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In My Own Words: Meghan Hunter
Meghan Hunter
March 27, 2021

“Can I play hockey, too?”

I had no idea an innocent question would be a sign of things to come and determine my path in life!

We were heading to the store to pick out my little brother’s new equipment to start his hockey journey at five years old, and out of nowhere I blurted out the question. I think I shocked my parents, but they quickly realized I didn’t love figure skating or tap dance.

How my parents responded is why I am where I am today. It was 1989 and their active, outdoorsy, red-headed eight-year-old just asked to play a sport that no other girls they knew were playing. Unequivocally, they said yes.

The fact they appreciated my interest at such a young age set the tone for breaking barriers. 

They never set any limits on me or treated me different than the boys, nor did any of my teachers or coaches.  When I was nine, I was given a school assignment to illustrate three goals I wanted to achieve. My three? I wanted to earn a U.S. college hockey scholarship, play on Team Canada at the Olympics and play in the National Hockey League. Although these may have seemed like unattainable goals, I never once was deterred from striving for them. I learned from a young age that hard work was the first thing I needed to be a good student and a good athlete, and to accomplish my dreams.

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I grew up on a farm outside a tiny Ontario community of 800 people called Oil Springs. I was lucky to come from a big family with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins always around. I learned the value of hard work watching my dad, grandpa and uncles operate the family farms, and I was expected to help pull weeds, pick up rocks and assist with the dreaded hay bailing in scorching hot temperatures.

My parents both worked full-time jobs and farmed on the side, and they still figured out how to travel the world with my brother, sister and I. They expected us to do our best at school and complete our assignments, regardless of where our activities took us.

Having three uncles who played in the NHL and a father who paved the family path playing up to Major Junior was inspiring for me. I learned at a young age how hard you had to work to play hockey at a high level. My dad introduced us to the importance of off-ice strength training and shooting pucks every day in the garage, which my mom wasn’t too happy about! When we got bigger and stronger, we learned to shoot the puck so hard that we cracked the plaster on the other side of the garage wall.

I knew how hard everyone worked on the farm, but as I got older I also learned how hard you needed to train in the gym to play at a high level. I was fortunate to have a brother and cousins close to me in age, and we played hours of hockey in the driveway together. Coming from a hockey family, there was pressure to perform and be the best we could be. Every family gathering or dinner conversation revolved around hockey, and we wanted to be successful and make everyone proud. 

Being female, I felt added pressure to continuously improve, and I trained twice as hard to keep up with the boys. I put this pressure on myself, but we have some funny stories (well, they’re funny now) of some of the training tests we were put through to make sure we were putting the best effort in – like the time my brother, cousins and I needed to run two miles under 12 minutes. We must have had 25 family members come out to watch us run. It seems so ridiculous now, but at the time we were all so nervous we wouldn’t hit the mark!  

Playing with the boys, I routinely dressed in bathroom stalls, first-aid rooms, showers and arena lobbies, but I really never thought much of it. I was just excited to have the chance to play the game I loved. I started out in minor hockey in Petrolia when there were only three girls in the entire association. I was taller than the boys in Novice and made the travel team my second year. For the most part, my teammates, coaches and opponents were amazing, but there was the odd one that had an issue with a girl being on the team. It just further fueled my drive to prove I belonged and created this hunger to outwork everyone so nobody would question my talent or right to be there.

I played in Petrolia with the boys until I was 14, when we thought I needed more exposure to the women’s game and potential college scouts. That season, I played on my local Petrolia boys travel team and the Sarnia Starfire women’s team, and both teams expected 100% attendance at games and practices. My poor parents ran me all over the countryside and also managed to get my brother to his AAA games and my older sister to her activities. Rock stars!

The following year I tried out for my local Bantam AAA team and looked like I was going to make the final cut when we made the tough decision to move completely to women’s hockey. That was incredibly hard.  Although I never thought of being treated differently by the boys, there was this feeling of comfort and ease when I made the move. A sense of belonging. I could actually sit in the same dressing room and change with my teammates. Although I felt camaraderie, I also felt immense pressure to be the best. But I thrived on it. With a college scholarship in my sights, there was no stopping me.  I took my training to a new level and relished any opportunity to develop my hockey skills.

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One of my big breaks came when I played at the 1999 Canada Winter Games in Corner Brook, N.L., and shortly after I signed a letter of intent with the University of Wisconsin. The process of deciding on a school was stressful. College hockey was taking off, and I had a lot of schools expressing interest in me, which made it hard to shortlist my favourites. This shy farm girl was plucked out of her tiny community and went off to visit five different schools in very different cities, opening my eyes to endless possibilities and new experiences. After much discussion, research and self-reflection, I decided Wisconsin was the place for me – I wanted to be a Badger.

Arriving in Madison as a freshman, eight hours from home, was daunting, and my first setback was almost immediate – the coach who recruited me was leaving to coach the U.S. Women’s National Team. She had been a huge reason I had accepted the scholarship offer. I worked through my feelings and quickly fell in love with Madison (despite being extremely homesick). I came out on fire my freshman year, earning WCHA Rookie of the Year honours and a spot as a Top 10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the best player in women’s college hockey.

All my hard work was finally coming to fruition and I gained the attention of Hockey Canada scouts. I was invited to try out for Canada’s National Women’s Under-22 Team in the fall of 2001 and made the final cut. My dreams were coming true! I made the U22 team again the following year and although I encountered a few injury issues during my junior year at Wisconsin, I stayed in the Hockey Canada program. It was challenging being an honours student, having two elite sporting commitments and missing home. My parents made a lot of trips to see me play for Wisconsin and Team Canada. 

While playing at Wisconsin, I always had ‘What’s next?’ hanging over my head. Would I go back to Canada and play in the women’s league, living paycheck to paycheck in hopes of playing for Canada’s National Women’s Team? Who would I be if I stopped playing hockey? I had inadvertently tied my identity to my hockey career.  Not having a professional league to play in that paid enough money for me to support myself weighed heavily on my mind. At the same time, I wondered what I’d do career wise. I was all over the place and felt confused and anxious. When I finished my four years of NCAA hockey, I decided to stay another year at Madison as an undergraduate assistant coach so I could complete my scholarship education. I was still skating while on campus and involved with the Hockey Canada program as a player.  

Graduation came and went, so… what next? This was one of the hardest decisions of my life. Would I keep chasing my dream of playing for Team Canada, move back to Toronto to maybe become a bubble player for the national team with no job or income? Or would I cut my ties with Hockey Canada and apply for a job that would allow me to support myself? I ended up accepting a position as an assistant coach at Niagara University. After a year at Niagara I moved on to the University of Maine. I loved coaching. I was glad to have an income and work in a field I was passionate about, but part of me wished I was still playing. 

After a season at Maine, I was on the move again. There was a decision to hire a second assistant coach, which affected my salary, and my father was ill. I wanted to be closer to him and my family. It was time to go home.

I took one of the first jobs I found online, selling software and photocopiers in London. Although I was armed with my business degree, everything was completely foreign to me. I had never sold anything before. Drawing on my work ethic and resourcefulness, I somehow became the top-selling sales representative in the first quarter! It’s actually one of my proudest accomplishments; I had absolutely no experience in sales or really any clue what I was doing, but I managed to be pretty successful. 

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My uncles Dale and Mark, who own and operate the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, knew I was not really loving what I was doing. They had an opening for a director of group sales and wondered if I wanted to get back into hockey. Yes I did! Even if I didn’t love sales, I could definitely talk about something I was so passionate about.

I loved my time with the Knights. I was able to have so many different experiences – starting their social media accounts, engaging in marketing strategies, organizing game-day operations, looking after a team of interns and socializing with sponsors and group sales leaders. You name it, I was exposed to it. I gained so much from working in the small office and being included in continuous hockey talk. It took me back to my childhood and I loved it.

But eventually I needed to move on to the next big thing. I was hungry to keep moving up, just like when I was playing. After the 2010 Olympics, there were a number of job openings at Hockey Canada. I was so excited just to get an interview. This was Hockey Canada, the premier amateur sport organization in the world, and an organization I had wanted to be part of since I was little. After a nerve-racking recruitment process, I was hired as manager of hockey operations and national teams. I packed all my belongings in my Ford Escape and drove 30 hours to start my new adventure. Being such a homebody, moving so far away was a bit overwhelming. I wasn’t sure how I would cope, but I immersed myself in the environment and went to work. 

At Hockey Canada, I had the opportunity to work alongside some of the greatest minds in the game. I was primarily managing the national women’s team programs, which meant coordinating logistics for events and camps – player and staff travel, schedules, ice times, buses, meals, budgets, etc. I worked with coaches to coordinate every detail of a specific camp, event or championship and reiterate Hockey Canada’s standards of excellence. My job was to provide all the resources and supplies at our disposable to ultimately assist the team in reaching its end goal of a gold medal. The absolute best part was meeting and working with so many amazing people and being part of so many phenomenal teams. We worked insanely long hours, but always managed to have fun and laugh.

I was also very fortunate to work with so many inspiring and empowering women in traditionally male-dominant roles. I worked with one of the greats in Mel Davidson. She led the charge in providing opportunities for women in the coaching world and fighting for equality in women’s hockey and sport. The knowledge and insights I gained from her were tremendous.

My single biggest highlight came in 2014, when I was involved with Canada’s Women’s Olympic Team in Sochi. I could write a book about my experiences that season, from travelling alone to Russia in the planning stages to being there for the Games themselves.

I was tasked with creating, developing, planning and managing the friends and family program for the Olympics, including creating and executing large-scale emergency action plans, event management, ticketing and apparel. Tensions were at an all-time high the entire time we were there; having to carry a satellite phone in case of a large-scale terrorist attack is something I can’t say I thought I would ever do in my lifetime.

The entire experience made the sweat and tears beyond worth it. I loved my interaction with the families and truly felt their excitement and joy. Beating the U.S. in the overtime classic in the gold medal game was an absolute dream come true. I was so proud of the team and our country and felt as though I got to have my long-dreamed Olympic experience. I may not have played in the Olympics, but I was there as a staff member. I learned something very valuable – goals may shift slightly and have a different spin than you originally thought, but that is okay! The satisfaction in the end is just as great. 

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A family vacation after the Games changed my life. In June 2014, I met my future wife, Jill, in Nashville. She lived in Chicago, was a U.S. citizen and had a successful career of her own. I had struggled for years with my sexuality; I always feared people would look at me differently, not accept me or even discriminate against me. But when I met Jill, none of that seemed to matter anymore. I decided I wanted to be happy and let go of those insecurities. We had an instant connection and were determined to try to be together. A long-distance relationship is always hard, but we made it work. We overcame everything and quickly got engaged. Then came the next questions … how would our life look and where we would live? We decided I should move to the U.S. I really didn’t want to quit my dream job, but it was the best option for us as partners.

When we started making our plan for me to move to Chicago, I applied for jobs and networked with family and friends. In the end, Kevin Dineen helped make everything happen. Kevin was the head coach of Team Canada at the 2014 Olympics and had taken a position as an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks after the Games. I reached out to see if there were any positions available, and three weeks later Kevin got in touch to let me know about a position he thought I would be perfect for. My jaw just about hit the floor; I couldn’t believe my luck (and the value of networking). Kevin helped me connect to the right people and a week later I was interviewing with Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman and senior VP of hockey operations Al MacIsaac.

To say I was a bit nervous was an understatement. Not only was I meeting with two prominent hockey executives for a position with an Original Six team, but this could be my shot at working in the NHL. My childhood dream of being a player was long gone, but working in the NHL was a close second! I managed to keep my composure during my day of interviews and landed the position as Stan’s executive assistant. With bittersweet feelings I left behind a great job, great coworkers and Calgary friends, packed up everything I owned (again in my trusty Ford Escape) and drove 25 hours to Chicago for a new start with my fiancée!

I started with the Blackhawks in June 2016, donning my ‘work boots’ again, and set out to prove that I would be a valuable contributor in the executive office. I enjoyed every day, getting to know the staff and soaking up as much knowledge as possible. I had never worked a normal nine-to-five job, so I was ready to put in the time and hours required to be the best. My duties involved managing Stan’s calendar and day-to-day logistics, but I was also involved in player transactions, medical paperwork, daily communications to and from the NHL, player/staff immigration, assisting with the day-to-day operations of the team (equipment transfers, player/family flights, hotels, per diem, etc.), organizing scouting, hockey operations and NHL Draft meetings, and game-day logistics for hockey operations – a little bit of everything! As time has passed, I have accumulated ever-increasing responsibilities. It has been fascinating to see how a large-scale NHL organization operates and how the various departments come together in a bigger picture. I have had the privilege to attend and contribute in meetings about player development, amateur/pro scouting, trade deadlines and free agency, and I thrive off the pressure-packed environment. The more I expose myself to things, the more I continue to learn.

About two years ago, I asked Stan if I could take on more and diversify myself to continue to develop. I wasn’t sure what that would entail, but I wanted to continue to grow and use my hockey mind even more. We decided that scouting would be a natural next step with my playing background, general knowledge and passion for the game, not to mention the countless hours I’ve spent working with the scouts. I generally scout around the Chicago area, in the USHL and with amateur players in the NCAA, but I do cross over at times into the OHL and other leagues. This year has been very interesting due to the COVID-19 pandemic; we find ourselves watching a tiny screen at players whose leagues are actually able to play.

All of my duties mean a tricky balance, but I love the challenge. I’m thankful the Blackhawks believe in me and provide me with opportunities. Jill has been amazingly supportive, allowing me to push the envelope and chase my dreams. We both encourage each other to strive for success in our careers.

My path in life has not been linear, but I’ve worked my way up and gained respect from my peers and coworkers in a male-dominated profession, regardless of my gender or sexuality. I believe my adaptability and flexibility to ever-changing responsibilities and priorities has served me well. I’m grateful for the opportunities that have been presented to me, but I also realize I have put the work in to create them.  

I hope I can continue to drive opportunities for women in hockey and society. Growing up, I could have never imagined it could be possible to have the jobs I’ve had. I’ve never thought of myself as a pioneer or role model, but giving visibility to women in an NHL organization is something I’m very proud of.  

I’m excited to continue to push the envelope in my career and grind my way to a Stanley Cup. Like I’ve said, dreams and goals evolve. I may have wanted to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup, but now I want to raise it over my head and drink out of it as a staff member with the Chicago Blackhawks along with my wife, parents, siblings, niece, nephews, family and friends.