Nashville Predators committed to growing girls’ hockey program

Where Jennifer Boniecki grew up, outside of Chicago, she lived 15 minutes from six ice rinks. A 45-minute car trip expanded her options to more than 40 rinks. After her brother started playing hockey, Jennifer wanted to try it for herself. “The first time I got on the ice I fell in love with it,” she says. “It’s such a unique sport.”

Her mom wasn’t thrilled with her decision. “She was really hesitant about it,” Jennifer says. “At the time, hockey wasn’t seen as a sport that girls played—even in a hockey town like Chicago.”

But that was all about to change. Women’s hockey made its debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and the United States took gold. That really helped show the world (and Jennifer) that girls could not only play hockey but play it at the highest level.

Jennifer played the sport through college. After graduation, she started coaching. She took a job with the Chicago Blackhawks, introducing hockey (and STEM concepts, FTW!) to kids, before moving to Nashville in 2019 to coordinate the amateur hockey program for the Nashville Predators.

Meet and greet with the Predators’ female leaders

In celebration of National Girls & Women in Sports Day on Feb. 3, the Predators hosted a hockey clinic in partnership with Play Like a Girl. In addition to taking to the ice and learning a few basics (and STEM concepts!) our girls got the chance to meet some of the female leaders who work in the Predators organization—Michelle Kennedy, chief operating officer; Robin Lee, director of corporate sponsorship services; Lara Crouch, director of guest experience; and Kylie Wilkerson, senior manager of event services—during a virtual Q&A.

“When you’re an athlete, all you think about is playing at the highest level,” Jennifer explains. “But at some point, that comes to an end. So, how do you transition out of that? For a lot of women athletes, it’s working in a front office. So, we wanted to show what that might look like from four different angles.”

At the time, the Play Like a Girl clinic, held at the Ford Ice Center in Bellevue, was supposed to serve as a last call to sign up for the Preds Girls Hockey program, which kicks off this week. The only problem was, when registration opened the first of January, it sold out almost immediately. “We were able to open a couple more spots, but within days those were gone, too,” Jennifer says. “It’s clear that Nashville is a place where girls want to play hockey.”

Thanks to a grant from the NHL/NHLPA Industry Growth Fund, which Jennifer helped secure, girls of all ages (4-17) and all levels of proficiency (including those who have never skated before) are able to participate at no cost to them—and finish the 12-week program with a full set of equipment, which will be theirs to keep.

The plan is for many of these girls to sign up for this summer’s girls 3-on-3 league.

“This format will help us introduce traditional game play to our players,” she says. “It’s less structured, so it really fosters creativity and problem solving and helps them figure out the game on their own.”

There are plans for another 3-on-3 league and another development program (like the one running right now) for the fall.

“My hope is in the next couple years, we’ll have a girls’ travel team,” Jennifer says.

The Nashville Jr. Predators Hockey Club, an amateur affiliate of the Nashville Predators, currently has girls’ teams that compete nationally, but those are for high schoolers or older. [bctt tweet=”“We’re working to build the pathway for girls, who can start at the beginning, play at an intermediate level and then continue on to elite, college and even professional hockey.”” username=”iplaylikeagirl”]

The basics of girls’ hockey

So, what’s the sport like? If you’re picturing body checks and bloody noses, we’ve got news for you—it’s not that. Not at all. “That’s a very 1980s style of hockey,” she says. “You definitely still see it sometimes, but today’s game is much more about speed and agility. And girls’ hockey has different rules. It’s still physical, but less so.” 

Jennifer calls the sport safe, graceful, elegant even (players are on ice, after all). It’s also an equalizer of sorts. “Everyone starts at the same level,” she says. “You can’t look at someone who’s a great runner, for example, and know that they’ll be a good hockey player. You have to train and practice and build those skills—everyone does.” Hockey comes with all of the benefits of other team sports, like leadership, dedication, time management, plus one all its own: a strong sense of community.

“The community is so passionate and so supportive,” Jennifer says. “When you’re a hockey player, you are for your entire life.”

Play Like a Girl is proud to partner with the Nashville Predators to help with Nashville’s hockey town transformation. We are grateful for their financial support over the years and the opportunities to play this exciting sport and meet the women who are helping make it all happen.