The man helping a team of women break through the ice ceiling

By Katie Marciniak
Chicago, IL

As the players make their way toward the rink, the cool air awakens their nerves. They assess their competition from behind the glass as they skate onto the ice one by one. The referee drops the puck on the ice, the players face off and the game begins.

You may have visualized a hockey game taking place, but did you presume men as the players? People don’t typically associate women with aggressive sports such as hockey. But according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, since the first IIHF women’s season in 1990, the number of female hockey players has ballooned from roughly 6,000 to more than 65,000. 

Jeff Kampersal, head coach of the women’s hockey team at Princeton University, shared the challenges and successes of coaching the emerging women’s team. “The decision [to coach a women’s hockey team] chose me,” he said. In his 14 years as head coach, according to Athletic Hub, his teams have averaged more than 17 wins per season.

A Boston native, Kampersal recalls only one or two female players on the team when he was younger. But a couple of female players he knew went on to win gold medals for the first women’s hockey competition in the 1998 Olympics, a turning point for women’s hockey.

As more women participate in the violent, male-dominated game, hockey professionals must consider the safest way to incorporate women, an issue important to Kampersal. Though there is physical contact in women’s hockey, full “body checking,” a big part of men’s hockey, is not permitted. That is not likely to change, but Kampersal argues that women can handle it, as long as they are trained early. “I am one of the only [coaches] in the whole country to support body checking at a young age,” said Kampersal in regard to both male and female players, adding it prevents later injuries. He favors more aggressive athletes. “The players that shy away from the contact are not as effective for us.”

Kampersal has also come to appreciate some of the unique aspects of coaching women. “I can’t say [that] the boys don’t listen, but I feel the women I coach are more receptive,” he said.

Kampersal has high hopes for the team he’s helped build, saying that this fall he has the best incoming class of freshmen he’s seen in all his 20 years of coaching. Despite the layers of preconceived notions about women’s sports, the Princeton women’s hockey team is slowly melting away those ideas. Kampersal is helping these women break the ice and create a narrative that will make the sport more accessible for future generations of women.

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