Camillo, who was the first woman hired as a president in the NHL, is excited after a watershed year in which several women were hired or promoted to leadership positions in professional hockey.
After the Chicago Blackhawks named Jaime Faulkner their president of business operations on Dec. 16, 2020, a flower arrangement was delivered to her. The sender? The first woman to ever be hired to that position in the NHL — the Flyers’ Valerie Camillo.
Camillo, who helped blaze the trail for women in senior positions in hockey when she was hired by the Flyers in 2018, believes strongly in signals and was expressing her delight in Faulkner’s news. Whether it comes in the form of flowers, notes, phone calls, or Gritty videos, when women around the league see Camillo’s name listed as the sender, they experience a tangible sign of her support.
That support marks a generational shift. Camillo’s mentors in the male-dominated fields in which she has worked told her stories about women competing against one another for one spot at the table. But in recent years, women in these prominent positions have realized the benefits of helping and supporting one another, said Kim Stone, president of UBS Arena and a mentor of Camillo’s.
It helps that Camillo, the woman who once held the one spot at the table in the NHL, believes strongly that inspiring and welcoming other women lifts all women.
Camillo, who recently was promoted to president and CEO of Spectacor Sports and Entertainment, has always been confident in her own merit and right to be in the room. But the reality is that doubts fueled by gender identity still exist, whether it’s women experiencing impostor syndrome because they are seeking a position that no woman, or very few women, has held, or from those, internally and on the periphery, doubting women’s credentials for particular jobs
Since breaking into the sports industry, Camillo has worked to change that. This year has produced the biggest wave of change yet, as several women were hired or promoted to prominent roles with NHL teams, including six women being named assistant general managers. Before January, there had been only one female assistant general manager (Angela Gorgone in 1996-97) in the 105-year history of the NHL.
While it was rewarding to see the NHL have a landmark year in terms of female hires, Camillo can’t wait for the day when it’s the norm.
“The next step is [women] are able to find they’re competitive for every job in hockey and every job in sports, whether that’s CEO or president or something on the hockey operations side of the business or even commissioner, whatever it is, that it wouldn’t be something unique or rare,” Camillo said.
Camillo is used to shocking men. She’s a “junkie” for stats and can remember the surprised looks she’d get at high school lunch tables and college bars when she’d “drop some knowledge” into men’s sports conversations.
As much as she loves numbers, Camillo was drawn to sports by something less tangible. She remembers going to a Yankees-Orioles game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and seeing the field after emerging from the tunnel. Even as a child, she was hit by the sense of grandeur, joy, and community.
Although Camillo, 49, started on a more traditional business route, working at IBM and Booz Allen Hamilton, when she turned 30, she realized that she wanted to find a way to bring that childhood ballgame experience to others. She wanted to work in sports.
Once she sets a goal, Camillo puts her head down and starts working, allowing herself to see only the possibilities and not the obstacles. But breaking into a male-dominated field wasn’t easy.
Over many cups of coffee, Camillo started “aggressively” networking, but she found that although everyone was speaking English and business, they somehow were speaking different languages.
“I knew I had this foundational business and marketing experience,” Camillo said. “And in consulting, you go from industry to industry, applying your knowledge. So I was like, ‘I can go to this industry too.’ But if you don’t talk in the parlance of that industry, it’s hard to communicate.”
Camillo hit the books, studying everything about sports business that she could. Soon, she found the right words and broke into the industry with positions in the NBA league office and later the Washington Nationals. Once there, she impressed Stone and her female colleagues quickly with the way she faced down rooms full of older, established, mostly white males with humor and toughness.
After four years with the NBA and four years in MLB, an opportunity to move to the NHL and the Flyers presented itself in 2018. She reached out to Philadelphia native and former colleague Melissa Brenner, the executive vice president of digital media for the NBA, about the opportunity. Brenner’s response was that Camillo, a Virginia native, is the most Philly person she’s ever met who’s not from Philly. She likened Camillo to the city by saying she’s tough with a “mushy” interior and has a sense of humor while also being blunt.
Brenner also felt Camillo would be the perfect person to take this first, huge step for women in the NHL.
Expanding the room
While it’s nice to think about leadership happening at every level, the reality is, “there’s a room where it happens,” Camillo said, quoting Hamilton. And that room, up until recently, especially in the NHL, hasn’t usually included women or minorities.
One of the most important things Camillo has done to help instigate change, Stone said, is taking everything she has learned and sharing it with those who don’t have the privilege of being in that room.
Camillo’s biggest piece of advice? “Find your confidence and lead with that.”
It’s not about acting like you belong, Camillo said, it’s finding the belief that you do. She also advises young women to try not to look at all their interactions through the prism of their gender because it can be crippling. Instead of wondering if you’ve been turned down because you’re a woman, she suggests turning rejection into a chance for self-improvement.
Words of encouragement and advice are nice, but the best way to test a person’s commitment to diversity is to look at his or her staff, Stone and Brenner said. Since Camillo started with the Flyers, four women have been promoted or hired to senior positions within Spectacor Sports and Entertainment, and several women have been hired to other positions. Camillo’s work has won her the admiration of tennis great Billie Jean King.
“Valerie Camillo is a woman who leads by example and has never been shy about sharing her experiences and her valuable connections with those who are following in her footsteps,” King said. “More women are needed in leadership and decision-making positions in all professional sports, and it’s women like Valerie who have accepted the challenge and are shaping the future of hockey and professional sports.”
In addition to leading the $350 million transformation of the Wells Fargo Center, Camillo has helped the community in other ways as well. She pioneered Hometown Assist to help local businesses, a program that other NHL teams have since adopted. She also has strengthened the team’s commitment to other charitable initiatives, such as Snider Hockey. Leaguewide, she has made a major impact on the NHL’s Executive Inclusion Council.
In Val’s case, it didn’t just inspire young women to believe they could aspire to be somebody in her role, it also inspires other owners, other business executives to say, ‘Hey, I hadn’t thought about maybe a woman could do this job.’”
“They always say you have to see somebody in the position to understand it’s possible,” Stone said. “In Val’s case, it didn’t just inspire young women to believe they could aspire to be somebody in her role, it also inspires other owners, other business executives to say, ‘Hey, I hadn’t thought about maybe a woman could do this job.’”
A watershed year
When Kate Madigan was 16, she wanted to be the general manager of a hockey team. Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she had thrown herself into hockey and her father’s scouting work with the Pittsburgh Penguins to help cope.
“Did I think it was possible?” Madigan said. “No, it was kind of like, I want to be president in the United States.”
Like Camillo, Madigan pursued a more traditional business path because she didn’t actually know what the opportunities in sports were. Also like Camillo, she soon took a chance and decided to pivot to sports.
On July 6, 2022, Madigan, 29, was named assistant general manager of the New Jersey Devils. She became the fifth woman to be elevated to the role in the NHL since January, joining Émilie Castonguay and Cammi Granato of the Vancouver Canucks, Hayley Wickenheiser of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Meghan Hunter with the Blackhawks. Earlier this month, the Seattle Kraken promoted Alexandra Mandrycky as the sixth.
The progress in the boardroom also has trickled down to the ice where women are being hired to positions that they’ve never held before. This year, Meghan Duggan was promoted to director of player development with the Devils, while Coachella Valley’s Jessica Campbell was named the first on-bench assistant coach in NHL or AHL history. In July, Emily Engel-Natzke was named the NHL’s first video coordinator with the Washington Capitals.
“It’s incredible,” Camillo said in response to the hires. “There’s great momentum.”
While Camillo and the women on the hockey operations side don’t cross paths often, she still helped lay the foundation for the watershed year women that have had in professional hockey. Seeing her in such a position of power, Madigan said, gives her a feeling of “OK, we can do this. There is a place for us.”
Growing up, Madigan didn’t have many women to look up to in the NHL, and even now, she has the occasional bout of impostor syndrome as one of the few. She can only imagine the difference it would have made.
“I think I would have believed in myself a lot earlier,” Madigan said. “I think seeing other women, I would have felt like I belonged a lot earlier.”
It’s not only about having women in senior positions, Madigan said. Seeing women on training and scouting staffs shows all the ways they can be involved in sports and helps normalize the sight of them in locker rooms as well as in “the room where it happens.” It also shows that there’s more than one way to get there, with Wickenheiser and Granato being former elite players, Castonguay coming from a scouting background, and Mandrycky coming from analytics.
People might be surprised at just how much the NHL draws a female audience, Camillo said. Forty percent of fans who attend games are female, and female viewership went up 60% last year. It only makes sense that more women are becoming involved at all levels.
The ceiling has been shattered. No one needs to double guess themselves or feel like they don’t belong. … I feel the duty to help pave that way.”
While the NHL is starting to create programs, like the mentorship program for female and Black, Indigenous, and people of color coaches to help increase diversity, the women in the league also are working together to make sure the progress continues. The community among them is strong and only growing stronger.
And like Camillo, Madigan looks forward to the day when it no longer has to be a discussion.
“When I look back at the end of my career,” Madigan said, “I want to be like, OK, there is a clear path. The ceiling has been shattered. No one needs to double guess themselves or feel like they don’t belong. … I feel the duty to help pave that way.”