said.
“I have seen a lot of women who are not necessarily wanting to [coach] as a career but are doing it to give back.”
“The ones who have lived it and came up through it, they have it. They can walk into a coaching meeting and have the same level of confidence as the men in the room and that’s really important.”
She cited Looney as an example.
“She’s done an incredible job at the young level. She built a great program,” Guariglia said. “But yes, there are obstacles. But I’m an optimist, and I think we can get there.”
Looney, who has been coached by men and women throughout her career, agreed.
“It’s a different impression that a girl gets from a female coach, especially when she’s younger,” she said. “The girls are impressionable, and female role models are great to have.”
As a coach, and even with her extensive background as a player, Looney said she has faced “questions because I am a female.”
“But after the program is strong and you have great showings and you get some attention, there are no more questions,” Looney said. “Then people just want to know how you get it done.”
Stone has been getting it done at Harvard for a long time. She has won 378 games for the Crimson, reached the NCAA title game three times, and made nine NCAA Tournament appearances. Stone has also been serving as the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team since 2010. She is aiming to lead the team to its first Olympic gold since 1998, the first year women’s hockey was included in the Winter Games. She has also served as president of the American Women’s Hockey Coaches Association.
But she said she is “disheartened and disappointed” by the number of female coaches she sees in the college ranks.
“It’s not a simple answer. It’s a multi-pronged problem, and it can’t just be fixed by hiring women to be assistant coaches,” Stone said. “It’s about administrators making a commitment to continue to develop women.”
When the United States captured its first gold medal at the Nagano Winter Games, it served as a catalyst for the meteoric rise in the number of young female players who have since taken to the ice.
Since the 1992-93 season, when more than 10,000 girls or women were registered with USA Hockey, the sport has enjoyed enormous growth spurts. In 2011-12, the total number of registered female players (girls and women) reached the 67,000 mark.
When most girls started, they were by and large taught the game by male coaches. But as the curtain drew to a close on the playing careers for those early female pioneers, many moved into the coaching ranks, especially at the grassroots level.
“It’s all part of the evolution of the game,” Tabrum said. “As the base of the pyramid expands, eventually there will be more women reaching the highest levels of the coaching profession. That’s a good thing.”
To help with the professional growth of female coaches, Tabrum said that the CEP offers printed and online materials along with coaching clinics with information specific to working with female athletes.
In addition, Michele Amidon, USA Hockey’s first-ever director of women’s hockey, now serves as a regional manager responsible for the growth of the female game for the American Development Model.
Stone agreed that the diversity benefits all facets of the hockey community.
“Being able to have many different role models is important,” Stone said.“Being exposed to strong, competent women gives them an example for the rest of their lives. In some cases, a strong, confident, respectful woman is an exposure they haven’t had.”
The new U.S. Women’s Olympic Team coach may end up being the catalyst for that change by breaking down that barrier.
Guariglia certainly thinks that will be the case.
“I do believe Katey will do wonderful things for women in coaching because I think our girls need more role models,” Guariglia said.
“I think young women have the confidence to know that they can do this and they will be taken seriously.”
Michelle Smith is a contributor for espnW based out of San Francisco.