Dan Church: How To Grow Women’s Hockey

The rise of women’s hockey has gained great publicity over the past decade culminating in it’s celebration at the Olympics every four years. But what we don’t see are the struggles the game has at the grass roots level in enrollment, the struggles of scouting, finding prominence and player development world wide. The game style is simply different due to the lack of physicality in women’s hockey in comparison to the men’s, but the women in the sport are proving to hockey fans everywhere that women’s hockey can be just as exciting as men’s.

One of the key players in getting the game to where it has is Dan Church.

Church as you will remember chose to resign from his position as Head Coach of the Canadian Women’s Olympic team for the 2014 Sochi games. Months after he left he opened up about the devastation he felt from Hockey Canada having a lack of faith in him.

To Kevin Dineen’s credit, his replacement, the team would win the gold medal in thrilling fashion against the rival American team. But Church should have been given more confidence by the organization, a rare blip in the Hockey Canada machine. In fact Church has done a remarkable job and his contributions to the sport of hockey let alone his efforts to help grow the female game stand as reason enough to name Church one of the stronger young coaches in the sport all together.

Currently serving as the head coach in the CIS with the York University women’s hockey program, Church has overseen the club’s success for several season. His current star pupils include Kristen Barbara who led the team in scoring as a defenseman and who’s described as a power-play specalist, Andrea Joyce who led the team with 9-goals this season as a power-forward and goaltenders Megan Lee and Jessalyn Bogacki. Church also has promising youngsters like Courtney Weatherbie in the system that are proving to be rising physical defenders for the club’s future.

All in all the accolades of Church’s rise to prominence go beyond the 2001 CIS National Championship, three OUA Championships (1998, 2000, 2001) and 2012 IIHF World Championship among others. When you strip it all away you have a proud Canadian who loves the game of hockey and wants to see the women’s game grow.

Below is an interview conducted with Church earlier this week.

Q: Dan you’ve been involved with the women’s game for over three decades at the CIS level first starting with the Toronto Lady Blues. What attracted you to the omen’s game over the men’s as a coach? How did you first get involved?


Dan Church: I was first attracted to the game of hockey and had a tremendous passion for it. There was never really a point where I chose women’s hockey over the men’s game. I started coaching my cousin’s house league team while I was in university as his coach was transferred for work. I enjoyed it and it taught me a lot about the level of organization you need to be a successful coach. An injury had ended my playing career while I was studying at the University of Toronto (UofT). It left a huge void in me personally and it was around the same time that a close friend asked me to help coach the defense with the Newtonbrook Panthers (now CWHL’s Brampton Thunder). It was really my first introduction to women’s hockey other than seeing the 1990 Women’s World Championship on television, when they wore the pink an white jerseys. I was awed at how talented they were. The players were amazing and it was a really positive coaching experience. Our coach mentor that year was Karen Hughes. Karen asked if I’d be interested in coaching the following season at the UofT and the rest is history. The choice to coach women’s hockey was really organic. I felt there was a need for good coaching and i really liked the game and just did it because I loved it. It was tremendously rewarding. I never went into coaching with the thought of doing it professionally, I just loved the game and loved teaching. It was a way to continue to be competitive now that I was finished playing.


Q: You started coaching CIS when it was the CIAU in 1996. When you started where did you see the women’s game going and what do you think the future holds for women’s hockey?


Dan Church: I don’t think I really thought about the future of the game at that point in my career. I was just emerged in the day-to-day coaching and loving every minute of it. I knew that women’s hockey was going to be in the Olympics but in terms of the future I guess my hope was that we would see the CIAU grow to include more teams and the COWHL would continue to grow into a professional league.


Q: Broadcasting is a huge part of sports. An established brand like Hockey Night In Canada (HNIC) on CBC helped grow hockey across Canada over the last 62 years. Do you see the CWHL getting a similar nationally syndicated broadcast that would get the women’s game a constant weekly exposure?


Dan Church: I’m not sure that is a reality in the current marketplace. The NHL and HNIC brand benefited from the exposure it got on public television with the CBC. It grew an audience over decades, first through radio and then television. I think it is really important for women’s hokey to take advantage of the opportunities it has currently to build a really good television product. It’s exciting to have Sportsnet on board with the CIS to broadcast the CIS National Championship beginning next year. Events like the CIS National Championship, Clarkson Cup, Esso Cup and U18 National Championships are steps in the right direction. Women’s hockey needs to leverage those events to grow the game nationally. The advent of online streaming is also a great vehicle to attract audiences. For the CWHL and CIS, the focus needs to be on building a fan base that comes into the arenas to watch games while also growing online and television audiences.


Q: First it was Hayley Wickenheiser and Manon Rheaume. Now Shannon Szabados is stepping up to play professionally with men with the SPHL Columbus Cottonmouths. What does the success of these women’s skill and achievements in playing against men mean to the women’s game?


Dan Church: I think what it does is give our game a tremendous amount of credibility. Shannon has been a great role model for female hockey players. She has played at a very high level in the men’s game for her whole career. Shannon started with AAA hockey then the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) where she was an all-star, playing men’s at Grant MacEwan and NAIT in the ACAC and now minor pro men’s hockey. I think players that play with and against Shannon have a great deal of respect for the player and athlete that she is. She is a great player, not just a great female player. When the Olympic team was training during the summer and the men’s orientation camp was taking place at the same time, the men were really impressed with the intensity and commitment our players had to their training and preparation. It is neat to see when they get to interact, the gender lines are forgotten and they quickly relate as athletes.

Q: Comparing the women’s and men’s game what differences can you find in player recruitment and scouting for college and university level programs?


Dan Church: I don’t think there are big differences in recruiting really. In the CIS the men’s players are often coming from the CHL and tend to be a little older when they start university compared to the women’s student-athletes who are coming straight from high school. In terms of what schools and players are looking for I really think they are looking for the same things; a place to play at a high level while also getting a great education. In women’s hockey the education piece may be slightly more significant because there is no pro option for them to aspire to beyond university In the end it all comes down to finding the best fit academically, athletically and socially.


Q: With all your contributions to women’s hockey you’ve seen the game grow tremendously, especially over the past decade. Where do you see the game 10-years from now. What sort of developments are in motion to grow the game?


Dan Church: I would like to see the continuing evolution of the game. The players are getting better and better every year. My hope is that in ten years we can see the CIS as the destination of choice for Canadian student-athletes and that the audiences for the women’s game continue to grow. It would also be great to see the growth of the CHWL into a league filled with professional players. I think if we can continue to take small steps forward in the next decade the game will be in good shape.


Q: There are so many sports for kids to choose these days. A lot of youth athlete’s have choices between hockey, soccer, field hockey and lacrosse among others. At the grass-roots level how can minor hockey associations grow their enrollment numbers collectively?


Dan Church: Women’s hockey is the only segment of growth within Hockey Canada right now I believe. I think growing enrollment numbers continues to be about access and opportunity. Continuing to make the game fun while also being affordable is really important. I think from a high performance perspective for all sports in our country it makes sense to have more athletes involved in more sports at the grass-roots level. I think national sports organizations and provincial sport organizations across all the sports mentioned need to have greater collaboration to align their sports and seasons so that youth can participate in more sport opportunities. I think a strong grass-roots base leads to strong results at the Olympics and internationally for hockey and all the other sports in Canada.


Q: The Hayley Wickenheiser tournament is hosted annually in Calgary involving teams from around the world. Can you touch on the success of this tournament?

Dan Church: Well I think the success of this event is that it’s a festival as opposed to just another tournament. There is competition for sure. Beyond that it brings together teams from across Canada and the rest of the world to celebrate the women’s game and also adding a lot of value to the athletes, coaches and parents in regards to education seminars on nutrition, training and other subjects.

Q: In July BC Hockey will be hosting it’s 2nd annual information weekend and game for the Midget girls around the province. It’s an information session, a chance to mingle with those involved in the college level. If nothing else this is a great opportunity for families to possibly get involved with a college or university level program.

What advice do you have for the young women in our country making strides to get into a college or university level program?

Dan Church: For any young player interested in playing university or college level hockey it is really important to educate themselves on what they want from their university experiences and to take responsibility to start that process themselves. Again, I really think it comes down to finding the best fit academically, athletically and socially.

I think one question athletes should ask themselves is “Would I be happy at this school without hockey?”.

Unfortunately injuries are a part of sports and while career-ending injuries are rare, they can happen. Make sure the choice you make isn’t based solely around hockey. Never forego your academic aspirations for hockey either. There are enough schools and women’s hockey programs to find a fit for what you want in both areas.

Another piece of advice I have is about money. Don’t make money the biggest factor in your decision. Too often plaers make a scholarship offer the factor in deciding where they go to school. Again you have to come back to the experience you want from your post-secondary education and athletic career and I don’t think money should be the sole decider.

Finally I encourage aspiring student-athletes to be pro-active in the recruiting process. Do your research, ask the coach tough questions and make sure you are going into an environment that will be rewarding to you.

If it’s anything we can learn the future of women’s hockey is bright and it’s destiny is held in the hands of great ambassadors of the sport like Church.

Follow Dan Church on Twitter @DChurch73.