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Second-year LA Lions solidifying their footing in local girls hockey scene

 

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They say timing is everything.

When it came to architecting the newly minted LA Lions girls hockey program, that cliché couldn’t ring truer.

Bring together a Los Angeles Kings employee who played NCAA Division I girls hockey – Megan Rivera – and a passionate mother of an equally-passionate hockey-playing daughter – Becki Winckler – along with the backing of an NHL club – those same Kings – and safe bet you’re going to see results.

The idea began to unfold early last season when a small group of girls was operating under the Los Angeles Jr. Kings’ umbrella as a tournament team and participating in twice-weekly skills clinics at the Lions’ now-home rink – El Segundo’s Toyota Sports Center (TSC).

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Between the on-ice development, success and friendships built over the first couple of months, more and more girls started to take interest.

That’s when Winckler, who credits then-Jr. Kings president (now a member of the organization’s newly-formed Executive Committee) Steve Yovitech for his support in helping get the venture on its feet, spit-balled to Rivera – also a part-time coach at the time – the idea of launching an all-out, all-girls program in an area where so many hockey-playing families are in striking distance, geographically, of TSC.

“I sort of took that idea and ran with it,” said Rivera. “Frankly, it’s all a huge blur because we launched it so fast.”

Fast and effective. Less than a month later – thanks to the efforts of Winckler – the program blossomed from 10 families to 30 and the Lions were out of their cage.

Today, the Lions boast of three teams – 8U, 10U and 12U – and carry the look and feel of a tried-and-true girls hockey club built to last.

An account executive in the Kings’ hockey development department, Rivera took a page out of the LA Kings High School Hockey League startup playbook – the fledgling circuit is now in its second year experiencing tremendous success thanks in part to its structure and professionalism – and put that into motion for the Lions last spring, beginning with tryouts, followed by an equipment-fitting event and scheduling Southern California Amateur Hockey Association games and tournaments.

“(Our families) wanted everything and, in my mind, that’s how you build a legitimate program,” said Rivera, who played at Boston College. “Treat it the same as you would any program; girls or boys, it shouldn’t matter.”

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And the Kings’ support was unwavering. Sure, Rivera’s role with the two-time Stanley Cup champions – along with her passion for growing girls hockey at the local level – helped move that needle of legitimacy, but figures like the Kings’ president of business operations Luc Robitaille and chief operating officer Kelly Cheeseman, along with Brad Berman (president of American Skating Entertainment Centers, which owns and operates TSC) and Brad Sholl (general manager of TSC), were also firmly behind the upstart.

“I remember going to our vice president of hockey development at the time when we were considering the project, as well as talking to higher executives about the program, and being so excited by their unconditional support,” said Rivera, who serves at the Lions’ president. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is insane.’”

The Kings’ marketing department came up with the Lions’ name and designed their logo, and Kings alumni like Daryl Evans – a popular figure at TSC and the NHL team’s radio color commentator – would skate with the girls in the afternoons on Kings game days, then hop in his car to STAPLES Center to get on the airwaves.

Another Kings alum, Derek Armstrong, would also fly into town and skate with the girls as often as he could.

“He wasn’t living in L.A. at the time, but would always make time to work with them,” said Rivera.

What’s more, “Black & White,” a program that airs on FOX Sports West, featured the Lions last season in a segment produced by Kings Vision that included on-ice instruction from Kings head coach Daryl Sutter.

“How many youth hockey clubs – girls or boys – get that kind of support?” said Rivera.

And the response from the Lions’ players and their families has been nothing but enthusiastic. Not only are girls driving to TSC from the South Bay and nearby L.A. communities, but also areas like Anaheim, Santa Barbara, Pasadena and Valencia.

Amy Meyer, the mother of 12U Lions player Judy Meyer, travels from Ojai – a minimum four-hour round-trip commute – but has few complaints considering all the perks the program provides her daughter.

“The Lions, with the help of the Kings, are doing something really great for these girls,” said Amy Meyer. “Seeing how much they love spending time together makes the drive worth it.

“Playing with just girls has rejuvenated (Judy’s) love of the sport and given her more confidence, both on and off the ice.”

And as the girls improve as hockey players, they’re having a blast along the way.

“All the girls are so nice and helpful on the ice,” said Judy Meyer. “The drills are hard, but fun, and push us to be better players. Playing on an all-girls team, my teammates are more supportive than what I experienced playing with boys.”

“It’s so much fun,” added Soleil Jamani, a member of the Lions’ 10U squad. “Our team has so much energy and is always excited to play, especially against the boys; I have two older brothers who play (hockey), so it’s cool for me to be on a team with just girls.”

That camaraderie amongst the girls is paramount. Rivera, for one, can speak firsthand given her experience reaching the highest level of college hockey as a female.

“It’s why we play,” said Rivera. “I remember going to my own end-of-the-year banquets as a player and crying that the season was over, and it had nothing to do with the hockey; it was because of the sisterhood.

“A lot of girls come to us saying they’re tired of the boys because the social element of boys teams left them feeling isolated. Now, they can get the same caliber of competition while also having the sisterhood that comes with being on an all-girls team.”

Winckler couldn’t agree more.

“As the mother of a daughter, I can’t begin to explain all the differences between playing with the boys and playing with the girls,” said Winckler, whose daughter, Lily, skates on the Lions’ 10U team (Lily continues to play for the Jr. Kings’ Squirt BB boys team coached by Dimitri Voulelikas). “From the parents to the locker rooms – it’s just different.

“My daughter is a leader on her girls team, whereas on the boys team she’s just another player. She has a bond with the girls she’s never had with an entire team of boys. It’s an invaluable experience for these girls.”

And of course there are the selfless Lions coaches, who put in hours of time, effort and passion to help deliver a positive, healthy and encouraging learning environment, on and off the ice.

That staff includes Bill Mendes (head coach of the 8U Mite Track II team) and Richard Gomez (assistant); Adam O’Neill (head coach of the 10U Squirt B team) and Christen Keogh (assistant) – the club held an impressive 4-1-1 preseason record as of mid-October; and Whitney Schaff (head coach of the 12U Pee Wee B team) and Tori Pizzuto (assistant).

Rivera says either herself, Domi DiDia or Schaff and Pizzuto will guide the Lions’ 14U tournament team this season.

Lions1“If I could hug them every day, I would,” Rivera said of the Lions’ coaching contingent.

A seasoned mentor – he’s been at the trade for over 20 years at the youth levels – Mendes has been with the Lions since Day 1. He’s been nothing but impressed with both the girls’ attitudes and willingness to learn.

“It’s been exhilarating to see the growth in these girls’ skills over the last two seasons,” said Mendes. “And maybe even more importantly is that they’re extremely receptive to training and eager to master and learn new things.

“They’re having fun and have developed new friendships among themselves; they’ve learned how to bond and work together. They have a special trust and friendship amongst themselves and spend a lot of time together at the rink. Their enthusiasm for the sport is contagious.”

And while finding ice time is a challenge given the well-documented growth of amateur hockey across the state, so, too, is convincing prospective families that high-level opportunities present themselves in women’s hockey these days as the girls grow older.

“It’s showing girls players that girls hockey is, in fact, a thing,” said Rivera, who notes that the Lions are also working on recruiting more girls through the Kings’ Lil Kings Learn To Play Program, which attracts close to 200 new girls a year, as well as hosting all-girls camps and showcases at TSC.

“Women get paid to play hockey professionally now (in the National Women’s Hockey League), and some of the best colleges in the country have women’s hockey programs; I received an amazing education from a top-30 university because of where hockey led me.”

Promoting the Lions’ brand is equally important, says Winckler.

“Really, it comes down to the families,” said Winckler, a Lions board member and the club’s coordinator of managers and fundraising. “We’re the ones driving around with the decals on our cars; our girls are the ones wearing the t-shirts to school; the parents are the ones approaching parents of ‘new’ girls in hockey gear at the rink and telling them about the program. We’re the soldiers doing the footwork; we’re the grassroots.

“But honestly, the biggest challenge we face is changing the culture of girls hockey and girls sports in general. So many parents place an emphasis on their son’s hockey development while their daughter’s development gets left behind. Hockey is an expensive sport and it’s hard to get parents to understand that, for their daughter to be competitive, they need to invest in their development beyond just team practices.”

And while the Lions are still in their infancy, Rivera and Winckler have no plans on pumping the breaks when it comes to building the program into something special, both on a state and, eventually, national level utilizing a realistic, slow-and-steady blueprint.

Down the road, Rivera would like to expand the Lions’ team offerings to all age groups – from 8U to 19U. She’d also like to to create a “Lion Cubs” program, of sorts, to develop girls who might not be ready for travel hockey, but need to experience it in an all-girls environment.

“I also want to develop a college prep program that exposes girls to college hockey and the college-application process, and develop a leadership program that discusses all of the important commitments you need to make if you want to keep playing hockey as you get older, like juggling school and sports, being a leader, proper nutrition, off-ice training – those types of things,” said Rivera, who’d also like to expand the program to other area rinks in an effort to cut down on commutes for families traveling long distances to El Segundo.

Winckler is on board, and also plans to set up a financial aid and scholarship program to help families that can’t afford for their daughter to play, as well as see more coaches at TSC offer girls-only clinics.

In the end, the birth of the Lions is another monumental step forward for California hockey, especially for local girls – many of whom are sure to thrive in an environment they can call their own.

“We’re off to an incredible start,” said Rivera. “People stop me all the time – and I’m sure Becki, too – and say, ‘Finally; we’ve been waiting for this.’”

TOP PHOTO: Members of the LA Lions girls program, from left, Kiana Sievers (12U team), Tara Milhorn (8U) and Soleil Jamani (10U). Photo/Tori Pizzuto

— Brian McDonough