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The NHL’s reluctance to change continues to leave women on the outside looking in

The NHL is still behind the eight ball, and it’s time they caught up with the other major leagues.

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NHL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Lightning at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

While teams around the National Hockey League have been hiring women in various capacities, the NHL remains the last of the four major leagues without a full-time female coach or manager, assistant or otherwise.

Women have been hired as skating coaches, scouts, and analytics personnel for years now. The Arizona Coyotes were the first NHL team to hire full-time female coach when they named Dawn Braid as the team’s new skating coach back in 2016. The Toronto Maple Leafs hired Canadian hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser back in August as their assistant director of player development. Power skating coach Barb Underhill consults for various NHL teams and their AHL affiliates, including (most recently) the Tampa Bay Lightning. In 2017, Rachel Doerrie joined the New Jersey Devils’ Hockey Operations Department as an analyst specializing in player information and video.

Those hires, while only a few of many, have indicated that the NHL’s gender barrier is slowly, but surely, falling. It is no longer groundbreaking when a woman is hired by an NHL team. However, there is a glaring difference between the NHL and the other three major leagues regarding their hiring of women, and it indicates the league is not ready to see women assume full-time coaching and executive duties for an NHL team.

Danièle Sauvageau

The Athletic’s Sunaya Sapurji wrote an article on the QMJHL’s first full-time assistant female coach, a position Danièle Sauvageau began nearly twenty years ago. She coached the Canadian women to an Olympic gold medal in 2002. Her coaching resume in the sport - not only in experience but in terms of success - is among the most successful female ice hockey coaches.

Unfortunately, her resume isn’t quite enough for the NHL.

“At least they were honest enough to tell me they weren’t ready,” said Sauvageau. “But what will it take to be ready?” [The Athletic]

Sauvageau has raised a good question. Exactly what has to happen for the NHL to “be ready”? Would it be a female coach winning the Memorial Cup? An NCAA National Championship? Coaching a medal-winning senior men’s national team at the World Championships or Olympics?

The Other Major Leagues

Teams in the NBA, NFL, and MLB have all hired female coaches in some capacity. Let’s look at how.

The NBA’s Becky Hammon was the first full-time, paid, female (assistant) coach hired by any of the four major leagues back in 2014. Hammon has been with the San Antonio Spurs for the last six years, and was the first interview candidate for the Milwaukee Bucks’ head coaching vacancy. Her hiring was monumentally groundbreaking for sports.

The NBA has since continued its trend-setting ways: the Sacramento Kings hired Nancy Lieberman as an assistant coach in 2015 and Jenny Boucek as assistant player development coach two years later. Boucek would soon join the Dallas Mavericks as an assistant coach, the first female coach in franchise history. All three women have played in the WNBA, and both Lieberman and Boucek have WNBA coaching experience.

The NFL’s Arizona Cardinals hired Jennifer Welter in 2015 as an assistant coaching intern to work with inside linebackers during their 2015 training camp and preseason. Granted, her internship with the team only lasted two weeks, but it was still enough to name her the league’s first female coach. It was the Buffalo Bills’ Kathryn Smith who was the first full-time female coach in the NFL. She was the Bills special teams quality control coach in 2016, but was unfortunately not re-signed the following season. Katie Sowers is the second, she is currently the San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant coach and the only active full-time female coach in the NFL. Both Welter and Sowers played football in their youth.

Major League Baseball is more like the NHL, in the sense that while there are over 100 women working in baseball operations (front office or on-field jobs), the majority of these jobs are in non-executive or training staff roles. However, like the NBA and NFL, they have had women in coaching roles. Justine Siegal became the first female coach employed by an MLB team in 2015, when the Oakland Athletics hired her for two weeks.

Although there has never been a female general or bench manager, MLB teams haven’t shied away from hiring women as assistant general managers. Elaine Weddington Steward was the MLB’s first assistant GM with the Boston Red Sox in 1990. Kim Ng and Jean Afterman were both assistant GMs with the New York Yankees (Ng moved on to become AGM of the Los Angeles Dodgers and is currently MLB’s senior VP of baseball operations, and Afterman is still with the Yankees). Many believe it will either be Afterman or Oakland A’s scouting coordinator Haley Alvarez who could become MLB’s first female general manager.

Resistance To Change

What’s interesting about the above examples is that not all women had playing experience in their sports, and yet they were still able to have coaching and front office careers in their respective leagues. However, in the NHL there isn’t a single female GM or AGM on any of the 31 teams’ front offices, nor are there any female head or assistant coaches.

Gender aside, it is already very difficult for non-NHL experienced coaches to move to the NHL. Very rarely do we see NCAA coaches move up to the NHL without stopping to coach in the AHL first. Philadelphia’s Dave Hakstol (North Dakota) and Dallas’ Jim Montgomery (Denver) are the only two current head coaches who leaped over the AHL from college hockey.

European coaches have struggled to break into the NHL coaching circuit, as well. The NHL’s coaching carousel is truly that: it is the same thirty-five to forty people being approached for the same jobs. It’s one of the only careers where having been fired multiple times is seen as an asset when hiring.

We’ve finally reached a period of time where it isn’t a requirement for coaches and executives to have played in the NHL. Of the league’s 62 head coaches and general managers, 14 coaches and 13 general managers have never played a game in the NHL, including the Tampa Bay Lightning’s head coach Jon Cooper and general manager Julien BriseBois. If there is a time for women to break into this area of the industry, it is now. But it is such uncharted territory for a league that has, historically, been set in its ways.

Are we really going to see it happen anytime soon?

The Waiting Game

Where does that leave the women who want to work for NHL teams? Obviously teams will want to see that women have positive, successful experiences working for men’s hockey teams. It is extremely likely that the first female coach or manager will have been a former hockey player. However, like the male coaches and executives who haven’t played a game in the NHL, they will likely have to start from the bottom and work their way up. Before we see a woman working full-time in the NHL, we are going to have to see more female coaches and executives in junior hockey, college hockey and the AHL.

The NHL will be the last major league to hire a female executive or coach. There isn’t any way to change or deny that fact. But while the other three leagues broke the gender barrier sooner, they didn’t hire women for the sake of doing it. The teams chose the person they thought was best suited for the job available. That person just happened to be a woman.

But this particular quote from Sapurji’s Athletic piece doesn’t instill confidence that the NHL is trending towards the path of the other three leagues:

Sauvageau said she’s spoken with people in the NHL who have told her if they covered up the name on her resume she’d be qualified, but that the league isn’t ready for a woman standing behind the bench — even as an assistant. [The Athletic]

Sauvageau was on the correct path back in 1999. Wickenheiser is right up there now, as is Doerrie. Three names out of countless numbers of other women who either chased another dream because it looked unattainable, or still remain in the background, unsure of how to get there or when that may be. Biding their time, until the NHL is finally ready to fully accept women into their game. It is as much an uncertainty as it is the unfortunate reality. Right now, the NHL is further behind than many are willing to admit.