Hockey star Kendall Coyne: 'People don't respect the women's game as much as the men's game'

Kendall Coyne, left, led Team USA in shots on goal with 21 at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. AP Photo/Claudio Bresciani

It's been a busy year for Kendall Coyne. In February, the 5-foot-2 forward collected two goals and an assist en route to the U.S. women's hockey team's first Olympic gold medal since 1998. On July 7, Coyne, a Chicago-area native, married fellow Sandburg High School graduate Michael Schofield, an offensive guard for the NFL's Los Angeles Chargers. And just last week, Coyne, 26, signed with the NWHL's Minnesota Whitecaps for the 2018-19 season.

In the meantime, Coyne has been the only woman playing in the Chicago Pro Hockey League, which features more than 80 professional players from the NHL, AHL and ECHL. The league plays for eight weeks at the MB Ice Arena, the new Chicago Blackhawks practice facility, and tickets are just $5, with a portion of sales going to charity. Notable players include the NHL's Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad and Nick Schmaltz. And, of course, Coyne.

espnW spoke to Coyne to get her thoughts on playing with the men and how it, and Team USA's Olympic success, will impact women's hockey in the United States.

espnW: What made you want to play in the Chicago Pro Hockey League?

Kendall Coyne: It's a way to stay in shape in the summer, and it breaks up practicing every day and lets me play good, fast-paced games against great talent. To be able to play games at home in Chicago is pretty cool. My friends, family, and now my new family can watch me play, and so can so many young fans who weren't even born when I was playing hockey in Chicago in high school. Also, because hockey is a small community in Chicago, I have been on the ice with the majority of the guys in the league. We've all been playing in and around the rinks together for a long time.

espnW: What does it mean to have young girls see you play with and against the men?

KC: I have my own hockey camp and have worked with a lot of girls in the Chicagoland area, so it means the world to me to have them be able to finally see me play in person. I love to hear from them afterwards. They come up and say, "Good game," or "That was fun," or "You're so fast." I want the girls to see that, yes, I may be the only one out there with a ponytail, but the respect I get from the guys is the same respect I give to them. They don't view me differently. They don't view me as a PR stunt. They view me as Kendall, the player they've known their whole life. We're all just hockey players out there playing the game, and I hope the girls recognize that when they're watching.

espnW: You are only 5-2. Is your size a factor?

KC: Yes, the guys are bigger than I am, but as long as you don't make it a factor, it's not a factor. It's more of a shock for some of them because they're not used to skating with women, especially one who is only 5-2, where I am very used to skating with men. I do wear a helmet with a cage mask though, while most of them do not.

espnW: How much do you think Team USA's gold medal in South Korea helped women's hockey as a sport in this country?

KC: I would say it had a huge impact on women's and girls' hockey in the United States. I've been around so many rinks and I've heard so many girls say they watched our games and they want to play hockey and go to the Olympics. It's incredible, because that was so many of us 20 years ago after we saw the 1998 women's team win that first gold medal. That was when I told my parents I wanted to go to the Olympics. So to see and feel that impact on kids immediately after Pyeongchang is amazing and drives me every day to be the best role model I can be for kids.

espnW: You've fought for equality for women's hockey. How do you think playing with the men in the Chicago Pro Hockey League this summer helps that cause?

KC: I think part of the problem is that people don't respect the women's game as much as the men's game. Me being out there with the men shows our game is just as good as the men's game and shows that a woman can do what a man can do. We're all hockey players. Not a women's hockey player or a men's hockey player, just a hockey player, and that's what playing in the Chicago Pro Hockey League embodies for all the young kids watching.

espnW: One of your biggest goals is to continue to fight for a unified women's pro league. Why is that so important to you?

KC: The next step for women's hockey is to have a league similar to the WNBA, and we'd like it to be under the direction of the National Hockey League. We need that as players and we are going to continue to fight. We hope that dream comes to fruition one day, but it is going to take the CWHL and the NWHL to come together and let the NHL take over their leagues. The players are really passionate about it. It would be unbelievable to see something sustainable where we can make a living playing this game and fans can come out and watch us play. I hope someday there is a team in Chicago.