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Hockey in North Central Connecticut

By Mike Scandura
March 7, 2006

Ken Dixon wasn’t frustrated to the point where he was chewing nails; but Dixon realized five years ago that if someone didn’t take the initiative, girls’ hockey would remain a speck on the horizon in north central Connecticut.

"I wanted my daughter to have the same opportunity my son did," said Dixon, who founded the Northern Lights Girls' Ice Hockey Club in 2000. The organization is based out of Simsbury, Conn. "I had seen girls' hockey always being given a back seat -- girls being asked to forfeit the ice if boys' teams needed it, referees not taking the games seriously, girls playing each other time after time because there wasn’t appropriate competition, frequent game cancellations and so on.

"I felt girls would never take themselves seriously as athletes as long as girls’ hockey was an also-ran in the boys clubs."

That was then and this is now.

Northern Lights draws girls ages 5-19 from more than 40 towns in north central Connecticut, and even western Massachusetts.

Program levels range from beginning skater to highly experienced player. And as a member of the New England Girls Hockey League, Northern Lights ices Tier I teams -- teams that compete for a national title as sanctioned by USA Hockey.

Moreover, Northern Lights also competes in a variety of nationally recognized tournaments, including the Rhode Island Panthers Thanksgiving Tournament, the Polar Bear Holiday Tournament, the Adirondack Skating January Tournament and the Charles River Presidents’ Day Tournament, as well as state and regional tournaments.

"I had just coached a state championship Tier I boys team, with Avon Youth Hockey, that had two girls on it," said Dixon. "My daughter was playing with boys at the Pee Wee age, checking hockey, and I saw what that was all about."

Initially, Dixon’s association took root with eight girls from the Avon program and seven from outside the program.

"Very quickly we were able to compete at good Tier II hockey," he said. "We did that for two years."

Entering this season, Northern Lights boasts some 150 girls spread over eight teams, plus a learn-to-skate program with 25 members. And if the sky isn’t the limit in terms of growth, it’s close.

"What you focus on are skills and teamwork," said Dixon, who graduated from West Point as a member of the Class of 1979. "I’m very much team-oriented and you can accomplish quite a bit. I learned a lot about teamwork and player development when I was at West Point.

"Some teams, when they start at the beginning of the year, say their goal is to win the nationals. Our goal is to make all of our players better. And our hope is by doing that we'll be able to compete at the highest level possible. If we make it to the Nationals, it’s great.

"But the goal is to develop our players. We have an off-ice program twice a week with a strength-conditioning-agility coach. We’re trying to bring out all aspects of what they need to do to develop as athletes."

Meghan McGrath, a 16-year-old forward from Canton, Conn., is a classic example of a girl who benefits from Northern Lights. She talked about her experience while watching the women's United States national team play an exhibition game against Finland in December.

"My dad (Brian) always played hockey but we moved a lot around the country," said McGrath. "When we were living in Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) there weren't any rinks within an hour of our house and we didn't come in contact with anyone who played girls' hockey. When we moved here, I was very naive and not aware of how prevalent it was up here.

"Connecticut and Northern Lights have given me a sense of empowerment and, obviously, seeing all these fantastic women (the U.S. National Team) playing is wonderful."

Given Dixon’s experience at West Point, it's a no-brainer that discipline is one of the building blocks of Northern Lights. But with girls, discipline doesn't fall under the heading of one size fits all, like an adjustable baseball cap.

"I think one of the things I had to learn when coaching girls is that the kind of discipline and the way you build it into a system is different than when you’re coaching boys," said Dixon. "With girls, what I've found is you've got to work to develop their self-esteem and confidence. If you can do that, they’ll grow and grow both as players and people.

"With boys, there's a lot less that you have to think about. Very often it's like, 'how do you kick 'em in the butt.' What I’ve said to numerous people is if you ask a boy what he needs to be a better player, he'll tell me two things. He'll say get me a better left wing and a better right wing and I'll be a better player.

"If you ask a girl what she needs in order to be a better player, she'll say something that's more concrete, like she needs to work on her shot,” continued Dixon. "They’re very critical of themselves. What you have to do is try to support them so they can build those skills and develop those areas they need to develop and not beat them down."

To put it another way, Northern Lights coaches focus on positive reinforcement and also design drills and off-ice training geared toward young women. There is also an emphasis on more subjective areas like building camaraderie.

"We find girls have a greater need for various aspects of camaraderie, so we make sure that fun and camaraderie aren’t overlooked," said Dixon. "We could be talking about having pizza parties or simply making jokes in a locker room."

No pun intended, but the lights on the horizon couldn’t be brighter for the rapidly growing Northern Lights girls' hockey program.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc.