Kendall Coyne Schofield forges path for women and girls in pro ranks

Team USA captain and Olympic champion was recently hired as the first female player development coach for the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks
By ZK Goh

A lot has changed since Kendall Coyne Schofield started playing ice hockey in her childhood.

For one, women's ice hockey has grown exponentially, thanks in part to being included on the Olympic programme.

Coyne Schofield, 28, grew up dreaming about playing in the National Hockey League (NHL) for her hometown Chicago Blackhawks.

Now she is now a two-time Olympic medallist – silver at Sochi 2014 and gold at PyeongChang 2018 – with the U.S. women's national team. She's the captain, too.

And, coming full circle, Coyne Schofield is now a player development coach for the Blackhawks – one of only a few women to hold coaching or scouting roles in the NHL.

Her appointment in November made her the first woman to hold the position with the franchise.

For her, it's just the latest step on the long road to more exposure for women in the sport.

"I've worked tirelessly to build programs, to create opportunities and to inspire more girls to want to be in the game," Coyne Schofield told Olympic Channel.

"There's a lot of women that have inspired me to be in this role. I hope I can continue to inspire other women, just like they inspired me and gave me confidence knowing that I could do this."

Life-long inspiration

Coyne Schofield remembers being inspired to play ice hockey by Cammi Granato, captain of the U.S. team that won the first women's Olympic gold medal in 1998.

"Cammi has been a role model, a hero of mine since I was seven years old, since I held her gold medal at her hockey camp here in Chicago, and so I've always looked up to Cammi.

"I saw her and I wanted to be her and I saw one hundred other girls at her hockey camp that played hockey. And for the first time in my life, I was like, see, girls do play hockey. And so from that moment, my goal changed from wanting to be on the Blackhawks to wanting to play for Team USA."

Now, 22 years later, Granato continues to be a pillar of support for Coyne Schofield.

Granato became the NHL's first female scout when the expansion Seattle Kraken team hired her in 2019.

"I spoke to Cammi (before taking the Blackhawks role)," Coyne Schofield says. "[Her] advice to me was be confident: 'You know the game, you know you know the game and be confident with what you know, within the game.'"

Granato has followed Coyne Schofield's rise with pride. Speaking recently to The Athletic, she said: "When I look at Kendall — just knowing and seeing her as this little kid with tons of energy in this huge smile and seeing where she is now — as this woman who's accomplished so much in so many different positions (…) I'm super proud of her."

As the Blackhawks' player development coach, Coyne Schofield will mainly be working with prospects at the club's American Hockey League affiliate team, the Rockford IceHogs.

She has no qualms about coaching male athletes. "Do I anticipate any challenges? I don't," she says matter-of-factly.

"This might be the first time some of these players have a woman as a coach. There's no doubt in my mind that's the case. But I know through my talent, through my experiences, through my work ethic, I can provide these players with the skills to help them get to the next level. And that level is the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks."

Kendall Coyne Schofield visits the Chicago Blackhawks locker room with her PyeongChang 2018 Olympic gold medal in March 2018. (Chicago Blackhawks Photo)

Visibility and opportunities for women in hockey

Coyne Schofield is passionate about wanting to increase female participation and opportunities in the sport.

She runs the all-girls Golden Coynes Program, "a program that we created last year for girls aged six to 12 as another stepping stone into the game of hockey", in her other role with the Blackhawks as youth hockey growth specialist.

The forward was part of the NHL's first all-female broadcast team and was also the first woman to compete in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in 2019.

She is currently president of the board of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), which is boycotting the only professional women's league out of dissatisfaction with how it is run.

"I've worked tirelessly to build programs, to create opportunities and to inspire more girls to want to be in the game. And what is so challenging is that there's so few and far between of opportunities for girls to see women play hockey at an elite level. A lot of girls grow up and want to be on the Blackhawks like I did because that's all they see. They see women play hockey every four years at the Olympic Games, and then there's a game here or a game there. You need to see it to be it.

"So now that I'm older, I'm continuing to fight to get more coverage, to get more visibility for women's hockey, because that's the way we grow the game. We all started playing the games because we saw someone else playing it, and so until these young girls can see us playing, it's hard for them to know that it's for them; that they belong in the sport."

Kendall Coyne Schofield competes in the Fastest Skater challenge at the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition, the first woman to do so. (Chicago Blackhawks Photo)

The six-time World Championship gold medallist says it's imperative people stop thinking about women's hockey as a once-every-four-years endeavour.

"I think in order for the perception of the women's game to change, that it's not only relevant every four years at the Olympic Games, we need a sustainable, a viable and a professional league that affords the players the opportunity to be truly professional – that means through compensation, that means through resources, that means through benefits, that means through infrastructure.

"It makes me angry, but it makes me excited, because we haven't even scratched the potential of what the women's game can become until we see those changes made from a professional landscape for players."

Kendall Coyne Schofield leading her Golden Coynes youth hockey program with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019. (Chicago Blackhawks Photo)

Activism

Coyne Schofield's activism for equal opportunity has caught the eye of tennis legend Billie Jean King.

"Kendall is unbelievable. She really cares about the future generations. Everything out of her mouth is, if you talk to her, you know it, we got to get this for the future generations, we got to do this, we got to do that," King told The Athletic.

Coyne Schofield, for her part, credits King's activism in the 1970s in setting up a rebel women's tennis tour that is today the Women's Tennis Association Tour.

"Thanks to the stand that those women took back in 1971, and shortly thereafter in 1972 Title IX (a U.S. civil rights law banning sex discrimination in federally-financed education) came about, I had the ability to go to Northeastern University, accept a scholarship and play college hockey," she points out to Olympic Channel.

"Without all of these improvements through gender equality, a lot of the opportunities that I've had today don't exist. But as we're sitting here today, there's a lot of work that needs to be done. And I think we need to continue to open our eyes, open our hearts, and see women as talent."

In 2017, the U.S. women's team voted to boycott the World Championships over a lack of equal remuneration and support compared to the men's team.

An agreement was eventually reached between the players and USA Hockey, and Coyne Schofield went on to lead the tournament in points as the U.S. won its eighth world title.

"I think all of us had such a deeper appreciation for the players who came before us knowing how little they had and how successful they were," she reflects.

"They inspired us and we had no idea what they went through until we got into that position that we were in and we realised this is what they were trying to change. This is what they were trying to fight for; now it's time for us to come together and create that change.

"It's so important to be reflective on that experiences as we sit here almost four years later, because it's easy to forget what it was like before. It was a daunting process, but it was a process that opened my eyes to the fact that when you use your voice to create change, change can be made. You're stronger with one voice and you're stronger together."

Kendall Coyne Schofield rink-side as part of the first all-female NHL Network broadcast crew for a league game. (Chicago Blackhawks Photo)

Eye on the 2022 Olympics

Although she has two new roles with the Blackhawks in addition to her work with the PWHPA, Coyne Schofield remains an active player with an eye on making the 2022 Winter Olympics with the United States.

"My commitment and my training and my preparation for the women's national team does not change… that's a priority. The Blackhawks know that that's my priority. My goal is to make the 2022 Winter Olympic team and head to Beijing and try and bring home another gold medal."

Coyne Schofield will attempt to do that as the team's captain, having been voted into the position by her team-mates after the PyeongChang Games.

"I want to continue to lead them, support them. But I think it's also important to recognise that when you're on the women's national team and you're at the highest level, every single player in that room is the captain. Every single player in that room is a leader and they're on that team for a reason."

Kendall Coyne Schofield leading her Golden Coynes youth hockey program with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019. (Chicago Blackhawks Photo)

With just 14 months to go to Beijing 2022, Coyne Schofield says she is "optimistic" about Team USA's chances of successfully defending their title, despite the coronavirus pandemic having ripped up all plans for this year.

"This has been a really challenging year for everybody, but given all of those unknowns, I'm so proud of the way all of our team has still continued to train every single day to be ready to go for whenever they get the green light to go.

"Given that the Olympics are a year and two months out, I think it makes me feel optimistic knowing that even though we haven't really seen each other, we haven't competed with and against each other in so long, that we will be ready to go no matter what."

As for Team USA's perennial rivals and biggest threat Canada?

"Given this year, the fact that we're all in the same position, it almost feels like the rivalry has taken a back seat because what's so important is everyone's health and safety. Right now it's so hard to really analyse the rivalry because it's just so not important given the the situation and the landscape of our world with this pandemic.

"But I know, especially getting to know some of the members of Team Canada through the professional hockey landscape and working alongside them, it's been such an honour to get to know them as people and players versus just competitors.

"We're trying to change this game for the better. We're trying to leave this game better than when we entered it, and we know we're stronger together. In my mind, we're all one team in that sense.

"But we're competitors, of course. When the puck drops and we're all trying to win a gold medal."