An Interview with Ken Dixon, Co-Founder and President
Connecticut Northern Lights Girls Hockey
In 2000, when girls either had to buck tradition by demanding ice time with the boys or start their own organization, Ken Dixon, co-founder and President of the Connecticut Northern Lights Girls Ice Hockey Program (NLGH), opted for the latter. "I wanted my daughter to have the same opportunity my son and his peers had playing ice hockey," said the program's founder, director and one of its coaches. "I had seen girls hockey always being given a back seat - the girls being asked to forfeit the ice if boys teams needed it, referees not taking the games seriously, girls in a program ending up playing each other time after time because no appropriate competition could be found, frequent game cancellations, etc. I felt that the girls would never take themselves seriously as athletes as long as girls hockey was an 'also-ran' in the boys clubs." Dixon has built a highly successful program taking the best of boys' hockey and tailoring it to the needs of girls.
In a question and answer interview, Dixon made the following comments:
What is different about girls' ice hockey?
The key difference in girls hockey is that skills dominate whereas in boys hockey, while skills are important, very often physical play will control a game. Girls hockey uses the same rules as boys, but body checking has been prohibited in girls and women's games since the late 1980's. The rule to eliminate body checking is still occasionally debated in women's hockey circles. However, games are still very physical without the checking, with added emphasis on speed, passing, teamwork and skating. At any high-level girls hockey game, the thing one notices first is not the gender of the players, but rather what wonderful skills and fun they're having using them. Girls play an enthusiastic, competitive brand of hockey on their own terms.
As a long-time coach who has coached both boys and girls ice hockey from learn-to-skate through high school, I have seen it also takes a different coaching style to be successful in the development of female athletes. For the most part, girls are very hard on themselves and often feel that they are not doing a good job. Male coaches often like to point out things that players are doing wrong, and with girls this only makes them feel more inadequate. While girls need to know what they can work on to be more successful players, the approach needs to be constructive and positive. Girls very often know what they need to be a better player. I often say if you ask a girl what two things she needs to be more successful she will tell you shooting better, stopping to her left, etc. If you ask a boy the same question, you might hear an answer like "give me a better left wing and give me a better right wing and then I will be more successful." It definitely requires a different coaching style!
What makes NLGH different from a boys' ice hockey program?
In many ways the Northern Lights program is very similar to a high-level, elite boys program. We have excellent coaching with challenging skating, skill development, and conditioning drills included in every practice. Like boys programs we also strive to play the best competition possible. There are also components of our program that many boys programs do not offer such as off-ice conditioning and agility training, self-defense classes and other program-wide activities. It is our belief that when girls are put into competitive situations and have quality coaching to support their development as a person and player, a girls-only program is far superior to a mixed-sex program.
We also differ from boys programs in several ways. The most important difference is that we understand how to coach girls, which differs from coaching boys. For a girl to develop, she needs to have self-confidence, a sense of belonging with the team, and an environment that is safe for her to make mistakes and grow. Our coaches focus on positive reinforcement, which we find works best with the girls. Additionally, we find that girls have a greater need to enjoy being with the team - jokes in the locker room, pizza parties, psych boxes, etc. and we make sure that the fun and camaraderie are not overlooked.
What teams do you play against?
Our teams have two forms of solid competition. Almost every Northern Lights team participates in the New England Girls Hockey League (NEGHL) which was founded in the 1970's. Nearly every serious girls program in New England participates in the NEGHL. The league includes a division for Tier 1 teams (i.e. teams competing for a national title, as sanctioned by USA Hockey) as well as two brackets for teams of lesser skill but who desire like-skilled competition. Many people knowledgeable of girls hockey consider the NEGHL to be the best program in the world. Yes - world! It's not only a source of competition, but also a source of advocacy and support for the whole growth of girls hockey. Nearly every member of this year's US Women's Olympic Team came out of either the NEGHL or from the Minnesota/Wisconsin League. These are the two incubators for girls ice hockey in the US.
The younger Northern Lights teams, U12 and below, also play an extensive schedule against age-similar boys teams. We do this for two reasons. First, because there are still not enough competitive girls teams, and secondly, because we can. We have found that with quality coaching and a competitive schedule, girls playing with other girls is the best way for girls to develop. It doesn't matter as much who they are playing against, as it does who they are playing with. The older teams, U14 and above, also play against girls high school and prep school teams. This gives players an opportunity to have a competitive high school ice hockey experience for those girls who do not have a program in their school or choose not to go to prep school.
Aren't there some other, more local, leagues you could play in?
Unfortunately, if we want to compete against like-skilled competitors, we have to put a few miles on the car. This is another similarity to elite-level boys programs. To develop and play higher level competition, some travel is required. Each year we revisit this issue with parents, players, and coaches in our program to see if we should consider an alternative league or situation for our players. And each year we are told that the right competition is well worth the travel. Some parents have been quick to point out that their sons playing on CHC (locally-oriented teams) teams spend just as much time, if not more, traveling to play teams in Fairfield County, as we spend traveling to play our numerous Massachusetts competitors.
We play some teams from other programs throughout the winter, but we still find our strongest competitors come from the NEGHL. We believe that just like anything in life, you only grow if you step outside your comfort zone and take on challenges that stretch your abilities and experiences. Northern Lights parents like to see their daughters challenged and want competition that will make that happen.
Does that make the Northern Lights an elite girls ice hockey program?
Our top level teams, which we call our "A" Teams (some other programs call them AA or AAA), are in fact for the elite player. I believe we do an outstanding job with these teams to bring out the players' best athletic abilities. However, we're just as proud of our "B" and "C" level teams. Many of these players are at a lower level either because they don't have the experience or possess the raw athletic talent of an A level player. One goal of our B and C teams is to give these players the same experience offered higher level players so that they can grow to a higher level if they have the ability. Often players from these teams do develop into "A" level players.
When I see a player make huge progress in her stick-handling, skating, leadership, or ability to communicate from season beginning to end, no matter what level, I am thrilled that we have helped her grow in some way. The bottom line for the Northern Lights is to give each girl, regardless of her playing level, a chance to develop into a hardworking, accountable, and self-confident woman. That's what the program is really about. We were founded to give girls real opportunities to grow in ways they never imagined.
The Northern Lights has numerous very strong teams. What distinguishes your program?
Several years ago we made a conscious decision to develop the Northern Lights program from the bottom up, meaning that we wanted to develop younger players and have them form the nucleus of the program in future years. We believe that approach is starting to pay dividends. For several years we have had the ONLY girls-only, learn-to-play-hockey program in Connecticut. Currently we have over 35 girls in the learn-to-play program. We also have three under 10 year-old teams, two under-12 teams, and two under-14 teams. At each of these levels we are competing against some of the best girls teams in the country every weekend in the NEGHL. We also play very competitive games against age-equivalent boys teams. Next year we expect to field an 8 year-old and under team which will compete well against boys Mite teams.
The Northern Lights has attracted many of the top players in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts and developed them to go on and play at top prep school programs in the area. Alumnae also play at colleges such as St. Lawrence, Hamilton and Colby. Yet our formula includes more than just attracting good talent. Our players get considerably more ice time, including numerous full-ice practices, during the season. The girls have two practices and two games per week. In addition, they have skills sessions for power skating, a special shooting gallery, and weekly goalie coaching sessions. We participate in tournaments with the top US and Canadian teams to raise the level of play. Like all members of the NEGHL, we hold tryouts in the spring (April) so that we can assess a player's ability while she's in good hockey condition as well as plan our coaching and ice needs for the season ahead.
Why bother with the off-ice work? Wouldn't it be more productive to spend more time on the ice?
Every real athlete conducts training associated with their sport away from the playing field. Ice hockey is no different. As such we have included an off-ice strength, conditioning, and agility program, as well as an off-ice shooting program to compliment our on-ice training. Some people believe that these types of programs should be for older players. -- However studies have shown that the younger these types of programs are started, the more valuable they are in the development of athleticism and coordination.
Muscles need to be trained to conduct specific movements efficiently. The ice skating stride is not a natural movement like walking or running. It requires a combination of lateral and bent-knee movements that must be learned. At the Northern Lights, we develop these movements off-ice and have seen remarkable results as they have been transferred onto the ice surface. The proper skating stride is also practiced on-ice; however players fatigue rapidly on the ice and eventually gain bad form, which, if continued, only reinforces bad movement and improper muscle training. With the cost of ice time being so high, off-ice training allows important, accurate muscle memory training to occur while other aspects of the game can occur during muscle recovery periods on-ice.
With so few girls playing hockey and so many colleges seeking players, aren't there lots of scholarships available for girls?
I hope no parent would push their daughter into ice hockey with the notion of enhancing college admissions or scholarship opportunities. First and foremost, girls should play hockey because they love the sport. Competition for hockey scholarships is extremely competitive. Many college slots are currently being filled by players from Canada and Eastern Europe. Like their peers here in the US who began playing hockey as pre-schoolers, they relish the opportunity to play for a university in the US. So, while there are indeed hockey scholarships available, there's significant competition as well. That being said, for some girls, hockey talent can in fact enhance either the girl's candidacy for a college or prep school or impact her opportunities for financial aid (in schools where athletic scholarships are given.) We feel it's a plus whenever we have the opportunity to help further our girls' educational aspirations. And we are very proud to say we do that every year.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to offer?
Final comment - I hope parents understand the importance of providing great developmental opportunities for their daughters. Increasingly, more and more women are contributing to society in significant ways. Women are gaining a stronger, much deserved, place in our world in all possible ways - politically, academically, athletically… the list goes on and on. In order for our daughters to continue this important trend, they need to be put into situations at young ages where they feel important, accepted and believed-in. The way that our daughters are treated at an early age contributes significantly to who they will become as adults. Parents must not accept anything less for their daughter than they would for their son. For hockey, that means you don't accept weak competition, insignificant ice time, forfeiture of ice to boys teams or programs that don't challenge them. Our daughters are much too important.