Lions continuing to help grow girls game in California, Western U.S.
It’s been well-documented that the game of hockey is growing at a rapid pace across the country.
On the West Coast, hockey is booming, especially at the girls and women’s levels.
The LA Lions are a perfect example of that growth, continuing to prosper in its third season as an official program. This year, the Lions fielded teams at 8U, 10U, 12U and 16U, in addition to a 14U tournament-only team and a women’s adult team.
Megan Rivera co-founded the Lions with Becki Winckler and said her initial vision is coming to fruition.
“When I started the program, I wrote it into the overall vision that I wanted the program to sustain itself by growing from the bottom, that is, from the Lil Kings program and LA-area in-house programs, as well as USA Hockey ‘Try Hockey for Free’ days,” said Rivera, who played NCAA Division I hockey at Boston College and is now the Lions 16U associate coach and organization goalie coach. “I did research on the Lil Kings program when I was drafting up the plan for sustainability for the Lions. The Lil Kings program, on average, puts about 200 girls on the ice per year. Assuming hockey sticks for half of them – obviously, you hope it’s more and maybe it is, but let’s say half – you have a hundred new girls playing hockey every year.
“The growth of the Lions is huge for girls hockey,” Winckler added. “It’s great for LA families to have an alternative when it comes to hockey. As we know, girls participation in hockey drops off significantly at the 14U age and having a local program is helping to keep some of these girls playing longer and committing more to the sport. Beyond youth hockey, if we continue to grow and the West Coast sees an influx of girls programs, colleges will have to start having teams for these girls to play for. It will happen if we all work together. It’s a progression of one thing leading to the next. These are all pieces of a puzzle. The time is now. It’s a great time to be a girl.”
The Lions started in 2015 when Winckler and Steve Yovetich worked together to put together a team of eight-year-old girls who participated in that year’s Labor Day Tinseltown Tournament at Toyota Sports Center. Rivera coached that team, which is where she and Winckler met. The team included Winckler’s daughter, Lily. They placed third out of seven teams in an all-boys division.
“That tournament essentially got the program on its feet,” said Rivera. “I swear, after that, overnight we went from those 10 kids to 30.”
Afterward, Winckler hit the ground running and began finding other girls who were looking for a place to play. She took this project to Rivera, who put in the work on the business end to create an entity where this program could exist. Winckler, who is now the coordinator of managers and fundraising for the Lions, and Rivera felt that the demand to start a program out of El Segundo was there, so they worked hard to make sure it would stick.
Tori Pizzuto is another key cog in the Lions’ success and is the 16U head coach and organization coordinator, in addition to serving as the ball hockey coordinator for the Los Angeles Kings.
“A ton of girls stop playing hockey in California because they would otherwise have to drive too far,” Pizzuto said. “And while a good amount of them still drive long distances, each program that can stand on its feet makes it better for girls who want to play. There’s no doubt that girls want to play hockey out here, but sometimes the convenience factor prohibits that for a lot of families. The more programs that pop up, the more we can bring out those girls and ultimately make California and the Pacific District one of the most competitive out there.”
Pizzuto added that the Lions have blossomed from a small group a little more than two years ago to seven full teams for the 2018-19 season.
“By the time the Lions program was announced in November 2015, there were three tournament-only teams created from that initial 8U team,” said Pizzuto. “They practiced together once a week and attended 2-3 tournaments together. The next season, the program had grown enough where the 8U, 10U and 12U teams were able to function full time.
“I see the Lions continuing to grow based on the location we are in, the success we are having in terms of support we are getting from the LA Kings and the Jr. Kings, and the number of girls who are coming out of in-house programs and the Lil Kings program.”
Next season, the Lions plan to ice teams at 8U, 10U, two teams at 12U, 14U Tier II, 16U Tier II and 19U Tier II.
“Our growth rate has been pretty insane,” said Rivera. “It’s a big deal. It seems like only a small handful of programs in the whole state of California have been able to successfully operate in the long term. So every day, month, year that we continue to grow feels like such a win. Having more programs means better competition and less kids leaving to play elsewhere.”
The coaching within the Lions program is also second to none, as Rivera and Pizzuto are joined by Bill Mendes, Adam O’Neill, Casidhe Kunichika, Dimitri Voulelikas, Richard Gomez, Kelly Lynch and Christen Keogh. Kunichika also played NCAA D-I hockey at Rochester Institute of Technology and currently plays for the U.S. women’s national roller hockey team.
Rivera said Pizzuto is of the utmost quality when it comes to coaching.
“In my opinion, Tori is one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen,” Rivera said. “When I reflect on my own youth hockey days and the coaches I had who were a positive influence on me, Tori has all of those qualities. She was born to coach. I get jealous because it just comes so naturally to her.”
Back on Feb. 26, the U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning women’s hockey team made a stop in the City of Angels and dropped the ceremonial puck drop at the Kings-Vegas Golden Knights game. The Kings set up a meet and greet for all Lions players (pictured top), and it was phenomenal.
“To have Olympians meet our girls in the same room at STAPLES Center where we made the announcement to our families about our new LA Lions program was surreal,” said Winckler. “If you would have asked Megan and I two and a half years ago if we would’ve anticipated being a stop on the gold medal tour, we would not have believed it. We sat in that room and cried that night together.
Moving forward, there are nothing but positive vibes building up with the Lions.
“One of our older kids just went on a college visit and is narrowing down her decision,” said Rivera. “I mean, that is the end goal. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel for these kids and all of the hard work they put in. The first kid who commits to play college hockey from this program will be a very big deal.”
“My own unique story happened with an older girl that is a new player to our club this season,” added Winckler. “She sought me out in the parking lot and wanted to introduce herself to me. I shook her hand and told her it was nice to meet her and how happy I was to have her as a Lion. She said to me, ‘I am so honored to meet you. All my life I have heard the phrase ‘grow the game,’ but I am actually talking to someone that is doing it. Thank you for starting the Lions.’ We said our goodbyes and I got in my car and cried. I still cry.
“That’s what this is all about.”
Photo above/Jeff Berting Photography
— Matt Mackinder
(April 3, 2018)