When Arizona Coyotes director of Amateur Hockey Development Matt Shott first got his start working in women’s hockey in the Valley of the Sun, the thought of a women’s game selling out an NHL arena was unfathomable.
“Never would I think that women’s game would sell out a pro building,” he explained.
But just this week, Team Canada and the US Women’s National Program came just shy of a sellout at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, clocking in less than 1,000 shy of the official 18,347 arena capacity for a friendlies game Sunday evening.
That kind of turnout for a pre-Olympic friendly is incredible, but it’s also a symptom of the growth women’s hockey is seeing across North America.
Mile High Hockey sat down with Shott ahead of Saturday night’s game, when the Avalanche will head to Glendale, Arizona to face off against the Coyotes on Women’s Hockey Night.
Arizona hockey still remains a heavily male-dominated sport, but that’s slowly changing.
The Coyotes are hosting a group of women for the night, each with their own place in Arizona hockey history - and each with a chance to leave a lasting impact for the generations in front of them.
Three of the women who will be featured are currently heavily involved in the women’s hockey scene in Arizona. Shott has gotten a chance to work alongside all three to grow the sport for young girls across the valley.
Katie McGovern will join the panel of women as the first player - male or female - from the state of Arizona to play hockey at Minnesota-Duluth, where she skated until graduating in 2017.
She’s come back to the valley this year, coaching as an assistant with the ASU ACHA Women’s Hockey team - formed just two seasons ago - and as coach of the U14 Lady Coyotes.
She joins Kaley Gibson, who serves as a goaltending coach for ASU’s Women’s team, in featuring the women who are helping to bring a solid base at the collegiate level to the Phoenix metro-area.
Shott believes that the growth of hockey for young girls is a twofold operation.
There’s obviously the need to grow the game at the youth level, but keeping the players in Arizona - both through their competitive teen years and into college - helps in a big way as well. That makes the representation of the ASU women’s coaches, who work with one of the two ACHA club women’s programs in Phoenix, so important on Saturday night.
“I would hope that having the two collegiate teams helps keeps girls here locally,” Shott explained.
“I don’t really mind if girls go to better collegiate hockey opportunities [such as NCAA Division I programs out-of-state] if they are presented with them. But I think having ASU and GCU [Grand Canyon University, who also boast a women’s ACHA club program] is actually a good way to attract more hockey players to come play in AZ, knowing that there is somewhere for them to end up playing past their youth.”
As for the youth side of things, that’s where Lyndsey Fry comes in.
As the third member of the five-woman panel, it’s hard to overstate just how much of an impact Fry has had on the women’s hockey scene in Arizona over the last five to ten years.
A native of the valley, Fry has a tie to Colorado hockey, as well. The Olympic silver medalist played for the boys teams in Chandler, Arizona growing up before moving to play with the Colorado Selects at age-14, where she would spend four years before first playing for the US National Team, then heading to Harvard.
Upon her graduation from Harvard, the Sochi 2014 Olympian decided to return to Arizona.
She’s pursuing a business graduate degree at Arizona State University, where she took part in the ASU club roller hockey team with her younger brother, Wes.
Her passion, though, is Fry Hockey, an organization she launched after graduating from Harvard.
Fry Hockey’s goal is to grow the game of hockey for girls in Arizona and other non-traditional markets, hosting camps everywhere from Arizona to New Mexico, Utah, Montana, and Georgia.
When Fry played hockey in Arizona, there was no option to play competitive, travel hockey for girls unless they wanted to stay on boys teams.
For Fry, that was possible up to age-14, when she wanted to switch to play with girls her age - which meant going to an online high school in Arizona while playing travel hockey thousands of miles from home.
Part of the problem is the talent drain, as girls like Fry leave the state before there’s a chance to build up a competitive program.
It’s a lot to ask the girls to stick around for what would be non-competitive years, though, just to grow the sport for future generations. The possible collegiate sacrifices and competition level is a huge thing to ask of young girls, especially those who want a long career in the sport.
As more girls get involved in the sport, though, Fry hopes that her camps will help increase the enrollment numbers in the state. Eventually, there may be enough girls to ice competitive rosters in the valley itself.
Those numbers are certainly trending upwards. As Shott explained, the explosion of growth in just the last three years alone has been tremendous.
“There are 580 total women playing registered USA hockey in AZ right now, 366 are 19 and under,” he reported.
“Three years ago there were 318 total women playing hockey, 187 were 19 and under.”
The older girls that Shott helps to coach at various programs around the city are aware of the successes of the girls that have come before them, and that’s certainly an inspiration.
The final two women on the panel exemplify that perfectly.
Makenna Newkirk is making waves in her third season for Boston College, where she was Hockey East Rookie of the Year in 2016 for her 41-game, 49-point season. She’s been a part of one of the most dominant women’s programs in the NCAA since hitting college, and she’s been a top-scoring forward in the process.
She isn’t around as much to help with the women’s game growth in Arizona at the moment, but she’s doing her part as the Auston Matthews of Arizona women’s hockey.
Then, there’s Kaliya Johnson.
At the moment, Johnson is the first Arizona-local woman to play professional hockey, where she’s a shot-blocking defenseman for the NWHL’s Boston Pride.
Plenty of attention has been paid to Matthews at the NHL level, but Johnson is doing something similar for young girls in Arizona - she’s proof that they can go on and play professional hockey one day, too.
She’s also one of the first African-American players in women’s hockey, joining former BC teammate and former Boston Pride defender Blake Bolden (who now skates in Switzerland for HC Lugano’s Women’s program).
While Johnson had to fly to Anaheim every week to play for the Lady Ducks during her own developmental years, she’s a shining local example for young girls in Arizona.
The Avalanche will obviously hope to win on Saturday, continuing the Coyotes death spiral that looks all-too-familiar for the Avalanche from their own season under a new head coach last year.
For all of the youth hockey girls in attendance, though, the night will be far more special than just a regular NHL game.