AJ Mleczko grew up in a time when figure skates were the norm for girls—not hockey skates. At 5 years old she asked her parents to play hockey. She made the sport for her, and for girls of the future.
The owner of two Olympic gold medals, a Patty Kazmaier Award and countless other records, Mleczko continues to help grow both the boys and girls game as coach to three of her four kids (two boys, two girls ranging in ages from 5 to 13).
Is there a difference in the approach when coaching boys vs. girls? According to Mleczko, not at all.
Mass Hockey: Talk about your youth playing days and your progression in the game.
AJ Mleczko: I played for two years and decided I wanted to try out for the travel team. It was a different time. There weren’t girls playing and there were people who thought, “Whoa, let’s pump the brakes a little bit.” But the coach of the travel team, Bill Emmons – he had a son, John, who went on to play in the NHL for a bit – was awesome.
The landscape from my perspective was that it was just hockey and I wanted to play. It was my only choice. And I liked the boys I played with, they were like brothers to me. We just hung out.
Mass Hockey: Is playing with the boys better for a girl’s development as opposed to playing with girls?
Mleczko: It really depends. There are a lot of really good girls out there. There's some argument that boys play a little differently. Even my 10-year-old [daughter] will play on a middle school co-ed team with her and a friend, and all of the rest are boys and she says it's no fun because the boys don't pass…But it's a different mentality, [being] stereotypical. There are a lot of girls that don't pass and plenty of boys who do, but that was her first reaction to it.
Is there a benefit to girls playing boys hockey? Sure, but if they don't like it, it's not worth it. And there are good girls’ programs out there that will offer just as much benefit. So, I think it really does depend on the kid.
I love the sport from the beginning, and maybe I would have had just as much fun playing with the girls. But that just wasn't a choice for me at the time.
Mass Hockey: What are some of the differences in coaching girls?
Mleczko: It's interesting. I coach both my daughters and my son [and] you do see a difference, but it's more in personality. People will say that a boy is more energetic. My girls were energetic, too, but it's kind of a different energy.
I'm not trying to disparage either gender, but I think girls are very literal. If I tell them they have to pass the puck, they pass so much they could be on a breakaway and they're looking around for a pass. They're generally pleasers, and they listen to the drill and they try to do exactly what you're telling them to do, whereas boys want to just go out and do it. And maybe that's not totally fair, but it's a different mentality.
There is also some sense that there's a grittiness to boys, that they are a little more fierce, or that they want the puck and they are more fearless. But on my daughter's team, there is plenty of that [too].
And how much of it is culturally? How often is a girl told to not behave a certain way, where, for boys, it's just boys being boys? If a girl is fierce, it’s, like, “Oh my gosh.” But, as a coach, that's one thing I'm trying to get my girls to play with. Find that fierceness and play with it. I want you to pass it to the open guy, but, if you have the shot, take it.
And with my son's team, there are times when they're just not competing.
I really do try to treat it like it's hockey. So, you make it fun and you teach them and you demand a lot, and, at the end of practice, you play a game.
Mass Hockey: When it comes to coaching girls, is it a matter of having players who happen to be girls as opposed to coaching girls who you feel somehow compelled to treat differently?
Mleczko: When I did coach co-ed teams, I’d coach them exactly the same way. And I think good coaches start to recognize individual personalities on the team, and I think that's true of boys and girls.
Kids are motivated by different things. If I have 8- or 10- or 12-year-olds, or whatever age, if I had them on the same team, and they were roughly of the same ability level, I would coach them exactly the same way, and I would teach them the same way. I would never treat them differently – in the words that I use or in the concepts that I am teaching.
Mass Hockey: What were some of the things Ben Smith, the coach of your Olympic teams, did that were really good lessons for coaching women?
Mleczko: He came in in the summer of 1995, and he came in as someone who was just going to take us to Finland for a three-game series at the end of August. He didn't know any of us.
He just treated us and coached us like we were hockey players—and it was awesome. That's what we respected so much about him. He didn't treat us differently; he didn't try to change the game. He knew there was no checking, but he saw that it was still really physical, so that's one thing we really liked about him. His big joke is that, “The only difference is when they take their gloves off I see nail polish.”
For us, he just treated us like hockey players. We didn't know much about him. He just came in and coached us and he was a breath of fresh air. That’s why we all said, “We want him.” They asked him, and, a year later, he was the Olympic team coach.
Mass Hockey: Are you encouraged for the future of girls hockey?
Mleczko: I think hockey is doing really, really well. There are a bunch of Massachusetts players on USA rosters right now. There's great college hockey to watch, great college hockey programs – Harvard and BC and BU and Northeastern.
There are a lot of really good club programs, and they can play for the town boys’ teams. There are good things out there. There are improvements that need to be made, but I think USA hockey is doing a good job with the cross-ice model. I think the length of the season is a little bit tough, I think it's too long and I think it cuts into other sports, but I understand why. It's a rink, and the rinks need to have long seasons to survive.
There's a lot of hockey to watch and play. There are great role models for my daughters to emulate, and there's plenty of hockey to play for themselves.