Opportunity. Fear. Success. The NZ Women’s Story

As a 21-year-old, just finishing college, and not ready to give up hockey, when I was offered the position of Director of Women’s Hockey at Neutral Zone, my answer leaned toward “are you sure?” vs. “yes!” Of course I wanted the job, and I could hear the voice of every business professor I ever had inside my head screaming for me to be confident. Confidence was always something I struggled with, I could always see that someone was better than me at anything. That mentality helped me stay humble, but caused a lot of fear as well. Needless to say, when I accepted the job, I had to pull myself toward the excitement I felt and far away from the fear. I had to lean into the discomfort.

I truly never wanted to write this piece about myself, I simply could not think of another way to let readers feel the story, than to write it in the first person. So, here we go as I lean into the discomfort once again.

Cameron at AHCA Convention in Naples, FL

Quickly after I was hired, Brendan Collins (Director of Scouting) arranged a conference call with Ted Wisner, St. Lawrence Women’s Hockey Coach, and Grant Kimball, now Yale Women’s Hockey Coach. Wisner and Kimball were, and continue to be, at the heart of women’s college hockey. They had been coaching for many years, and had the perspective we were looking for on what Neutral Zone could bring to college recruiting. Aside from this being my first business conference call, I had been somewhat recruited by both of these coaches. I guess I should say, I met both of these coaches on their campuses as a high school player and wanted to be recruited by them. I will never forget the discomfort of telling Wisner and Kimball that I, the 21-year-old, was going to change the landscape of women’s hockey. 

I will always be grateful for the respect that Wisner and Kimball showed me on that call. They could have very easily hung up the phone or laughed me off, but they truly wanted to help. Kimball politely asked, “how do you see this changing the landscape of women’s hockey?” I explained to him that Neutral Zone wanted to bring recognition to hard working players all over the country. That we would search for rosters, graduation years, current teams, and ways to see these players as our full-time job. Devoting so much time to this feat would put all amateur women’s hockey information in a central hub, and a subscription would give users access to scouting reports to supplement their recruiting efforts. Though Kimball and Wisner still had their concerns at the call’s conclusion, they gave valuable input on what college coaches need and gave the impression that if we could pull it off, Neutral Zone could be a very useful tool for college coaches. I don’t think I had them convinced that it would change women’s hockey, but it was a start.

Over the next month, I spent all of my time in the office. I analyzed NCAA and U-Sports rosters to determine where college hockey players were coming from. This was where I felt comfortable: in my office, putting in work. I was fearful for when I would have to put myself out there in the rink and open myself up to criticism. 

As I researched, I also began hiring scouts for a position that was difficult to explain. Tim Manastersky was the first scout to join the women’s force. He had been scouting on the men’s side, but was the former York women’s hockey coach for nearly 10 years. After speaking with Tim, we met up at a tournament in Brampton in June (2016). We scouted the tournament together and I knew right away that Tim was going to be a great fit. He shared the same enthusiasm for finding the “diamonds in the rough” and was eager to develop his staff in Ontario. 

First women’s scouting event in Brampton, Ontario

Despite the excitement of meeting Tim, there were a lot of challenges that the first scouting weekend brought. I spent a lot more time explaining what Neutral Zone was than actually scouting. Not many of those conversations were met with the same understanding and kindness that Wisner and Kimball had shown me. This was the part of my job that was, and continues to to be, most difficult. Often, when I would explain the company to someone, they simply did not understand and did not care to try. That was okay with me, this was the first time something like this was available for women’s hockey and we didn’t have the website launched yet. I understood that it was hard to conceptualize. The part that was hard for me was that there was this unspoken feeling in the rinks that people thought Neutral Zone was only trying to profit from player information. This couldn’t be further from the truth, Neutral Zone has always been a company filled with people who love hockey. Our goal is to help players by displaying their information in one place and providing the scouting community with accurate and unbiased reports to help players understand where they fit, and help coaches supplement their recruiting. Like I said, the “in it for the money” thing wasn’t spoken, so I didn’t think it would help our case to say, unsolicited, that our goal was not just about profit. I knew that it would take time for people to trust Neutral Zone and me, so I had to wait and keep explaining what Neutral Zone was every time I was asked. I will continue to explain what we are and what we do for as long as it takes. 

From the Brampton tournament, I was able to start building my database. I entered about 300 players into an excel spreadsheet and combined notes with Tim to report on 80 players. This was my database and I was proud of it, having no idea that 5 years later (present day) that database would contain over 10,000 players. Unfortunately, that report still lives on the site and can be viewed here. As you can see, no one has more than a single sentence next to their name. I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed when I look back on that report. I can see how reading it would turn some people away from NZ at the time, but it is amazing to see how far we have come and how much more we are able to offer our subscribers now. The thing I remember most from this tournament was seeing a player I knew right away was of Division 1 caliber. Her name is Lyndie Lobdell, and she joined Penn State’s roster this year. When I discussed her play with a Division 1 coach in the rink, I was laughed at and told that just because she looks like a 4-star at this tournament, doesn’t mean she is one. It was valuable advice but I felt confident in what I saw. Over the last 4 years, we have accumulated 15 more reports on Lobdell, and I can assure you, she is a Division 1 player. 

Lyndie Lobdell, first identified D1 player for NZ

In no way am I saying I was a natural scout right away, but the Lobdell story is one I always fall back on to motivate myself. If at my very first tournament, I was able to identify Lobdell immediately, I can feel confident in trusting myself after 5 more years of experience. There were definitely times myself and my scouts were not right about players, but I strongly believe these instances are the expectation and not the rule. 

The first 2 years at Neutral Zone, I pushed myself to the absolute limit. I was in the rink constantly, putting in 15-hour days, and trying to start my reports as soon as I got to the airport after a tournament. I was still dealing with a lot of fear and lack of confidence so I thought if I could see as much hockey as humanly possible, I could feel secure in what I was doing. I did not take a single vacation day in those first 2 years because I felt like I was always behind. There was a lot of good that came from that 2-year stretch: the website launched, our database was much more reliable, we hired a solid 10-person scouting staff, and had a reliable opinion on all of Canada and US amateur women’s hockey. 

Despite the successes of that period of time, my body started to wear down. I got strep throat 5 times in a single year and I started to get overwhelmed and run down by feeling like I was always behind. I was only 23, and I felt like I had aged at least 10 years in that 2-year period. I think it is important to mention that my higher-ups were in no way pushing me to these limits. I ran myself to empty all on my own. My breaking point came right before one of the most important tournaments of the year, the USA Hockey Select camp in June 2018. I was supposed to catch a flight from Toronto to Maine and get scouting. I spent 6 hours in the airport that night, only to have my flight cancelled. I drove home to Hamilton, ON at 2am while on the phone with the airline. I was unable to book out of Toronto for the next day but I got a flight from Buffalo. I got home, got a couple of hours of sleep and set out on my 2-hour drive to Buffalo the next day. When I got there I was already feeling the stress from lack of sleep and uncertainty of getting to the tournament on time. I spent 4 hours at the Buffalo airport to find out that yet again, my flight was cancelled. I completely shut down. I called Brendan from the airport and told him through many tears that I couldn’t do it anymore, I wanted to quit. Brendan supported me if that was what I wanted to do but as we talked it through I realized that I may just be in a bad place at the moment. We agreed to meet in Albany and chat things through. So, again, I hopped in my car and drove another few hours to Albany. Brendan was such a great support through this complete meltdown I had, he encouraged me to stay in Albany for a couple nights and that I did not have to go to Maine if I didn’t feel up to it. The next day, I drove 5 hours to the tournament despite being completely wiped. I knew that I had to get there and do the best I could. With the help of my friend and scout at the time, Jackie Perez, we were able to evaluate every player at that event. 

Cameron scouting the Atlantic Challenge Cup in Moncton, NB

That report is one of my greatest accomplishments. It was the most drained I had ever felt but there was literally nowhere to go but up. After this tournament, I went back to Prince Edward Island to spend 2 weeks with my family. I laid low and tried to relax. To my utter disbelief, taking time for myself did not cause the website to explode. From that point on, I have been working hard to find a balance in my life that allows me to be effective at work without burnout. Like the story of Lobdell, my USA Select camp report now serves as a motivator. If I can evaluate every player in an event at my lowest, what can I do next when I am recharged? 

The personal triumphs are what kept me going in those specific times of struggle, however, what keeps the company running on a daily basis is the support from the community. Every email we receive from a parent who sees a report on their daughter for the first time, when a parent tells us that we are a reason their daughter committed to a college program, every time a coach reaches out to get more information after a report is released, and every time our women’s scouts gather to dethaw after a long rink day and discuss big moments from the day’s scouting, we fuel our company to continue to grow and thrive. We do what we do for those players, parents, and coaches. 

Fast forward to the onset of the pandemic and realizing hockey would be shut down for an extended period of time. I was horrified for teams headed into playoffs and championships who had their seasons cut short. We had reported extensively on these players for many years, and whether they were in college or still playing in their youth leagues, it was heartbreaking to hear that they would not be able to go to the NCAA tournament, Nationals, Provincials, etc. Right away, we got to work covering some different perspectives on the shutdown, mainly to try to connect the hockey community and show players that they were not alone in their struggle. All my energy was thrust toward the concern for players until I realized that Neutral Zone could be at risk because we would have no games to see in-person.

Fortunately, we were able to turn the hockey shutdown into an opportunity and use this break to highlight uncommitted players from last season. These lists were something we hadn’t thought about pre-pandemic, but I am so happy we brought them to the site. We were able to post uncommitted lists for 2021, 2022, and 2023 Grad Year players across three different leagues. The idea was to bring more exposure to players who deserve college commitments, and it worked. Numerous commitments were announced during the weeks of our uncommitted posts and we received support from parents, players, and coaches on the value of those lists. Some of those commitments include: Elizabeth Gautheir to Western University, Ella Vande Sompel to St. FX, Sophie Scully to St. Mary’s, and Athena Vasdani to RIT.

Thanks to the interest from the hockey community and our subscribers, we were able to keep content flowing and keep up with operations. Of course we are not completely in the clear, like many other small businesses, we cannot predict the full impact of this pandemic, so for me, the fear of NZ being in peril still lives on. Despite those fears, I remain hopeful that my own resilience, and the resilience of the company, will allow us to continue to innovate so we can feature and support amateur hockey players and provide unbiased and accurate scouting information to the hockey community across Canada and the United States. Like I told Kimball years ago, we want to change the landscape of women’s hockey, and will continue to better our company on that continuous mission.