NHL takes big strides on women in hockey ops executive roles
Kate Madigan blushed and she could not keep herself from smiling.
When it was time at New Jersey Devils development camp for her to introduce herself with her title, Madigan got the chance to say she was assistant general manager. She is just the sixth woman in the history of the National Hockey League to hold that position and the fifth currently.
“It’s something I’ve worked really hard for,” she told The Associated Press this week. “For me, it’s so exciting, and I think it’ll stay that way for a while.”
Madigan, Chicago Blackhawks assistant GM Meghan Hunter, Toronto’s Hayley Wickenheiser, and Vancouver’s Cammi Granato and Émilie Castonguay are on the leading edge of hockey’s concerted effort to diversify team front offices to catch up with other leagues that have already made significant progress in that department. More than 25 years since Angela Gorgone became the first woman in NHL history to hold that position, change is happening quickly at the executive level with Mike Grier becoming the first Black GM and nearly 100 women in hockey operations, player development, health or safety roles around the league.
“The pendulum is really swinging to sort of add diversity,” said Granato, a Hockey Hall of Fame player who was named Canucks assistant GM in February. “There’s naysayers that say, ‘Oh you’re just trying to catch up and you’re just adding people to add them,’ but they (the hires) are qualified people. But I’m not surprised. I’m excited about it. It’s very good that the NHL is taking that sort of mindset and look toward that to open the pool.”
Much like people thought Madigan was crazy when she said in high school she wanted to be a general manager someday — “It’s not so crazy anymore,” she points out — Hunter did not know there was a path for her when her playing days were over. She gravitated into coaching women’s college hockey because that’s all she thought was available to her.
Hunter was a top college player but did not reach the levels of Granato and Wickenheiser, a star for Team Canada. She wasn’t a player agent like Castonguay, and she didn’t come up through the business world like Madigan.
After rising through the Blackhawks organization since joining the club in 2016, she marvels at the various journeys women have taken to get to this point.
“More females breaking in (through) different angles is amazing: different skillsets that other females can see that they bring to the table,” Hunter said at the NHL draft in Montreal. “Having women in powerful management positions is huge, and it can translate down to young females.”
The draft was a watershed moment for the league, with more women on the floor than ever before. Madigan announced New Jersey’s first selection with her father, the Northeastern University athletic director, beaming with pride from the stands.
“She’s been a bright young lady with a real strong work ethic, so we’re proud of her for her early growth and development,” Jim Madigan said. “She’s still only 29 with a long runway in front of her, but people in the Devils organization have not put any barriers up for her and have only been more than anything very helpful in helping her continue to grow in the profession.”
Kate Madigan was promoted the day before the draft by the Devils, who also have longtime U.S. star Meghan Duggan as director of player development. Less than six months earlier, Castonguay got the Canucks AGM job after more than five years as an NHL Players’ Association-certified agent.
Castonguay, who most notably represented 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, credited Vancouver president of hockey ops Jim Rutherford for being forward-thinking in adding her and Granato.
“Sometimes it’s just one domino that needs to fall, and I think the glass ceiling was broken there,” Castonguay said. “I knew that after that the floodgates would open.”
Wickenheiser, who in addition to her duties with the Maple Leafs works full time as a doctor, considers it an evolution of the game. She told reporters in Toronto over the weekend that while the sport’s tradition has been male dominated, “In the rest of society women play very important roles, and I don’t see why it could be any different here in hockey.”
That’s only now beginning to happen. Two decades since the NBA first had a woman in an assistant coaching job and a year and a half since Kim Ng of the Miami Marlins became the first woman to be named GM of a Major League Baseball team, the NHL is still celebrating breakthroughs of that kind.
The Washington Capitals in June made Emily Engel-Natzke the first woman to hold a full-time job on an NHL coaching staff when they hired her as video coordinator. Seattle’s top affiliate, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, hired Jessica Campbell to be the first full-time assistant coach in the American Hockey League.
“There’s a lot of other women who can fill other roles,” Engel Natzke said. “There’s a lot of really great coaches in international play, NCAA. Hopefully the door just keeps opening a little bit more and I hope in a couple years it’s not as big of a deal, it’s kind of just another hire.”
Coaching is the next frontier, with the NHL behind the NBA and NFL in women ascending to those roles. Getting up to speed on that front is the goal of the NHL Coaches Association, which launched the Female Coaches Development Program last year with the aim of growing the pool of available candidates.
NHLCA president Lindsay Artkin said it feels like “the opportunity ahead for female coaches is unlimited.”
“This program wouldn’t be possible without the tremendous support of our NHL coaches who’ve spent hours mentoring and networking with the women in our program,” Artkin said. “It’s this level of connection that will continue leading to more women getting coaching opportunities in the NHL.”
That’s what Madigan thought when she saw Duggan working on the ice with Devils prospects at development camp. It may be some time before a woman gets an NHL assistant coaching job, let alone is hired to run a bench, but strides are already being made.
“The coaching will come,” Madigan said. “I don’t know this year, but I think in the next two to three years I would expect to see one. I think it will happen.”
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