Needham hoping to become first female GM in NHL history

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At the time, Needham was one of the top recruits in the United States, but after tearing her ACL, MCL, PCL and meniscus, she became just another hockey player trying to hold on. She would make it six more years, even earning a scholarship to Minnesota State University, Mankato, before giving up hockey — and her dream.

Two decades later, in a stunning and surreal turn, Needham finds herself entrenched back in the sport, a rising talent, with the hope of becoming the first female general manager in NHL history.

It’s a role that seems ever more realistic now that Kim Ng was named GM of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins on Friday, the first woman to hold the position in one of the four major men’s North American sports.

For Needham, it has been a winding path, one that has included eight reconstructive surgeries on that left knee and a stint managing the pig barns on her parents’ ranch in Elkton, South Dakota. But after becoming the coach of a local girls’ team and building one of the biggest training and development programs in the Midwest, Legend Hockey, Needham was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as an amateur scout in 2018.

Now, she is the assistant GM for Chicago of the United States Hockey League.

“I don’t think that there is a cap on what she can do,” said Ryan Hardy, GM of the Steel. “I can count on one hand people whose opinion I value as much as hers. And those are some people with very high positions in hockey.”

Said Needham, “It is my greatest love and passion, and it just felt comfortable. I’m on the ice every day. There’s not many 34-year-old females that are on the ice at practice every single day, jumping in or chirping kids. I just love being out there. I have always just been obsessed with the game.”

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After injuries ended her career and a staph infection nearly took her life at 21, Needham returned to the ranch, a place she hadn’t lived since she was 12, before she went off to attend Shattuck St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minnesota, where she shared the hallways with future NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.

She bought 100 heifers and worked in the pig barns, believing she would settle into life the way she had known it since her parents, first-generation ranchers, built it from nothing when Needham was 10.

But ranching didn’t feel quite right, not the way that hockey always had.

“She was so unhappy that year, not because she didn’t love it at the ranch, but because without hockey a part of her had died,” Ashley Munsterman, who co-owns Legend Hockey with Needham, wrote in an email. “So she volunteered to coach the local girls’ program.”

From there, Needham met Munsterman while coaching her sisters. The pair became best friends and started a summer hockey camp for girls, and eventually, Legend Hockey in 2009. 

Five years later, Needham founded the Sioux Falls Power, a Tier 1 team that now includes U-14, U-15, U-16, and U-18 teams, along with Matt Tobin.

Then came 2018, when a chance meeting with Hardy — at a rink to scout now-Philadelphia Flyers forward Joel Farabee — turned into a swift acceleration of her career.

“I didn’t know Noelle. I didn’t even know about her organization, so I just watched the game,” Hardy said. “I was kind of taken aback by this new midget organization that I’d never heard of.”

That led to a cold call asking her to take part in his hockey camp in Pittsburgh, then to conversations, a friendship and ultimately, a few months later, to Hardy dropping her name to Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as an outside-the-box candidate when he was looking for new amateur scouting talent. 

At the time, Needham had never scouted before, but she was included in the blind audition, during which candidates were asked to write reports about prospects and were graded without their names attached.

She was hired.

“I think the key thing we saw from Noelle, particularly this year, was that Noelle was absolutely not afraid to take a contrarian view to the whole room or to the scouting staff, which we value very highly,” Dubas said. “Noelle was also not afraid to really go to bat for players that she really believed in from her area, and she did the work to back it all up.

“I thought in the end, her voice and her opinion became very valued amongst our scouting staff.”

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Even as Needham is breaking new ground, she is not always comfortable with it. It can be fraught, at times, the idea of being the first, the only. She does not want to deny her importance to the girls who once did not see a place in hockey for themselves, but she also does not want that to be the focus.

“I think that that’s been her attitude: that in the game of hockey, I have a place in it and it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman,” Tobin said.

Needham, like all the men who have performed these jobs, who have coached and scouted and made decisions, got here on merit.

“I think this has been an interesting topic for me,” Needham said. “Because I don’t want to ever make it about that. I just want to do a really good job and be valued for the job that I do.”

As Hardy put it, Needham has never wanted to change the world. That has never been her intention.

But she is making inroads in the sport, like Hayley Wickenheiser, the assistant director of player development for the Maple Leafs, Cammi Granato, a professional scout with the Seattle Kraken, and Florence Schelling, the GM of SC Bern in the Swiss National League.

“As we go to 32 teams and the salary cap is flat and there’s not a whole lot of room to navigate, having people on your staff that have a unique perspective or a different perspective that can add value could have a massive impact on your team in the short run, and then on the growth of those people within the game in the long run,” Dubas said.

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Needham has been a coach, a player, a scout. She has built a business. She has led an organization. She is getting as well-rounded a hockey education as possible, which will only help her as she pushes into the upper echelons of the sport.

“I think that with [the new job], Noelle will be able to really measure where she’s most passionate in regards to what realm of team operations she wants to go down,” Dubas said. “And I think she’ll be able to be successful at the highest level wherever she elects to go.”

So is GM the goal?

“Yeah,” Needham said. “I think so. At least, I’m going to shoot for it. There’s not many GM jobs available. It’s very volatile and organizations view these positions and how they’re hired all very differently. But if I were ever given the opportunity, I think it’s something that I would really enjoy. And it’s something that I would like to do and hopefully be successful at.

“I have a lot to learn, but if I can continue to put myself in positions to be able to do that, then I’m doing myself the best favor I can.”

For now, though, Needham doesn’t have to decide where she is going next. She can just enjoy how far she has come.

“I feel like I’m doing exactly what I was meant to do. I just love what I do,” she said. “I’m so happy every single day. Not that there aren’t hard times or anything like that, but I think I have the coolest jobs, plural, in the world.”

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