Former Maverick poised to be the NHL’s first woman GM

Former Maverick Hockey forward Noelle Needham has made National Hockey League history—and is poised to do so again.

In 2018, the Elkton, S.D., native became the first woman to work as a full-time scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That led a few years later to the position she holds today as assistant general manager of the Chicago Steel, a junior hockey league team that launches players age 18-21 into NCAA and pro play.

Toss in her time as founder of an elite hockey training school and then winning coach of a Tier 1 team, and it’s easy to see why the country’s sporting press is heralding Needham as destined to be the NHL’s first female general manager.

Noelle Needham played three seasons with the Mavericks prior to a series of surgeries. She became the first female full-time scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now assistant GM for the Chicago Steel, she’s predicted by many to become pro hockey’s first female GM.

Born into a farming family, she was enamored with hockey from the start.

“It was immediate,” she said from her home in Sioux Falls. “Mom taught us how to skate in the fields that would freeze over. From the moment that I started, it was complete passion.”

A star player, student and 2004 graduate of Shattuck-St. Mary’s high school in Faribault, Needham helped that team win several tournaments. But she suffered an injury during practice that tore her ACL, MCL, PC, and meniscus. She needed surgery then and throughout her playing years—incljuding her time at Minnesota State Mankato, where she attended on a hockey scholarship and played three seasons as a forward before leaving for more surgery.

“Not many universities were willing to take a chance on me, and I was fortunate that Mankato did and I was able to play Division I.”

She underwent another surgery following her junior season and wound up with a near-fatal staph infection, after which she sought some drastic changes that included leaving hockey.

“It took over a year to recover from that and so forth, and that forced my hand.”

Two years after leaving Mankato, she bought 100 heifers and was all set to work, like her parents, as a farmer in her home state of South Dakota.

That lasted a few months. Needham needed hockey. She began offering individual hockey lessons to kids, later co-founding a girls’ hockey camp in Sioux Falls, Legend Hockey, in 2009 and the Sioux Falls Power, a Tier I club that grooms future hockey players, collegiate and pro.

Though her job was to prep kids to play, the coaching role wound up prepping her for some historic roles in pro hockey leadership.

At a 2017 game in which her team was doing particularly well, Ryan Hardy, a scout for the Boston Bruins, was in the stands. He found Needham’s coaching style to be quite impressive. The two met, and Hardy later offered up Needham’s name to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were looking for a Midwest amateur scout.

Needham was hired as a scout for the Leafs—the first woman to do so full-time. Her successful approach to the job involved relying as much on a feel as on data and stats.

“There is definitely feel for it. To me it’s kind of like music,” Needham said. “You know, you like a certain sound. Or you get excited when you hear a song for the first time that it hits you. I think that’s very similar to scouting.”

Hardy and Needham would meet again: Hardy went on to become GM of the USHL’s Chicago Steel, and in October 2020 Needham was named as assistant GM for the team. A key role of hers is to supervise the organization’s scouts.

“Obviously, it’s a first and there’s some nerves at how high a level Chicago operates at, and not being terribly familiar with the position or job requirement and so forth,” she said. “But I have loved every minute of it. I’m so happy I’ve had that opportunity.”

As for the stories from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and NHL news eyeing Needham as a budding general manager, she’s more than open to it.

“I don’t think I’d turn it down if I had the opportunity,” she smiles. “I think my hiring has definitely put that into the conversation. So I’m just going to do the best job I can and see where it takes me. It’s been working so far, so we’ll see how it goes.”

She still keeps in touch with some former Mavericks and is considering finishing the business degree she was pursuing before leaving. But among the most relevant take-aways of her time at Minnesota State Mankato was a class she took from instructor Audie Willis, who as an adjunct taught a course‘ in Decision Making for Career and Life.

“She just had such a profound impact on me,” Needham said. “It’s probably one of my most favorite things about having spent time in Mankato.” Willis instilled in her the value of persistence and excellence in any job or class, whether you found it interesting or not.

 “I enjoy doing well in things, but when you’re not necessarily passionate about the class you’re taking you don’t care as much about it,” she said. “She actually taught me that was unacceptable. And that made a big difference in how I approach things.”