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Auston Matthews vs. Makenna Newkirk: The case against USA Hockey

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Two hockey players from Scottsdale, two very different paths.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 13 - Canada v United States Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

You do that [grow the game] with grassroots hockey programs. You do that with increased funding to get little girls playing the sport at a young age, so that you create a lifelong devotion to the game and develop new players in nontraditional place – where are you, gender-flipped Auston Matthews?

This question from Greg Wyshinski is infuriating on a lot of levels, many of which are addressed in Zoe Hayden’s excellent piece for The Victory Press.

The way that funding and support from USA Hockey currently stands, a woman from Arizona doesn’t just need to be “devoted to” hockey, or even good at it. She needs money and privilege alongside talent and drive. She needs to be Makenna Newkirk.

Auston Matthews was introduced to hockey as a toddler, when his father and uncle took him to a Phoenix Coyotes game. He started playing four years later, balancing it with baseball for a while, before eventually abandoning baseball and switching to hockey full-time. He played minor hockey in the Arizona Bobcats program (which is boys-only). His mother worked multiple jobs to finance his hockey career, and some years, he had to forgo playing on travel teams because his family couldn’t afford it.

Makenna Newkirk started playing hockey at five, as detailed in this excellent article in The Heights from last February. At first, she was the only girl in her coed league. After growing frustrated as a young teenager with the level of competition available to her in the Southwest, she attempted to play an age level up on a team in Colorado, and barely missed the cut. She joined a travel team in Pittsburgh instead—yes, the Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania—while still living in Scottsdale.

Although he was drafted to the WHL by the Everett Silvertips in 2012, Matthews chose to stay in Arizona. He played 48 games for the Arizona Bobcats 16U midget team before being scooped up by the US National Team Development Program. Matthews spent two years wreaking havoc on goalies’ psyches at the NTDP—ask Joe Woll about him sometime!—before moving on to Zurich and the Swiss League. If he’d wanted to go to the NCAA, he would have had a line of teams down the block, letters of intent ready for him to sign.

Newkirk spent two years flying from Arizona to Pennsylvania at least once a month so that she could play high-level hockey. After deciding her best option was to move closer, she enrolled in Pomfret School, a boarding prep school in Connecticut, so she could continue to play for a team that challenged her and to boost her likelihood of getting a NCAA scholarship. In 2015 she succeeded. Recruited by Boston College, one of the best hockey schools in the country, she scored 49 points as a freshman and was named Hockey East Rookie of the Year.

Newkirk’s point production has dipped slightly this season, due in part to the annual shift in teammates at the college level. However, she finished the season tied for second on her team in points, and helped them to another Hockey East title. She is also a member of the USA Hockey Under-22 Select team, and represented them in the Under-22 Series vs Canada this year.

Matthews has 56 points in 70 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, and is a frontrunner for the Calder Trophy. He will save us all.

This isn’t to say that Matthews had an easy road. He put in a phenomenal amount of work to become a first-overall NHL draft pick, the savior of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But when Matthews put up 100 points in 48 games on a 16U team, he was invited to a tryout with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor. Once there, he blossomed from a talented teenager into a first-overall draft pick. The NTDP did what it was designed to to—found a boy with raw talent, and honed and improved him into a NHL player.

USA Hockey developed Auston Matthews. Makenna Newkirk developed Makenna Newkirk.

The United States Under-22 Select Team, featuring Makenna Newkirk (middle row, third from left)

Of course, from the beginning Matthews and Newkirk had different career trajectories to anticipate. Back in 2000, when five-year-old Newkirk put on skates for the first time, women’s hockey was only two years out of its first Olympic appearance at Nagano. The first National Women’s Hockey League was only a season old, and seven years away from giving birth to the CWHL. When Matthews’ mother worked two jobs to fund his hockey, it was because there was the possibility of an NHL career ahead of him. It seems to be the way development is justified by USA Hockey; boys receive money and time spent on their development because someday, they will grow up to be professional hockey players. Girls, largely, are expected to figure their careers out for themselves, before allowing USA Hockey to take advantage of and credit for their success on the international stage.

And they do have success. The US Women’s National Team has brought back a medal from every Olympics they have attended, and every major international competition is essentially a coin-flip between them and the Canadian women. A silver medal means a bad tournament for the USWNT. They’ve won gold the past three World Championships, and at seven out of the last ten. Since the beginning of 2016, the USWNT has won gold at every major international tournament they’ve competed in—the 2016 World Championships, the 2016 4 Nations Cup, and both the 2016 and 2017 U18 Women’s World Championships.

With that level of international (co-)dominance, it’s easy for USA Hockey to disregard the development of the young women who win them medals. They’re winning anyway, so why mess with it? Never mind that five of the girls on that 2017 women’s U18 team attend Shattuck St. Mary’s, an elite boarding school known for churning out hockey talent, or that eight more of them are playing on teams in the Minnesota high school hockey league. As a reference point, the bronze-medalist 2016 men’s U18 team contained exactly three players who were not in the NTDP. In-house development is clearly a priority for USA Hockey, but only if we’re talking about its boys’ teams.

USA Hockey relies on other institutions such as preparatory boarding schools, the Minnesota high school system, and the NCAA to do its development of female talent for them without putting out any money or institutional effort. They aren’t trying to strengthen their young women to succeed in international competition; rather, they’re banking on the drive of their own players, and the weakness of women’s hockey in non-North American countries, to assure continued success without having to fund it. This is going to bite them, and soon, because women’s hockey is becoming less and less of a novelty outside of North America.

A troubling addition to the development question is that the vast majority of the money the USWNT receives for living expenses comes from the US Olympic Committee because the women’s team is consistently in competition for the gold medal. That money is contingent on their continued success, not the other way around. If the women, at some point in the future, dropped out of the top three teams in the world, would USA Hockey step up to cover the difference?

There’s also inherent discrimination when a young female player’s ability to receive quality development depends on her parents’ ability to fly her back and forth from Scottsdale to Pittsburgh on a monthly basis, or pay for elite prep school. Hockey is an expensive sport, and it’s especially expensive in places like Arizona where things like ice time and secondhand equipment are hard to come by. When it comes to the boys, USA Hockey spends $3.5 million dollars a year to run the NTDP. For Auston Matthews, they took care of those costs that Makenna Newkirk’s parents had to swallow, on their daughter’s hope she would catch the eye of a Division I team.

A young woman of Mexican heritage in Auston Matthews’ financial situation would face an even steeper path. It wouldn’t take more than one person’s discriminatory attitudes, a single authority figure passing her over for her race, to derail her whole career. Newkirk’s parents had the money to send her out of state to a private school with a $59,400 yearly tuition, while Matthews’ parents had to scrape to afford his hockey expenses before he made the NTDP. These issues feed into, and exacerbate, hockey’s elitism, as well as seriously limiting USA Hockey’s female talent pool. It’s an issue of intersecting privileges, because while the male privilege is obvious, it’s not the only one at play. Who knows how many more girls out there could’ve turned into Olympic-level players if they’d had the opportunity?

To put it into financial perspective, a year’s tuition at Pomfret School, where Newkirk attended high school, currently stands at $59,400. Boston College, the university that granted Newkirk an athletic scholarship, is $65,644 a year, including room and board. Matthews’ entry-level NHL contract, pre-bonuses, has a base annual salary of $925,000.

Kenzie Kent sets up Newkirk for a goal against St. Lawrence in the NCAA quarterfinals

It leads to a vicious cycle. Under-funding and under-marketing of women’s sports are justified by things like lack of interest. Every women’s hockey fan has heard NHL fans say things like, “it’s not as exciting”, or “the competition isn’t as good”, or “it’s too slow.” These opinions are frequently presented as facts, as if it’s because they’re women and therefore naturally worse, and that’s the end of the conversation. There’s no consideration given to the disadvantage a girl faces as opposed to a boy—not physically, which is an overstated gap that narrows more every year as the NHL gets smaller, but in terms of opportunity.

The best development teenage girl hockey players get from USA Hockey is camp in the summer, organized by tiers. There’s a week of district evaluation camp, which gets 200 players an invitation to a one-week Player Development Camp in Minnesota and 72 players an invitation to a week of Select Player Development Camp in Maine. The best of them are named to the roster of the World U18 tournament. That is the best a girl can hope for, if she’s very talented and works very hard.

She doesn’t get the opportunity to live and train for two years with other elite hockey players her age, playing a sixty-game schedule. She doesn’t get to participate in three international tournaments or play against older competition like NCAA teams to improve her skills. We constantly tout the importance of development in male hockey players, but when we deny those same opportunities to girls and they’re unable to magically live up to the standards set by their male peers, their “natural inferiority” is the excuse used to perpetuate that discrimination.

Auston Matthews isn’t a generational talent because he’s a man. He’s a generational talent because he is naturally gifted, a hard worker, and was given the opportunity to succeed with it.

It’s not just this way in Arizona, either. Look at the Kessel siblings. Phil spent two years with the National Team Development Program, while Amanda attended Shattuck St. Mary’s for four years. She scored over 100 points her last three years of high school, before heading to the University of Minnesota, where she would play on one of the greatest college hockey teams of all time. Amanda’s the best hockey player in the Kessel family—if she’d gotten the same opportunities as her brother, fewer people would think that’s just a meme.

The question becomes: what should USA Hockey do about it? A large amount of USA Hockey’s development funding comes from the NHL, to the tune of the league donating $9.2 million to the USA Hockey Foundation last year, much of which was earmarked to fund things like the NTDP. It makes sense, as the NHL has a financial incentive to use the pre-existing infrastructure of USA Hockey to encourage the development of American hockey players. The NTDP has also helped both develop and diversify American men’s hockey, and it deserves credit for that.

What makes less sense is that USA Hockey does not, currently, have a line item in their budget for girls’ development. Hiding behind the NHL’s funding of the NTDP isn’t an excuse—an organization dedicated to equitable development of both genders should be organizing, and soliciting funding, for similar programs for girls. No one is expecting them to come up with a female National Team Development Program out of whole cloth before the World Championships start, but to repeat, girls’ development is so low-priority it doesn’t even have a designated line in their budget. Efforts to give their teenage girl members (who, it must be noted, pay membership dues just like the boys) more than a couple weeks of camp every summer isn’t just the right thing to do morally, it’s the right thing to do from a growth perspective.

USA Hockey is a nonprofit organization that exists to further the development of hockey in America. Hockey and men’s hockey are not the same thing. Last year, USA Hockey registration for girls under six grew by 13.32%, an indication that grassroots programs—which are often coed—are attracting more little girls. The interest is there, and thanks to national team success and leagues like the NCAA, CWHL, and NWHL, it’s increasing. If women’s hockey in the US is growing without significant contribution from their national organizing body, imagine what it could do with it.

In ten years, some of those 83 little girls under six registered with USA Hockey in Arizona at the grassroots level are going to be teenage hockey players. Some of them will be looking around and wanting to take the next step, wanting to push themselves to be better, and wanting the opportunity to do it. There isn’t a gender-flipped Auston Matthews out there, but somewhere in the Southwest, or California, or Florida, there is a little girl with the raw talent to turn into an American hockey superstar.

USA Hockey should want us to know her name.

s/t to Kirsten Whelan (@kmtwhelan) for the link to USA Hockey’s financials