Guarding NHL Players’ Health, Safety & Rights

IF YOU WERE LUCKY ENOUGH TO watch Maria Dennis ’84 on the ice, you would have seen her blazing passion for the game of hockey. That Dennis is female has never been an obstacle in her hockey career. She holds the record for most goals at her alma mater, Yale University, for both women and men, with 96 goals in her four years in New Haven.

“I love everything about hockey—the skating, the speed, the creativity of the game,” she says. “It’s like a chess board: there are three potential moves, all in the blink of an eye. Plus I love the camaraderie and being part of the team on and off the ice.

“When I stepped on the ice, everything went away, all those fears, insecurities. I was having so much fun and hopefully it carried over off the ice. I really appreciate hockey for what it did for me,” she says. “I still play—I won’t give it up. It’s great exercise, and it’s great for my mental state. I’ve made a lot of good friends through hockey.”

These days, Dennis continues her love affair with hockey, now as director of player health and safety at the National Hockey League Players’ Association. An attorney, she also acts as associate counsel for the NHLPA. Dennis is responsible for ensuring that players are protected and as safe as possible in a game of sudden crashes and falls. She is also called upon to represent players facing discipline.

“The NHLPA is in a unique position of representing both the player who was hit and the player facing suspension. My job is to make sure that the player facing discipline gets a fair hearing under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.”

Dennis sits on a number of committees overseeing the general health of players, ensuring that each team has adequate medical staffing during games, and reviewing safety concerns about rinks. For example, after a player was injured crashing into a stanchion, she was on the team that helped redesign and reinforce padding and made other changes to make the rink safer for players and fans alike.

What is really exciting for Dennis is her work improving options for women and girls to play hockey. She is the chair of the NHL/ NHLPA Female Hockey Advisory Committee, where she is hoping to make sure young girls and women with “goals” in mind can experience all the opportunities and benefits the sport provides, according to an article about her in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

“There are three pillars we are working on. One, we need to highlight female role models,” she says. “If little girls see very successful hockey player women, they will think, I could grow up and be that too. Second, how do we attract, develop, and keep girls in the sport? Learn to Skate programs are great. Now what do we do to keep them in? And third, how does the NHL market to girls and women?”

The league has made grants available to entities seeking to encourage girls to pick up a stick and step on the ice, as well as increasing the representation of women in off-ice positions with the league. Several female hockey Olympians now serve in the front offices and behind the scenes with the NHL.

“That program has been hugely successful,” she says, as have fan promotions to get women in the rink. “Hockey is for everyone... and we’re trying to make sure that it is.”

Dennis with NHL officials after playing a pickup game last September while inside the Edmonton Bubble for the NHL Playoffs.

Dennis with NHL officials after playing a pickup game last September while inside the Edmonton Bubble for the NHL Playoffs.

Because Dennis was a member of the 1990 World Championships hockey team, she qualified under federal law to sit on the board of USA Hockey, and then she had the “good fortune” to join the U.S. Olympic Committee board of directors from 1991 to 2001, as well serving on as the board of USA Hockey during that same time.

The pandemic has meant new challenges for both players and teams, she says.

Dennis was named by Sportsnet as one of the “25 most powerful women in hockey” for her work on how hockey could safely return during the pandemic.

“It always comes down to money. It’s a constant struggle for owners, who are responsible for putting up the operation costs, and the players who do all the work. They have to be compensated appropriately,” she says.

The solution? “Players and owners split revenue 50–50. As a sport we are collectively working to grow the industry, which is obviously good for both the players as well as the owners. Hockey is played internationally, so there are certainly opportunities to grow the game here in North America and globally as well. During the pandemic we knew we all were going to struggle, but we worked together to get the games back on the ice successfully. We’re still working together on health and safety protocols as the situation with COVID changes, with the ultimate hope that things will eventually get back to normal.”

What the future of hockey postpandemic will be, she’s not sure. But one thing’s for certain: “I love my job. It’s my calling and my passion.”

—Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow ’84