By Jesse Vineyard/GCU Staff
You may not know it, but Arizona is at the heart of the growth of hockey in the United States.
In just the last five years, registrants in USA Hockey has grown by 52,000 players – a 10 percent increase. By comparison, registrants in Canada has increased by 20,000 players – just a 3 percent increase. Here in Arizona, registrants have grown by 4,500 players in the same time span. The 109 percent increase is the largest amongst all states and Canadian provinces with a National Hockey League franchise.
As those numbers grow, you’ll find Grand Canyon University leading the way.
Between the three programs at GCU (two men’s and one women’s), there are 24 Arizona-born players for the Lopes. Any coach will tell you recruiting local kids to stay home is important. Yet, when the larger challenge is continuing to grow the game, it’s more than just having a number of local kids on the rosters.
“I always want kids to realize that hockey is fun,” GCU Women’s Ice Hockey Head Coach Natalie Rossi said. “Hockey is the most fun sport in the world, and getting them to love it at a young age is so important in my mind.”
Rossi is no stranger to helping the growth of the game. Beyond her duties as head coach at GCU, Rossi is also on staff with the Arizona High School Hockey Association (AHSHA), helping to run practices for the Premier team. Using those connections, Rossi and GCU Women’s Ice Hockey stepped in to assist younger hockey players of all ages during World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend. Between the Ice Den in Chandler and Scottsdale last weekend, the Lopes worked with the AHSHA Premier team and over 120 kids of younger ages at a youth hockey jamboree for the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association (AAHA). GCU included many of the same drills they use at their own practices, showing the teams what they may one day see at the college level.
“We incorporated a lot of competition – just so the kids can see the level of compete that we bring,” Rossi said. “There’s awesome options for the kids here to continue playing. I love the little ones looking up to the college-aged kids because it’s awesome for them to have role models.”
The role model aspect is a major factor for all involved. Beyond the stick-handling drills, competition drills and 3-on-3 small area games, every clinic the GCU Ice Hockey program runs goes back to the same purpose of giving the kids a hockey mentor. For the players themselves, they were once in the same position as the little kids, so there is a natural responsibility to give the young players someone to look up to.
“We want to show the young kids what is possible for hockey in Arizona,” freshman forward Gina Gualtiere said. “A lot of people think that it just stops after high school, but that’s just not the case anymore.”
Gualtiere, a psychology major, is a Scottsdale native. She started playing hockey at 12 after making constant trips to the rink for her little brother’s practices. Her love for the game soon followed, and today, she continues to share her passion with boys and girls.
“It’s the coolest thing in the world,” Gualtiere said. “At the beginning, to see a kid holding their stick the wrong way or just having a hard time getting off the ice, and then, by the end of the program, see them stick-handling and progressing is the coolest thing.”
Gualtiere came up through the AZ Lady Coyotes system, and volunteers her time with Small Fry’s, an all-girls hockey initiation program led by GCU Women’s Ice Hockey Assistant Coach Lyndsey Fry. In conjunction with the Arizona Coyotes, the program is designed for young girls ages 6-12, teaching them hockey specific skating and game-play skills.
Fry herself is an Arizona native, but also brings extensive experience to each level of hockey she coaches. She played four years of college hockey at Harvard University, and also competed for Team USA at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, where she earned a silver medal. Her level of expertise means she is an invaluable resource to those she coaches, while also understanding the challenges of growing the game of hockey – especially the women’s game – in Arizona.
“More people are realizing that hockey is a thriving sport here, but girls’ hockey is still a hidden gem to a lot of people,” Fry said. “That’s why it is so important that we get out into the community and expose them to girl’s and women’s hockey.”
Youth participants are on the rise as well is overall interest in the sport. For girls’ hockey in Arizona, this is especially true as female participants has grown by over 150 percent in the last five years. For as much as the game of hockey has grown over the years, there is still plenty of room to further the numbers – something those wearing Lopes’ purple will decidedly be a part of.
“It all comes down to having the college players invested,” Fry said. “It’s great for the little girls to see the college kids play hockey, and aspire to be that someday. For the college players, they’re playing hockey in Arizona and get to be a rock star in front of these kids. It’s really something special.”