How scout Noelle Needham and superstar Hayley Wickenheiser are smashing hockey's glass ceiling

"I've never had an issue with disrespect. I've never had an issue with them not listening to me," says Noelle Needham of coaching and scouting male players. "Me being a female? It has never been a thing at all." Ackerman + Gruber for ESPN

Noelle Needham's hockey journey almost ended on her family's cow farm.

When knee injuries and surgeries cut short her playing career at Minnesota State Mankato in 2007, the 21-year-old figured she should try the family business. So she returned home to Elkton, South Dakota, and took out a "beginning farmer" loan. Then she and her mother drove seven-plus hours to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, hand-selected 100 heifers and trucked them back home.

Needham loved life on the ranch, but soon realized that it wasn't going to fulfill her. "I just felt a calling," she says. "I had a hard time not being involved with hockey."

Needham's parents told her to do what made her happy. She sold the heifers.

Needham -- who had been recruited to Shattuck-St. Mary's, the country's top prep hockey program, at age 13 -- started offering private hockey lessons to young players, cold-calling families to ask for the opportunity to work with their sons and daughters. Needham was willing to do anything and go anywhere; if she had a 10 p.m. session in Minnesota and a student wanted to skate there again at 6 a.m., she wasn't above sleeping in her truck. (And she did, spending a handful of nights reclined in her Dodge 1500 Ram.)

Along with a friend, Ashley Munsterman, Needham started a summer camp for girls in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That grew into Legend Hockey, an elite training and development program they co-founded in 2009, and the Sioux Falls Power, a Tier I club team. When the Power's under-16 boys' team suddenly needed a coach midseason in 2017, Needham stepped behind the bench.

At a tournament in Connecticut later that season, Needham's Sioux Falls team was blowing out an opponent. Ryan Hardy, then a scout with the Boston Bruins and now GM of the USHL's Chicago Steel, was in the stands. "My buddy was coaching the other team," Hardy says. "And Noelle's team was just dominating them. I was like, 'Who is this [coach]? She's impressive.'"

Hardy introduced himself and invited Needham to guest-coach at one of his camps in Chicago. In the summer of 2018, when new Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas was looking to hire a Midwest-based amateur scout, he texted a few hockey people, including Hardy, to ask: Know of any good candidates?

Hardy sent back a list of four men. Then he added another name: Noelle Needham. "This is kind of unique," Hardy wrote to Dubas. "She doesn't have any scouting experience and, of course, she is a woman. But she's great."

"Thanks for all of this information," Dubas wrote back. "Can I get Noelle's phone number?"

The next thing she knew, Needham was taking part in a blind audition -- along with a handful of other candidates -- for a scouting position with the Maple Leafs, one of the NHL's most storied franchises. It was a far cry from the farm.

Although the NHL declares that "hockey is for everyone" during its annual initiative each February to foster inclusiveness, the league has lagged behind the other major North American pro sports when it comes to gender diversity in front offices.

Hockey has broken ground in some ways -- this past January, Kendall Coyne Schofield became the first woman to participate in the NHL's All-Star Weekend skills competition -- and is bringing more female players into the fold. (Hockey is the fastest-growing girls' sport in America, and nearly 200,000 women now play it around the world, up from 170,000 in 2010 -- a 17.6 percent increase.) But that growth hasn't been reflected in the NHL's coaching ranks or player-development roles.

Meanwhile, NFL teams have hired 17 different women as interns or full-time coaches since the Arizona Cardinals made history by bringing Jen Welter on board to work with inside linebackers during training camp in 2015 -- including the two female full-time coaches Tampa Bay hired in March. Seven women have served in coaching or player development roles in the NBA, including Indiana Pacers assistant GM Kelly Krauskopf and Lindsay Gottlieb, the former Pac-12 Coach of the Year whom the Cleveland Cavaliers hired last week as an assistant coach. Three women have worked as assistant GMs for MLB teams and more than 100 work in baseball operations roles. But, as of last summer, the total number of women working in NHL front offices among the league's 31 teams was four.

So when the Maple Leafs hired Needham as an amateur scout last August -- making her the first woman to serve in such a role full time -- and named six-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser as their assistant director of player development -- the highest hockey operations role ever held by a woman -- it made waves within the sport. Needham and Wickenheiser joined a staff that already included Meg Popovic, Toronto's director of well-being and performance, and Barb Underhill, a former world champion pair figure skater who serves as a skating consultant to both the Maple Leafs and their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. Every time Toronto players went to the rink last season, they not only interacted with women, but relied on women to help them become better hockey players. Suddenly, the Maple Leafs had as many women working in their front office as all the other teams in the league combined.

It helped that Dubas, 33, the NHL's second-youngest GM, tends to look at things differently. "I just think the more diverse you can make your organization [the better] -- and that's just not a male and female thing," he says. He's quick to emphasize that, "We did not make any of these hires looking for social credit." In fact, the Maple Leafs did not permit Needham to speak to any media before this story, just as they don't allow any other scouts to talk publicly.

Dubas points to Masai Ujiri, his counterpart with the newly crowned NBA champion Toronto Raptors, as an inspiration for his hiring philosophy. Ujiri, a Nigerian immigrant, has championed the advancement of women and spearheaded a speaker series called "She The North" that aims to empower women in sports. The Raptors employ more than a dozen women in their front office.

Dubas also has a background in analytics -- and an affinity for identifying market inefficiencies. "In Toronto, we're confined by the salary cap and we're also confined by the fact that other teams in the league will use their tax situation in their state or city as a reason for why a player should make less playing there," Dubas says. "Because of our taxation in Canada and Ontario, it's incumbent on us to find other areas where we can use our resources to improve the development of our players and improve the offering we can give to players in terms of helping them maximize their potential."

So diversifying makes good business sense.

"Research shows that the more diverse your organization is, the better your decision-making and your operation in general. If you're only hiring white males -- and I'm saying that as a white male -- you're probably leaving a lot on the table in terms of where your organization [is going] and how it can think, and how it can evolve and develop," Dubas said after Needham and Wickenheiser were hired. "I don't think we've gone out and said that we want to hire females only, males only -- anything like that. We want to hire the best candidates."

As a kid growing up in Saskatchewan during the 1980s, Wickenheiser had two dreams: to play for the Edmonton Oilers, and to go to Harvard Medical School. "It was a time when it was kind of OK for a girl to play, but maybe not," she says. There were no girls' teams, so she played with boys and wasn't always welcomed by players or their parents. She often arrived at the rink early, "so nobody would see that a girl was there," she says, and cut her hair short "so I didn't have to hear the abuse."

But she didn't quit -- even after she was cut from one team simply because the coach said he didn't want to deal with the "trouble" of having a girl on his team anymore. At 15, Wickenheiser made her debut for Canada's women's national team. After the 1998 Olympics, then-Philadelphia Flyers GM Bob Clarke called her. "I think you're a good player, but I can help you get better," he said, and invited her to the team's rookie camp. Says Clarke now: "She was probably in the top 10 of the 30 kids we had there as far as skating, shooting, passing, seeing the ice. Every drill she did, she was as good as anybody out there."

In 2003, Wickenheiser signed with a men's team in Finland -- becoming the first woman to play full-time professional hockey in a position other than goalie. She wasn't universally welcomed there, either. Rene Fasel, the International Ice Hockey Federation president, wrote in the organization's newsletter: "I don't think it would be healthy for Hayley, or any other female player, to go into a corner with a player who is determined to deliver a hard check." At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Wickenheiser was powerful enough to hold her own against men, but she knew she needed to adjust her game. She and skills coach Darryl Belfry worked on transforming her from a bull on the ice to a spider.

"When I signed in Finland, most people thought it was a joke, and that having a female would make the team worse," Wickenheiser says. "We won the league and moved up to the first division, and I averaged a half a point a game there. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life."

After 23 years on the Canadian women's team and almost a dozen Olympic and world championship gold medals, Wickenheiser retired from professional hockey in 2017 and enrolled at the University of Calgary, where she is studying to become an emergency room doctor.

This summer, Dubas called. Then called again. Then visited Wickenheiser in Calgary. Dubas knew that his players could benefit from having Wickenheiser as a resource, considering the elite level at which she played and the pressure she endured to sustain it.

Before she gave Dubas an answer, Wickenheiser called Clarke for advice. "When other clubs had called her to be a consultant, my opinion was, 'That's a nothing job. Somebody is just trying to make it look like you work for them,'" Clarke says. "Don't get a name and a title and nothing to do."

Wickenheiser made Dubas outline his expectations. He told her that she would work with prospects in the Western Hockey League when they came through Calgary -- watch tape, get to know them, share what she has learned during her storied career. Then she would travel to Toronto a couple of times a month to run practices for the Marlies, meet with players who are rehabbing and evaluate film.

She said yes. Most of her med school lectures are podcasted, so Wickenheiser schedules her visits to Toronto for times when it's not mandatory that she be in class. She downloads five hours of lectures, and listens to them on the flights from Calgary to Toronto.

"There's absolutely no reason why a woman one day won't be a general manager in the NHL, and I hope it's Wickenheiser," Clarke says. "She's starting where every male has to start. You start at the bottom and work your way up. You get better, you learn to work with people, you learn how to do contracts, you learn how to manage the big business, financially. Her judgment on hockey players is not going to be any different than a male's."

As the NHL draft begins on Friday in Vancouver, the Maple Leafs and every other NHL team will be trying to do one thing: acquire the best talent available.

Which is exactly what Dubas was trying to do in that blind audition last summer. The candidates were each given three game tapes of four amateur players. They were asked to file reports to an online system that would keep the bylines anonymous. Dubas wanted to judge the prospective scouts' work on its merits, without being influenced by things like the candidates' gender, appearance, ethnicity and age.

The top scorer? Needham. After she was offered the job and accepted it, Dubas, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and countless others from the organization called to congratulate her. She received a box in the mail with a computer. She was given a brief training on how to format a scouting report and how to schedule her time. There wasn't much else in the way of instruction. Needham was simply told to trust her instincts: tell us what you see, not what you think you should see. After all, that's why she got the job.

"It gave me a lot of confidence, the way management handled it, that they were interested in me just for what I can offer to the organization," she says.

In 2017, Needham became the first female coach to take a U16 team to the USA Hockey National Championships. The Power have now made it there for three consecutive years. When she founded Legends Hockey, her goal was to develop a hockey culture in South Dakota, which until recently was relatively nonexistent. Needham wanted to help send the first South Dakotan to the NHL. Little did she know it would be her.

In addition to scouting for the Leafs, Needham continues to run her company and coach the U16 boys. She's typically on the road a few times a week, crisscrossing the Midwest to scout USHL games.

Often at games -- whether she's coaching her own team, or sitting in the stands scouting, wearing Maple Leafs gear -- women will come up to Needham to introduce themselves. "Usually it's mothers of players, and they say 'That's so cool you're doing this,' or they want to talk to me about leadership," she says. Needham's take? If she can inspire one more woman to take on a bigger role in her workplace, wherever it is, then it's all worth it.

Of course, she is used to being the only woman around. Even the members of the Leafs' front-office sorority are scattered. Popovic and Underhill are both based in Toronto, and have gotten to know each other. They talk with Wickenheiser when she visits. Needham, by virtue of her job, is often operating solo. Sometimes the team's Minnesota scout, Scott Bell, will accompany her to games -- but more than often, she's in the stands alone.

During a scouting trip earlier this year, Needham went downstairs to talk to a coach outside the locker room. The security guard stopped her. "I'm sorry," he said. "Mothers of players on the team aren't allowed down here."

"I'm not even old enough to be any of these kids' mothers," says Needham, 32. She calmly offered to show her NHL ID badge, and the guard apologized. He let her in.

"The world is changing, and there are opportunities now that there weren't when I was a young girl," Wickenheiser says. "But if you're really passionate about what you do and you're confident, that's what people respect: dedication and confidence. And if you are dedicated enough, the doors will open."

Needham has learned to channel her inner confidence and charge through those open doors. Back when she first took over coaching the U16 boys, she felt some trepidation. "I was more nervous to recruit," she says. "Would parents send their kids to play for a female in this space?"

She decided that she had to trust her instincts and experience. She learned that 15-to-16-year-old boys -- like anyone -- benefit from positive affirmation. "I'm not soft on them by any means," she says. "But realizing that, and how to challenge them, it's just been a really good fit. They're at the age where they're not too cool to listen. I've never had an issue with disrespect. I've never had an issue with them not listening to me."

And that confidence in her skills and hard-won expertise has carried over into scouting.

"Me being a female?" Needham says. "It has never been a thing at all."