Very few people in this country have been closer to the evolution of men’s and women’s hockey over the past four decades than AJ Mleczko. Growing up in New England, she played hockey at a time when it seemed “being sporty” was a track in and of itself. Her own hockey career took her to Harvard, where she was named the best player in the country in 1999, and to two Olympic Winter Games – the first of which earned her an historic gold medal and another set of lifetime memories.
These days, she’s an NHL broadcaster, host of the “Girls on the Bus” podcast and parent – and often coach – of four hockey players who range from 9- to 17-years-old.
So it’s no wonder the phrase, play like a girl, means something to her. But it means perhaps less than it once did.
“In 2021, I’m ready to not be focused on that,” says Mleczko, who remembers the days the phrase was generally pejorative. “I don’t know that I have extra strong emotions about it one way or another. I think it’s fantastic that it’s not negative anymore. And I think it’s also fantastic if there are people, boys and girls, men and women, who take strength out of it. It’s a great expression if that helps a girl get involved in a sport.”
When Mleczko began playing in the early 1980s, the options seemed to be sporty or not. For her sons and daughters, it’s a different world.
“When I was a kid, I had to choose,” Mleczko says. “I love that it has changed. I think it’s amazing that my daughters are growing up in a generation where a girl can be sporty or anything.”
We’re only a few weeks removed from seeing Sarah Thomas as an NFL official during the Super Bowl and the diversity of Bruce Arians’ staff as Super Bowl champions.
“Success doesn’t have to look like one thing,” says Mleczko. “The same thing with sporty. It doesn’t have to look like one thing. It’s a really cool evolution. So you go back to ‘playing like a girl,’ and what that looks like. If it gives somebody strength, or confidence, or motivation, or inspiration, that’s awesome.”
Girls’ and women’s hockey has come a long way, too.
This past November, Boston College forward Willow Corson’s elbow-height saucer assist – with an economy of motion that was as smooth as it was spectacular – had earned viral status with more than 360,000 views on Twitter. At least a few of those were from Mleczko herself.
“These athletes are phenomenal,” she says. “And I see it firsthand with two daughters. I see so many girls playing. There are now more choices. And better athletes are choosing to play hockey. You look at some of the skill level that’s in college hockey right now and it’s unreal. And it’s so fun to watch. I see that stuff and I do watch it over and over again, and I think it’s awesome.”
There are no longer gasps of surprise if a girl dazzles a U12 crowd with an end-to-end rush or sees the game as well as anyone in the stands. And Corson’s saucer pass was shared not because of whose stick it came from, but just how slick it was. And social media took it from there.
“As the mom of four kids, there’s obviously a lot of really bad stuff about social media, but there are some really good things, and some of that is you see those things,” says Mleczko. “People look at that and they see that’s legitimate skill. This isn’t just, ‘Let’s support women’s hockey.’ No, this is seriously entertaining.”
Still, hockey does sometimes suffer to some degree from a game of comparison.
Mleczko, who has broadcast enough games from between NHL benches to know exactly what she’s talking about when it comes to seeing elite women’s and men’s players from ice level, would caution against that.
“I don’t feel the need to constantly compare them,” she says. "I understand why people do – because they’re the same sport, not like baseball and softball. To me, it doesn’t need to be a comparison. But it’s natural that people compare it. Men’s hockey is on TV and everybody is much more familiar with it. I think there are some things the women’s game has that the men’s game lacks and some things the men’s game has that the women’s game lacks.”
In fact, with the trend toward skill development, skill development and more skill development, there may even be some convergence in trend development.
Olympic gold medalists Kendall Coyne Schofield (fifth from left) and AJ Mleczko (sixth from left) provided analysis during 2020 all female broadcast.
“There’s one rule difference and even the gap on that is starting to close,” says Mleczko. “The women’s game is starting to get a little bit more physical on the boards and the men’s game is starting to get a little less physical in open ice. Obviously, you still have the big hits, but they’re moving in that direction. So the game is the same and the rules are virtually similar, so people feel the need to compare it.”
While stereotypes can be dangerous, Mleczko does, however, have an observation or two about how younger players spend their time honing their skills.
“Boys always go out and work on their shot,” she says with a laugh. “They’ll shoot from anywhere on the ice. Girls are always passing. With boys, I’m, like, ‘Get your head up and pass.’ Take that with a grain of salt. But when the girl’s teams are playing the boys, it’s good for them in some ways.”
In all, though, one of the bigger threats in Mleczko’s eyes has less to do with gender and more to do with the environment both girls and boys are growing up in these days. Like so many other activities, there seems to be additional pressure put on children to be the very best skater and shooter and hockey achiever in the world.
“I worry that every parent is trying to get their kid, whether it’s a boy or a girl, to be the most skilled,” says Mleczko, who has actually forfeited games on a weekend when she thought her team was getting too much hockey. “Now, you can see it coming into the NHL and all these young kids are skilled scorers. You do need third- and fourth-liners. And you need people to be OK with that. Yes, being as skilled as you can, but also working hard for the team and not just saying, ‘I want to skate fast and shoot hard,’ then go out and not be able to play the game.”
Yes, thinking the game still matters to Mleczko.
“Some of these kids will knock your socks off at tryouts but when you actually put them in the game they have no hockey sense,” she says. “The problem right now is we live in a sports world of tryouts. So you go to tryouts and you can skate really well and shoot and you can catch peoples’ eyes. There’s something to be said for team concept. It’s not just about me trying to do a toe drag to get out of the zone.”
The mother of four, youth hockey coach, NHL broadcaster, podcaster, Olympic champion and former college hockey star remains encouraged to have her daughters growing up in a world of more choices and fewer pejoratives around those choices, yes. But she’s also aware of how important it is to have her boys recognizing that world, too.
“To me, it’s equally important that young boys get the message as young girls,” Mleczko says. “That playing like a girl is strong or good or fierce or competitive or skilled. Boys need that message, for sure. I have two sons. I want them to grow up seeing that girls and women are successful, and powerful, and influential, and happy.”