Only three years after its debut, the Sno-King Junior Thunderbirds 16-and-under (16U) girls hockey team became the first of its division in Washington state to attend the national championship — where the team also became the first girls’ hockey team from Washington state to win the entire competition.
And for the team’s lone Renton player and left-wing forward Joely Connell, who switched from playing co-ed to the all-girls team when it was created, these achievements are nothing short of an honor.
“I have been playing for 8 years and I connect with the girls’ team,” said Connell, who is a sophomore at Renton High School.
Connell, whose parents met playing hockey in the early 2000s, started learning how to play hockey at the Sno-King Ice Arena in Renton with her two older sisters.
“When I was seven I said, ‘I want to play hockey’,” Connell recalls, and she hasn’t looked back since.
After learning how to play ice hockey with rented gear from the Renton arena, Connell began playing co-ed recreational hockey in 2015. She played co-ed for five years and joined the Sno-King’s 14U AA girls’ team in 2020.
“Sno-King’s first girls’ team only had 11 skaters and one goalie,” Connell said. “I was definitely the worst on the team, but after practicing almost every day with the team, and extra with our awesome coach David Min, I started to get better. Our team that year won districts and got to go to nationals.”
Connell kept improving. Along with being on the No. 1 16U girls’ hockey team in the nation, Connell was made team captain at the 2023 Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls Tier II National Championships and was presented with a gold plate commemorating the history-making victory.
The 16U girls Junior Thunderbirds played a total of six games from March 30 to April 3, with only one loss. Before that, the team was undefeated at Pacific Districts, winning all four games.
In the wake of their major wins, the Junior Thunderbirds were invited to a Seattle Kraken’s hockey game as well as a Seattle Thunderbirds game a week later.
“We got to sit in a suite to watch the game, it was pretty cool,” said Connell.
When her team isn’t winning districts or nationals, Connell is focusing on high school track and training for the next hockey season, saying she wants to play collegiate hockey at a university in the Midwest.
“I practice with my awesome team and coaches three times a week. In addition, I train with my outside coach & mentor, Molly Vandermoon, three times a week on ice and in the gym,” says Connell, who also plays three-on-three hockey with her father. “I do all this for my love of the game and in hopes to play college hockey.”
Connell’s plans include leveling up to be part of Sno-King’s first girls’ U19 AA team. “Everyone’s now competitive at that age and this team is a higher-skill team,” Connell said.