Kim McCullough

Where elite hockey players are really made

By Kim McCullough, M.Sc, YCS

The outdoor rink was the secret to my success as a young hockey player and I truly believe that the lack of time spent on the outdoor rink by today’s young players is what is preventing many of them from progressing to the highest level possible. 

I didn’t go to a lot of hockey camps or skills sessions, but I played a lot of pick-up hockey. I was the only girl and usually one of the few teenagers in intense games between grown men, many of whom had played junior hockey and beyond. 

When I first started playing in those games, I was just a filler. I would skate up and down the ice as hard as I could, never really expecting to get the puck and trying to make the smartest and quickest play possible if I did.

I can honestly say that as I walked over to the rink, I would say to myself, “Today, I’m going to make at least three good passes.” I didn’t expect to score any goals – and in those early days, all the goals I did score were from deflections off my outstretched stick or banging home someone else’s rebound. Nothing I did was flashy or worth writing home about. 

At first, the guys didn’t really like having me out there. I wasn’t the worst player out there, but I certainly wasn’t even close to being the best. I had to prove myself each and every time I hit the ice with those guys, and eventually, after months and years of playing with them, I did. 

I went from wanting to make a few decent passes to trying to steal pucks off people. Instead of scoring off ugly deflections, I was making pretty passing plays and, on a rare occasion, beating people 1-on-1 to score a pretty goal. That was never really my forte, even when I was playing at the highest level. I went from going home exhausted from just trying to keep up to having to stay out on the ice for most of the game because the guys were tired and I seemed to have an endless supply of energy. 

I played in those shinny games from the age of 15 all the way through the end of my university career. I loved coming back to play over the holiday break when I was in university, catching up with the guys again and showing any newcomers to the game that girls can play, and dominate, the game. 

Once I joined the National Women’s Hockey League after graduation, I stopped playing in those games. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it anymore, it was just that I didn’t want to risk getting hurt.

There are always inherent risks in playing the game, and those I could deal with. But some of those guys took those pick-up games very seriously and I wasn’t about to risk getting a stick in the face or being tripped by a guy who took exception to the fact that I was a girl who was better than them. I realized that this might have been their big chance to prove themselves in front of their buddies, and I had no desire to be the one on the receiving end of their frustration when they realized they were being beat by a girl. 

Those shinny games were what made me a smart hockey player. I challenged myself to compete in and contribute to those games. I went from being a very peripheral player to controlling the action.

While the practicing and playing I did on my competitive team was certainly critical in my growth and development as a player, it was the weekend games with the guys and countless hours working on my individual skills all alone that made me a better player. I learned how to play with my head up, how to be confident carrying the puck, how to thread the needle with a beautifully timed pass and how to dig in the corners without having to throw a bodycheck. 

Looking back on my career now, I have no doubt that I wouldn’t have had a shot at playing at the college level or beyond had I not devoted so much time and energy to pushing myself to be the best I could be when no one was watching but me. 

To get complete access to articles, videos, interviews and advice on how to take your game to the next level, visit Kim McCullough, MSc, YCS, is an expert in the development of aspiring female hockey players. She is a former NCAA Division I captain and played in the National Women’s Hockey League for six years. She is the Founder and Director of Total Female Hockey, the Girls Hockey Director at the PEAC School for Elite Athletes in Toronto, and currently coaches both Midget AA and Bantam AA, as well as the provincial team.