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Where are all the female (hockey) coaches?

Both the NBA and NFL have female coaches on team staffs now. How come is does not seem like the NHL is any closer to this happening?

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

After Becky Hammon's successful first season as an assistant coach for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs and her even more successful run as the head coach of their Las Vegas Summer League team (and first female to serve as a head coach) and the NFL's Arizona Cardinals have announced that they will have a female intern on their coaching staff during the pre-season. Why does the NHL still have no females in any sort of leadership capacity including scouting or work in management. So this begs the question: why not?

Power Dynamics

Being a female coach in a male sport is hard, especially if the males being coached are older. Establishing respect from them and power over them cannot be done by dressing a certain way as it can when a female teaches high school nor can it be established by "being one of the guys". Instead, it has to be bought through smart tactics and tough discipline. If athletes can see that the coach has the power, they respect it. Rules have to be set and followed through on. At some point, there can be a relaxation of them because the respect is there already. Over time the power dynamic is already established and there becomes a mutual respect that is natural, unless the female is a bad coach.

The biggest part is being a smart coach. Kids love to learn things. I coached boys teams for years in water polo and earned the respect of both the players and parents simply by knowing what I was talking about. I was able to explain the uses of a drill and how everything would be used in a game with ease. Solid background knowledge helped me a lot. It also helped that I


Coaching is hard. Getting into coaching is especially hard because there are a lot of little things that one has questions about and there is no one there to answer those questions. It helps if there is a coach who is seen as a respected and smart coach who is willing to mentor new coaches and help them get the tools they need to be successful. This is even more important for females because it allows for males who are not ready to see a female as a coach be backed by a respected male. It should not have to be this way, but it works better for all involved.

When looking at Hammon for example, Greg Popovich is highly respected and known to only care about winning. Hammon was named to his staff because she is a sharp basketball mind who helps the Spurs win. When Popovich names Hammon to his staff, her ability to coach becomes legitimized in the basketball community because she is highly thought of by a highly respected coach. And he put her in a position to learn and succeed. Popovich owes nothing to anyone to help Hammon develop as a coach, except by doing so he helps his own to succeed. Mentoring does not have to be constant meetings. Sometimes it can mean breaking down one barrier and making it easier for the mentee to do their job.

The Fringe Jobs

Barbara Underhill has coached NHLers for nearly 10 years as a skating coach. As a former figure skater she is highly qualified for this job. Does Underhill working with NHL teams in this capacity count as the NHL having a female coach or is it only when they make it to the tactical side of the game behind the bench or in the video room that we can say there is a female coach in the NHL? It is easier to make it as a specialist instead of in a position that many men can hold as well. This is what is so groundbreaking about Hammon, she is a coach on the bench in a position that is dominated by men.

What Underhill has done is admirable, but is not on the same level. She is not an everyday coach to the players and more importantly, she does not hold a tactical voice in the room. There is a thought that women cannot possibly understand tactics for a game the same way men do and therefore cannot coach at the highest level. The difference between Hammon and Underhill is simple: one has to prove that idea wrong every single time she coaches, the other gets coach something that everyone expects females to be good at (that is another gender bias there).

Acknowledging the Challenges

There are simply not enough females coaching at lower levels in hockey for one to realistically make it to the NHL behind the bench shortly. Even women's hockey features mostly male coaches behind the bench. If female coaches are to make it to the highest level, there has to be a lot more coaching at the lowest level and refining their craft until they make it. Bringing in more female coaches may be as simple as more of them coaching their sons and daughters in minor sports and being certified to coach at community sports. Over time, elite coaches emerge.

There are other issues at play besides the volume of females coaching. Elite coaching takes a lot of time and travel commitment and for any coach with a family, that can be too much to agree to. Even in a household where childcare and house work is split evenly, having one parent at home constantly and the other on the road for long stretches is really hard, even if the children are older. For two years my dad worked as an assistant coach of Canada's Junior Women's National Water Polo Team. He was mentoring a young coach incidentally. He also had two daughters in fifth and sixth grade and a wife that works full time. When he was away for five weeks it was a real struggle for my mom because there was no one else to drive us places or to pick us up. This was the same when my mom travelled. It is a real struggle to keep life going as is when you go from two parents to one.

It should also be noted that women have always operated differently then men. Some of it is gender norms, but women are generally more co-operative then men. There was a Longform Podcast with New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan where she talked about her time as head editor of The Buffalo News. She said that most of the people who negotiated their salaries or asked her for raises while she worked there were men. Rarely did women have the desire to go and ask for more money for their work. Fundamental differences between the two sexes is at play here.

There is another, fictional, example of these sweeping differences between males and females in similar situations is Tamora Pierce's Lady Knight series where she tells the tale of the first female knight, Keladry, to go through training and become a knight with everyone knowing that she is female. Once she is given command of her own fort she teaches her charges how to fight for themselves and she forces the whole fort to work as one. This ends up saving her people in the end, but it also shows the fundamental difference between the lone female knight who was trained as a female and every other knight in the realm: she creates efficacy where there is none and focuses on the emotional issues of housing refugees who have lost everything to make her fort stronger. No other knight does this. Keladry uses her personality, which is more co-operative then her male counterparts, to her advantage.


A female bench coach in the NHL may not happen for a long, long time in part because there are not enough females coaching at lower levels. Even once that changes, it will take a female who has the personality to demand and gain respect in the room while being tactically strong enough to beat out qualified men for a job. If someone succeeds, they will still have to navigate people questioning their qualifications unless they are in a scenario where no one would question their hiring.

There is a lack of female coaches in hockey, but it is not at the highest level, it is at the lowest level and until that changes it is unlikely there will be a female coach behind the bench or in the pressbox for a NHL team