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The Rivalry Series is personal to Lyndsey Fry. The Chandler native realized a seemingly impossible dream by becoming the first Arizona-born hockey player to compete in the Olympics. But she narrowly missed out on realizing another dream when Canada rallied to beat the United States, 3-2 in overtime, in the gold medal game at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
As the US prepares to face off against Canada in the 5-year-old Rivalry Series at Mullett Arena on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., all of those memories are bubbling to the surface for Fry. But the game is personal for additional reasons. The fact that Rivalry Series organizers chose Tempe as the site for Game 1 is a nod to the grassroots work that Fry, ASU coach Lindsey Ellis and countless others in the state have put in to take girls and women’s hockey from an afterthought to a flourishing ecosystem that provides far more local opportunities than Fry ever had as kid.
“Girls hockey in Arizona is thriving,” said Fry, the president of the Arizona Kachinas girls hockey program. “If you look at where we were five years ago before we started the Kachinas, there were two travel girls teams — and that was kind of a loose phrase — and there were two house girls teams. We came out of the gate with nine that first year and now we’re up to 16.
“Then you look at the collegiate space. At that time, ASU had a women’s team but GCU [Grand Canyon University] was just coming onto the stage (the women’s ACHA program was founded in 2017) and now UofA is starting a team next year. It’s a pretty cool marker where we are today at the five-year point. It’s unbelievable to see how far we’ve come.”
Fry is at the core of that growth. While she also serves as a Coyotes ambassador and radio analyst for games, Fry’s tireless and sometimes emotional work within the Arizona women’s and girls hockey community helped lay the foundation for the explosion in participation numbers. She and deceased Coyotes senior director of hockey development Matt Shott had a dream that is now being realized.
“We’ve got just shy of 250 players in the Kachinas,” Fry said. “When I was growing up, there were less than 30 girls in the state of Arizona playing ice hockey, ages 5 to 19. I think there is still a long way to go, but now the challenge is really going to become more about resources than interest and opportunity.
“We are maxing out at the one-sheet facility that we use over in Mesa. And as of today, there’s no additional ice on the community side. We hope that the Coyotes are able to get a facility built, but that’s not even just for girls, that’s for the entire market.”
Rivalry Series of another kind
Lindsey Ellis has been the Arizona State women’s coach since the program was formed in 2016-17. There’s a reason for that. Ellis, a Peoria native, had to leave Arizona to continue her career as a collegiate player. She attended Miami (Ohio) where she won the ACHA national championship in 2014-15.
“It was the same year that ASU men’s hockey won the ACHA national championship and I had seen a lot of my guy friends be able to go home after juniors and play for their home state school (ASU),” Ellis said. “I guess that’s where the idea started brewing. I actually emailed [ASU men’s coach] Greg [Powers]. He gave me the contacts at ASU and I had a meeting when I was still a senior in college. I basically set up the team when I was a senior in college and then took a gap year to recruit and then started the program right after that.
“We had a very small roster that first season. I think we had like 12 skaters and one goalie. At that time, all these Western teams you see now didn’t exist so we were kind of on an island trying to recruit a vision that didn’t yet exist.”
ASU can already count Grand Canyon as a Valley rival, but its traditional rivalry will be stoked when the University of Arizona launches its ACHA Division I women’s hockey program in the fall of 2024. The school has been offering men’s hockey since 1979. St. Cloud State alumna Caitlin Hogan, who totaled 127 points in 149 NCAA games, will be the women’s program’s coach.
“On the youth side with the Kachinas, it’s great for girls, from not only Arizona but the Southwest region, to be able to develop and hone their game at home,” Ellis said. “I can’t even imagine what it will be like in 10 years from now, but there’s another side to this. I think we have two Arizona girls this year, so we have girls coming from very established programs or transferring in from established programs all over the country to play in the desert at the college level. We’re collectively putting female hockey on the map for both youth hockey and the college side.”
The three universities and Kachinas officials have been instrumental in making sure that all parties are working toward the same goals. When an Arizona Amateur Hockey Association organized council fizzled after a single meeting and minimal grassroots efforts, the various stakeholders got together to form the Arizona Female Hockey Alliance.
“At the end of the day, we all want to grow girls and women’s hockey here in Arizona,” Fry said. “The collegiate programs want girls playing hockey because they want fans and they want recruits. We want the exposure at those college games. We want our girls to feel like they have a pathway to play all of their hockey here in the state of Arizona all the way up through college.
“We meet once every six weeks. We brainstorm different ways that we can help each other whether it’s promoting each other’s fundraisers or it’s recruiting opportunities. This weekend for example, we’re hosting a league weekend, so we’re going to have a ton of teams. One of the things in our charter is that each of the colleges is going to have representation at those events. So now that’s not only adding value for us, it’s adding value for all of these other girls programs that are coming to Arizona. They’re going to want to come to the Arizona tournament because of the exposure.”
The alliance is also out in the community.
“We do street hockey clinics where players from ASU, GCU or wherever can wear their branded stuff. We don’t care. We just know that the little girl that is playing and normally only sees the men on that staff teaching them hockey now is going to see a girl in an actual hockey jersey. That’s extra incentive to get her to want to sign up to play roller hockey, ice hockey, whatever it is.
“It’s all about connectivity. It’s about: ‘How do we make this a holistic ecosystem where everybody’s helping each other,’ because I just refuse to fall into that stereotype of women fighting women. We have to work together and we’re doing it now.”
Rivalry Series fills a need
In an ideal world, the ACHA programs could take the leap to Division III or Division I and be fully funded by the schools. Fry understands the hurdles involved therein but she’s glad that there are options and she is proud of the momentum that girls hockey is enjoying in Arizona; momentum that could one day lead to that ultimate dream.
In the meantime, the alliance is pursuing other avenues to keep that momentum moving forward. The Rivalry Series is a prime example.
“I think the Rivalry Series is really going to be powerful for those girls who aspire to play at the highest level, but who haven’t been able to see what that actually looks like in person,” Fry said. “The second group I think it’s really going to impact is the average hockey fan who has absolutely no idea what women’s hockey is all about. I think they are going to come and see that ‘holy cow, this is fast, it’s physical, it’s fun to watch, these women are freaking talented.’ I think that’s only going to help break down that stereotype about women’s hockey.
“We have some girls who really look up to the Megan Kellers or the Kendall Coynes of the world and now they’re gonna get to see them in person in the or even the Rivalry Series. I never got to do that when I was a kid. I didn’t even know who those heroes were. Shane Doan was my only hockey hero. I had no idea about women’s hockey. The fact that the Rivalry Series is going to be right here in our own backyard in a building as intimate as Mullett? I don’t know how you get any better than that.”
Top photo via Getty Images: U.S. forward Hilary Knight celebrates her hat-trick goal against Canada during the gold medal game of the 2023 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Brampton, Ontario.
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