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Blackhawks exec helps pave way for new generation of girls’ hockey

Blackhawks senior executive director of fan development Annie Camins remembers the days when hockey wasn’t for everyone.

Annie Camins is a member of the NHL’s female hockey advising committee.
Courtesy of Chicago Blackhawks

Blackhawks senior executive director of fan development Annie Camins remembers the days when hockey wasn’t for everyone.

Growing up in Winnetka, Camins had no choice but to play on an all-boy team. Not that she minded.

However, being the only girl among boys had its challenges.

Camins moved clubs after a Double-A coach demoted her to the Single-A team because he allegedly didn’t want to have a girl on his team.

On another occasion, Camins said she wasn’t allowed to participate in a Canadian tournament because she was a girl. Instead of backing out, Camins signed up for the tournament as “Arnie” and tucked her long blonde hair into her helmet.

“The boys accepted it and they treated me like one of theirs,” Camins said. “Looking back, it seems so elementary.”

Truth is many women in hockey have similar stories to Camins. But her hope is future generations won’t.

As part of the current Collective-Bargaining Agreement, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association has a grant program which has dedicated more than $85 million worth of funds to programs that generate interest in hockey, said Rob Knesaurek, the NHL vice president of youth development and industry growth.

“[We’re] really trying to connect communities and to kids more broadly than the current ones we were getting,” Knesaurek said. “If we ever wanted to see our game grow into the future and have strong footing we needed to appear to broader audiences.”

Hockey is often viewed as a white, male sport. With this in mind, the NHL wanted to embrace diversity and inclusion.

In March, the NHL launched a female hockey advising committee. Camins, who has been with the Hawks since 2008, was one of the 11 people asked to be part of it. The group’s goal is to grow the game among girls and women by developing female-focused programs and marketing tools.

”The big thing [Billie Jean King] says and so does Kendall [Coyne Schofield] is that, ‘If you can see it, you can be it,’” Camins said. “So if I can see a hockey player, I can be a hockey player. If I don’t see it, I don’t know about it.”

Camins has already played a key role in leading the Hawks’ efforts to develop and run more inclusive youth hockey programs in Chicago, including the “GOAL” and “First Stride” initiatives. But for the first time, the Hawks launched an all-girls “Little Blackhawks” program this summer.

Little Blackhawks, which is typically co-ed and has helped more than 4,000 families afford the opportunity to play hockey since its inception in 2017, is an eight-week learn-to-play camp that supplies head-to-toe equipment for $125.

Courtesy of Chicago Blackhawks

“There’s no doubt about it — hockey is expensive and there are barriers to entry,” Camins said. “We just wanted to get them in, let them try it and then there’s no ownership. You don’t feel as a parent, like, ‘Oh gosh, I just spent $500 on gear, you have to play.’”

Camins said she expected to have 10 to 15 girls participate in the all-girls session.

“We didn’t expect to kind of make money or anything on it,” she added.

However, the Hawks doubled enrollment and had 30 participants. And that number will likely increase in the future.

”Sometimes, girls just need to play with girls,” Camins said. “For example, I have a daughter, all she wants to do is play with other girls, I wasn’t like that. ... But she just wants to be with her friends and play, which is fun.”

The Hawks have also supported Coyne Schofield’s “Golden Coynes” skills and development program over the last two years. The camp, which is taught by an all-female staff, allows girls ages 6 to 12 to try hockey in a relaxed and nonjudgemental environment. This summer, a second session had to be added due to overwhelming enrollment numbers.

“Kendall has been a great asset to us,” Camins said. “She always looking out for other people and she’s always trying to grow the game. She puts herself kind of in the back seat to what is her platform and what’s most important and that’s to try and grow the sport, grow the game, have more visibility for these girls and to provide more of a platform for the future generation to play hockey.”

Annie Camins and Kendall Coyne Schofield pose with her gold medal from the 2018 Sochi Games.
Courtesy of Chicago Blackhawks

The Hawks plan to continue to build on the league-wide initiative to make hockey more accessible. Since they launched “Go Out and Learn” or “GOAL” in 2014, more than 350,000 students in 600 schools has been exposed to street hockey.

Likewise, more than 13,500 Chicago Public Schools students from the West Side have participated in the Hawks’ “First Stride” program, is a free learn-to-skate clinic and hockey-based STEM class at Fifth Third Arena that will re-launch Sept. 25.

The Hawks are hopeful students will want to come back.

“That was our biggest thing,” Camins said. “Let’s not just do a one-and-done and they come in the door and then they’re gone. ... They’re always allowed back, and public skating is always on us for them and their family members.”

To see the growth of youth hockey — especially among young girls — has been fulfilling for Camins. However, she knows there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“I always love giving back to the sport because I’ve always known there was so much potentially especially with girls and women,” Camins said.