Team USA — with three Illinois natives — practiced recently in Chicago
By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI
If it wasn’t already clear the state was producing some of the top female American players, it certainly was when the U.S. Women’s National Team arrived in Chicago at the end of October.
Of the 23 players selected to compete with Team USA in the 2018 Four Nations Cup, three are from Illinois: Kendall Coyne Schofield (Palos Heights), Megan Bozek (Buffalo Grove) and Mikaela Gardner (Plainfield).
Coyne and Bozek got to play host when the WNT held its pre-camp at the Chicago Blackhawks’ flashy practice facility, MB Ice Arena.
“We always look for big, premiere events like this since we’ve built the new MB Arena, which opened last year,” said Annie Camins, Blackhawks senior director of fan development. “Right when that facility [opened], we had been talking to the people at USA Hockey and asking them if this was a possibility if [the national team] could do their pre-tournament camp here with us, and we were fortunate enough that they did decide to.”
The top hockey players in the country came to the Windy City not only to have the training camp, but also engage the local hockey community. USA Hockey, AHAI and the Blackhawks teamed up to run plenty of activities and clinics in conjunction with the women’s national team members being in town. The goal was to get young female hockey players in Illinois even more excited about the sport.
“When we have these types of events, the rink lights up with the energy and excitement around it,” said Kristen Wright, USA Hockey manager of girls player development. “We know the athletes and the kids on the ice are having such a great time because of the engagement, the coaching, the smiles and everything in between. There are extremely positive vibes in the arena when our athletes are interacting with these young female players .”
The week of activities began Sunday, Oct. 28, when the Blackhawks held a celebration of girls hockey on the same day they hosted Edmonton. Bozek was one of four athletes who took part in autograph and meet-and-greet sessions for about 70 girls hockey players prior to the NHL game. The WNT members were also honored during the game by the Blackhawks.
The next day, the women’s national team — which had 20 players in town — opened its training camp. After the team held a double practice, USA Hockey ran a free clinic for girls 12U and 14U players. About 80 players took part as USA Hockey American Development Model regional manager Dan Jablonic, Illinois coach-in-chief and ADM coordinator Jim Clare, Blackhawks representatives and local coaches from multiple associations hosted on-ice activities.
“We ran an age-appropriate practice for 12U and 14U girls,” Wright said. “We had a shooting/passing station. We had a 2-on-2 transition game. We had an angling/body contact station. We had a puck movement, puck support game. We had a breakout/regroup station, and we had another body contact 2v2 battle station. We incorporated the skills and concepts that are most important for 12U and 14U players. It’s important at these events to demonstrate what an ideal practice plan for that age would look like.”
USA Hockey scheduled the women’s national team’s practice prior to the clinic so the young players who attended could get a sense of how the WNT team operates on the ice.
“They could see them in action and see how strong, how fast and how physical they really are,” Wright said.
Camins said having women’s national team members help instruct young female hockey players in a clinic setting is extremely impactful.
“I think they probably see themselves in their skates one day, I hope,” Camins said. “You have Olympians like Kendall Coyne and Megan Bozek who are from the area and you have some young ones like Savannah Harmon and Abbey Murphy who are now on the ice with those girls and they’re all local kids. You’re just seeing a lot more girls out of Illinois become eligible to play and they’re competing with these girls from bigger hockey states and you’re seeing these Illinois girls are right in the mix. It just goes to show that the growth of the sport in the over 20 years since the Olympics started women’s hockey in 1998, and now with two gold medals it’s really allowed for more exposure for girls to start to play hockey and at a competitive level.”
The WNT practiced from Monday to Saturday, Nov. 3, before leaving Sunday for the Four Nations Cup in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The entire week of practice was open to the public and plenty of local fans and youth players watched the women skate.
On Nov. 1, the WNT scrimmaged the Chicago Mission 15 Only youth squad. There was also an autograph session following the event.
According to Wright, the WNT members feel it’s important to give back to the hockey community and be role models for young players because they once looked up to an athlete in their same situation.
“Our athletes have such a great time when they do these community events,” Wright said. “They’re positive. They’re always smiling. They’re participating in the drill. They’re coaching. They’re engaged. We find those moments are very beneficial both to the athletes and the young players.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.