Last month, the Arizona Coyotes made history when they became the first NHL team to hire a woman as a full-time member of their coaching staff. Dawn Braid had been working as a skating coach for several years with several teams, but this is her first full-time gig.
"I thought it was pretty cool," said Canadiennes forward Ann-Sophie Bettez. "I know one other girl that's a skating coach and a lot of the guys are like 'wow, this girl is skating faster than me' and everything. It's pretty cool just to see that a female is there and that they should not underestimate what we can bring to the game. It's not just a male sport, it's really anyone's sport."
Braid isn't the only woman working with NHL teams. Barbara Underhill has been a skating consultant for the Toronto Maple Leafs since 2012. With the growth of women's hockey, there will soon be several retired Hockey Hall of Famers looking to make the move behind the bench. But which benches should these women stand behind?
Women's hockey only became an Olympic sport in 1998. The first IIHF World Championships were held in 1990. Prior to then, women who wanted to play hockey did so as a hobby. They played on boys teams, and were given broom closets as changing rooms. They were mocked, taunted, and teased. They were different.
In the 18 years since Nagano, the sport has grown immensely. The Canadian Women's Hockey League is entering its tenth season. The National Women's Hockey League, which is the first North American women's hockey league to pay its players, is entering their second season of operation. Women from Japan, Russia and France are flocking to North America to play hockey, bringing home the skills they learn to aid their own national programs.
Women's hockey has come such a long way, especially considering it's still in its infancy. But what should female hockey players aspire to be? Should they be leaders and progressives for their own sport, or should they be working towards jobs in men's leagues?
When there are women who make the leap into men's side, they face criticism for abandoning the women's game. When Shannon Szabados took a job with the Columbus Cottonmouths in the Southern Professional Hockey League, she was criticized for not playing in the CWHL and for not helping to grow the women's game (despite the fact that she does just that, every four years at the Olympics).
Ultimately, athletes are competitors who aspire to be the best they can possibly be. So when Wickenheiser or Jennifer Wakefield head to Europe to play in men's leagues, we should be proud of them for taking that risk. For taking that step. For elevating their game. For elevating the game.
But we should also applaud those that choose to help grow the women's game. It can be tempting to go where the money is, and unfortunately right now, that tends to be the men's game.
"I've been asked several times 'would you like to coach in the NHL?' and to me I think our way of giving back is to make our game better," said the CWHL's all-time leading scorer, Caroline Ouellette. "For sure the NHL is the big show and it's where the money is and I'm not saying that it wouldn't be great to coach there, but I'd love to have the same opportunities go to the female game."
"Our reality is very different. We have to work, we have to do other things combined with our passion. To me, the ultimate accomplishment would be to make a living coaching the game that I love."
So many female athletes have had their athletic prowess denigrated by the fact that they compete separately from the men. Sure, Serena Williams is a great female tennis player, but could she beat Novak Djokovic? Sure, Hayley Wickenheiser is an awesome hockey player, but could she ever play in the NHL?
It seems entirely unfair to dismiss the achievements of women who weren't given the same opportunities as men to develop and grow into the tremendous athletes that they became anyway, just because they don't play in men's leagues. As if that somehow lessens what they have accomplished. It seems an awful lot like moving the goal posts.
But despite the advances made on the playing field, women are falling behind off the ice. Despite the fact that there are so many tremendous women, the coaching jobs in the CWHL and NWHL are still largely held by men. The play-by-play and colour commentator jobs are still mostly filled by men as well, with the exception of Sherry Ross - who does colour commentary for the New Jersey Devils radio broadcasts - in the NHL, and yours truly and Cassie Campbell in the CWHL).
There are still so many areas for women to grow and yet these opportunities routinely aren't made available to women. This is something that could change as this generation of athletes start to reach the end of their careers.
The CWHL's mission is to elevate women, not just on the ice, but off the ice as well. And it does just that by having four out of five of its teams managed by women. Up until this off-season, when Chantal Champagne stepped down from the GM spot of the Calgary Inferno, it was five for five.
It does just that by encouraging women to develop into leaders in their community. We should also be celebrating the women in these roles, not just the ones who get jobs with the boys.