Giving back to the next generation
by Erin Brown|08 MAR 2023
Lee Stecklein and her teammates of the U.S. national women's team give back to the next generation at try-hockey events.
photo: Erin Brown
Hannah Brandt could have been hanging out on a sandy beach, soaking in sunny weather. 

An hour earlier, she had finished her third game in five days and was overdue an opportunity to relax.

Instead, the Minnesota native found herself sprawled on the ice at a clinic in Florida. Challenged by Aurora, a girls hockey player, Brandt sprinted up ice, dove as she hit the blue line and rolled through the neutral zone.

The U.S national women's team forward won as expected and took a few pokes from the budding player after she reached the finish line. Brandt responded with laughter, pats on the head and more encouragement as the clinic continued.

"On the first drill, the girls were chirping me because I didn't get up fast enough," Brandt said. "So the second time I went, I had to beat them. Then they were slashing me, but I beat them."

Also member of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, Brandt understands the importance of these moments. And in Florida, one of the fastest growing markets for ice hockey in the United States, there’s hope the clinics jointly coached by PHWPA players and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s amateur hockey staff will further spark the girls game here.

"I went to all the (Minnesota Golden) Gophers games (growing up)," Brandt said. "I got to watch Krissy Wendell, Natalie Darwitz, Gigi Marvin and I would do 'Skate with the Gophers.' Getting to meet them was always so special and inspiring for me.

"These girls come and watch our games. It's fun to interact with them after. We spend a lot of hours in the rink, but it's just nice to inspire the next generation, show them what we have learned and be a role model for them."

In addition to Brandt, U.S. teammates Lee Stecklein, Nicole Hensley and Savannah Harmon were among several players who participated in helping the girls with drills and spoke with them about possibilities.

"Two said they really want to play college hockey," Stecklein said. "One was 16 – that's really soon for her. Another was 10 and just hoping to some day. It's exciting to hear and tell them that there is even more beyond that for those that want it and are able. It's always exciting to keep expanding their dreams of what they could do."

One of two professional women’s hockey organizations in North America, the PWHPA is comprised of a majority of players who skate for their respective national teams. As the group works toward creating a sustainable league to support high-performance female athletes, a crucial part of their mission includes fostering the girls’ game. Whenever the PWHPA puts on a showcase – usually six games spanning a weekend – they also host clinics for girls. 

"I think the best part for us is when we see our younger selves in the stands knowing that we were just them a couple years ago," said U.S. defender Megan Keller. "It's important for us to continue to lead the way and leave this sport in a better place for when they get older."

The PWHPA's trip to Tampa Bay coincided with USA Hockey's "Try Hockey" weekend. On Friday evening, 76 players participated across two events for girls aged 7-11 and 12-16. The next morning, 30 more who had never played showed up to don skates, helmets, gloves and a stick.

The "Try Hockey" initiative is similar to that of the IIHF's World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend, which USA Hockey also participates in. In Tampa, the events solely focused on introducing girls to the sport.

"Everything we've been able to put out, girls are interested in joining, so that's awesome," said Kelley Steadman, a two-time gold-medalist with Team USA who now oversees girls hockey initiatives with the Lightning. "It's huge for them to be able to not only watch high-level hockey and see what it's like, but to be able to be on the ice with them during clinics. It's an opportunity that not many girls get."

Florida is one of the hottest markets in the United States for the amateur game. It has seen a 10.4 percent increase in registrations across every level above its 2019 pre-pandemic numbers. It is one of just three states along with Montana and Texas to grow at every level since then. Florida also ranked second in new players last season with 1,769. Only Nevada and hockey-mad Minnesota added at least 1,000 new players last season.

Participation among girls increased by 76 total participants over pre-pandemic metrics. But overall, it has lagged. Girls 19 and under account for just 4.6 percent of the total players in the state. At its annual meeting, Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida (SAHOF), the organization under USA Hockey which oversees the game here, set growing the girls game as a priority.

Florida Alliance, the state's top-level program, began in 2017 with 24 players trying out for two teams. In 2022, 160 girls competed for spots on nine teams – AAA, AA and A levels across three age groups. But it could be more. 

Because players are spread across an area 721 km long and 582 km wide, there is no “home” rink for the organization. Players based in West Palm Beach on the east coast, for instance, have to travel 3-4 hours to the Tampa area on west coast to practice with teammates. To balance the burden among players and families, the team ends up playing in rinks as far north as Jacksonville and south as the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. 

Finding ice to accommodate such rendezvous are challenging, too. Despite having the third-largest population in the country, Florida is home to just 1.8 percent of the nation's rinks, according to the U.S. Ice Rink Association. Several of those surfaces are large arenas which aren't frequently used to support the amateur game.

The Tampa area, however, is home to multiple rinks accounting for 14 ice surfaces, including five sheets at AdventHealth Center Ice. In 2017, Team USA trained here before going on to win the gold medal at the 2018 Olympics in Korea. In March 2022, the Premier Hockey Federation, another professional women's organization, held its Isobel Cup playoffs at the facility.

There is hope the clinics and visit by the Olympians will create further interest locally to form more in-house girls programs and, in turn, push programs in other corners of the state to do the same. Doing so would create a more consistent experience and reduce costs.

"Our goal right now is to just build the base of girls hockey, get as many young girls in as possible and continue to develop them all the way through our programs," Steadman said. "Then three years, maybe something like that, down the line if we get to a point where we have enough girls, we could field either a Tier II team or even a Tier I team."

And, perhaps, it could lead to even greater results. 

Only two Florida-born players – Brittany Bugalski and Peyton Compton – have played for the U.S. U18 team. Bugalski retired from the game in 2019 after her senior season at Northeastern University. Compton, who made her international debut at the 2023 U18 Women's World Championship, will attend Northeastern in fall.

No Floridians have gone on to play for the U.S. senior team. But after the turnout the PWHPA and Lightning witnessed on the weekend, maybe the seed has been planted for that to change.

"There were definitely some (talented) girls, you could tell that they loved it," Stecklein said. "There was even a full team out there that was really skilled. Having a group of them that's able to play together and train together, hopefully, it says really good things about the future of Florida girls hockey."

"When I think of Florida I don't necessarily think of hockey first," Brandt said. "I think growing the women's and girls' side is always something we're looking to do. Hopefully one day we can have an Olympian come out of the state of Florida. I think it's definitely possible."