Jennifer Wood drops the puck during one of the Western Washington Female Hockey Association's learn-to-play classes.

The locker room is quiet, save the tearing of Velcro straps and sticky unspooling of hockey tape. Then comes a giggle. A gentle scold to sit still. Eventually, pink helmets are buckled, skate laces tied, ponytails straightened.

It's Sunday morning at the Kraken Community Iceplex, and after a Zamboni smooths the surface of Rink 2 to a glossy shine, nearly two dozen girls, ranging from preschoolers to teenagers, clamber from the bench out onto the ice. Over the next hour, they weave around orange cones, skate and stop and, yes, fall. They swipe at pucks with their sticks, shoot at the net, even scrimmage, trailing after the vulcanized rubber disk in a pint-size mob (full disclosure: my daughter is among this adorably disorganized gaggle).

On the surface, it's just straight-up cute. But to Jennifer Wood, better known as Coach Jenn, girls like these are influencing the growth of hockey, not only in the Seattle area but across the country.

"Girls are no longer a novelty," explains Wood, who is president of the Western Washington Female Hockey Association (WWFHA), which runs this nine-week learn-to-play program called Wild Things. "They're becoming an accepted, ingrained part of the hockey culture."

The writer's daughter at her first learn-to-play hockey class.

Participation in youth and amateur hockey has been on an upward trend in the United States, growing by 190 percent during the last pre-pandemic season in 2018–19. That's fueled especially by girls and women, whose participation in the sport is up 34 percent over the last decade.

While Seattle has always been a hockey town, and the Kraken's arrival has only heightened interest in the game, the opportunities for girls and women in the sport were pretty limited in the area until recently. When Wood first signed her daughter up for beginner's hockey in 2009, she was stunned to discover that she was the only girl: "I was like, Where are the girls? Why are there no girls playing?"

While most rinks in the area offered co-ed learn-to-play programs, which some girls were happy to join, Wood says that cut out those who wanted an all-girls alternative. "If you don't provide that option for them, they quit."

She likens it to the experiences she's had playing in amateur hockey leagues: "That first time you walk in the locker room and you're the only girl, it's just like, Oh, God, I have to deal with this again." Adults can get over that sort of initial discomfort, but for young girls, it can make even trying the sport a nonstarter.

It's such a common hurdle that Ryan Minkoff, a sports agent and former University of Washington hockey player, highlights the scenario in his children's book Nora's Hockey Dream, about a young girl who almost quits playing co-ed hockey because of the unwelcoming environment. 

Minkoff based the book on his sister, Laura, and her experiences playing in Minnesota. "My sister didn't have a women's association," he says. "She was playing with the boys teams, and she'd be the only girl and that's just not easy. You're the only person out there, and no boy wants to get beat by the girl, so they're going to get hammered, whether you like it or not."

Ryan Minkoff, the author of Nora's Hockey Dream, with his sister, Laura, who inspired the book.

In the years since Wood first tried to take her daughter to beginner's hockey, the local scene has changed considerably. Several organizations offer all-girls hockey teams, from Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association to the Seattle Junior Hockey Association to the WWFHA. The Seattle Women's Hockey Club does the same learn-to-play programming for adults.

Of course, the Seattle Kraken, with their slick three-rink facility in Northgate, has also ramped up youth and amateur hockey options considerably. Their major programs are still only co-ed, but they offer a weekly development series for girls and partner with local organizations who're championing the cause.

"We sit on a unique platform in that we have the ability to share and create relationships with other organizations that do sponsor girls-only hockey or women-only hockey," says Katelyn Parker, a player development coach with the Kraken Youth Hockey Association. 

The team's partnership with Black Girl Hockey Club, donating proceeds from an exclusive merch line to BGHC's scholarship fund, is one example of that. Providing facilities for organizations like the WWFHA and the University of Washington Women's Hockey Club is another. But the Kraken's most visible contribution to girl's and women's hockey is its diversity in the front office, like former Kraken scout Cammi Granato, now with the Vancouver Canucks, and analyst Alison Lukan.

"I think it's really cool that we have so many amazing women leaders at the Kraken who have been incredible examples to students coming up in the ranks, to young kids who are looking to join sports but may not be actively playing hockey, to those who really love the sport and want to be involved," says De’Aira Anderson, a communications specialist with the team.

Coach Jenn in her element.

And to the WWFHA's Jennifer Wood, it all adds to the normalization of girls and women in hockey. "The most important thing that's happening is not just cute little girls playing hockey in pink helmets anymore. It's women being accepted in leadership roles and valued for their contributions, which is contributing to the growth of girls hockey."

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