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NHL closing in on seeing its first female coach

The league’s female hockey-related ranks have increased to nearly 30, 5 team presidents are women

Kori Cheverie reflects fondly on the conversations she had with her grandfather growing up in Nova Scotia, where he encouraged her to believe anything was attainable in sports.

First woman to play for the Toronto Blue Jays? Sure. Hoist the Stanley Cup over her head while representing the Toronto Maple Leafs? Go for it.

Though doing so as a player is now out of the question, Cheverie’s gender-breaking aspirations appear far more achievable today to the 34-year-old, who has spent the past five years chipping away at hockey’s male-only coaching barrier.

In 2017, Cheverie became the first female assistant coach of a men’s hockey team at the Canadian university level (at Ryerson). This month, after serving as an assistant on the Canadian women’s Olympic championship team, she completed a stint as Hockey Canada’s first woman behind the bench of a men’s team at the Under-18 world championships.

“It’s kind of funny, looking back and reflecting on those conversations as a kid, because I am the first to do quite a few things on the men’s side of hockey,” said Cheverie, recalling the talks with her grandfather, Jack Rehill. “They speak to the limitless childhood that I had growing up, and what I was told I could be capable of.”

And she’s not done dreaming.

Cheverie’s ascension coupled with the growing number of women entering pro hockey management and developmental roles has rapidly sped the timetable on when — not if — there will be a woman working behind an NHL bench.

As much as Pittsburgh Penguins president Brian Burke believes the glass ceiling should have been shattered yesterday, he balances his impatience by noting the inroads the league is making to blow up its image as an old boys club.

“I think it’s basically we’ve been bound by our past, which is white people playing hockey and going into management,” Burke told The Associated Press.

“It might be a slower build than people like,” he added. “But I’m greatly encouraged by the change in the last two years of the role of women in hockey, which has gone from nonexistent to significant in a very short time.”

In four years since Hayley Wickenheiser opened the door by becoming the Toronto Maple Leafs’ assistant director of player development, the league’s female hockey-related ranks have increased to nearly 30. And that doesn’t include five NHL teams featuring female presidents.

The Penguins are among the NHL teams leading the way. With two women already on their hockey staff, the Penguins expanded the list by naming U.S. Olympian Amanda Kessel as the first participant in the team’s executive management program last month. Vancouver is the first NHL team to hire not one but two assistant general managers in Cammi Granato and Emilie Castonguay.

“I think it’s pretty nearsighted if people didn’t think that ultimately there’d be some sort of equalization between genders, not just in hockey but in every industry,” NHL Coaches’ Association president Lindsay Artkin said. “It wouldn’t be unrealistic to see a female hired in the NHL after next season.”

The NHLCA has played a role in fast-tracking the movement. With the backing of her male coaching membership, Artkin launched a female developmental program two years ago.

The program identified 50 women —- including Cheverie — at various levels to work directly with NHL coaches in advanced training sessions. Aside from exchanging ideas, the program also provided women networking opportunities they previously lacked in getting on the radar as potential coaching candidates.

While Artkin said NHL coaches are impressed by the wealth of knowledge the women bring, the female participants find the sessions reinforced the belief of being equals when working with men.

“It’s absolutely validating,” said University of St. Thomas assistant women’s coach Bethany Brausen. “The terminology might be slightly different, but we’re all speaking the same language.”

Whatever apprehensions Brausen had about overseeing men melted away when one male coach said most players don’t care about gender but just one thing: Does the coaching make them better?

“That’s a very simple thing to say,” Brausen said. “But I think hearing a male, coaching at that level, explicitly say that, it’s `Of course.′ As soon as he said that, I’m like, `Why would it matter how you look or, frankly, what your background is?’”

A conversation during a 25-minute drive with Christine Bumstead was all it took to convince former Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice how knowledgeable she was in recommending her to the program.

“Christine is going to be a great coach. She is one now,” Maurice said of Bumstead, who just completed her first year as an assistant for the University of Saskatchewan women’s team. “There’s a lot of really intelligent young coaches, some of them are male, some of them are female, and they now have an opportunity that just wasn’t there 20 years ago.”

He’s confident the gender barrier will be broken, much like other walls have fallen in recalling how Canadian Junior Hockey Leagues once shunned American-born players.

“If you’re not willing to change and evolve as a coach, you’re done,” Maurice said, before noting “men don’t have the market cornered on communication.”

“You listen to Jennifer Botterill on TV. She talks about the game differently,” he said of the Canadian Olympian-turned-broacaster. “It’s just a different perspective at times. It may or may not have anything to do with her being a women. But she’s interesting.”

The NHL has lagged behind North America’s three other major pro sports in hiring women.

In 2019, Rachel Balkovec became major league baseball’s first full-time female hitting coach and this year became the game’s first female minor league manager. The NBA featured seven female assistants this year. And the NFL’s ranks of female coaches grew to 12 last season.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he expects the process of women being hired as coaches to evolve, rather than imposing quotas or implementing rules.

“I’m hoping we don’t need that,” Bettman said. “I’m hoping that it evolves to the point where it just becomes a part of how you function where you don’t need arbitrary rules for people to be doing the right things.”

The chances of that happening have vastly improved, NHL vice president Kim Davis said, in crediting the developmental program for providing women direct access to those who have hiring authority.

“The fact that they have access and you have women in these roles, it’s going to ultimately result in those women ascending to these top positions as GMs, as coaches,” Davis said. “So I’m hugely encouraged by our progress. We have a lot more to do. By no means are we taking a victory lap.”

As much as Cheverie would most certainly like to be the first woman hired to coach in the NHL, she stressed the opportunity would have to be the right fit in working on a staff and a team open to hearing her voice.

“I would love to be in the NHL. Of course, I think, many female coaches would. But it’s not the be-all, end-all for me. I want to do the best that I can do,” she said.

“I’m really looking forward to the day where this isn’t a conversation,” Cheverie added. “I wish that day was today and it’s just us talking about a coach coaching a team and trying to help them win versus how does a female fit into a group of males in a sporting setting.”

—John Wawrow, The Associated Press

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