Home / News / From Harvard to the NHL: Sydney Daniels becomes first Indigenous woman in Winnipeg Jets hockey ops

From Harvard to the NHL: Sydney Daniels becomes first Indigenous woman in Winnipeg Jets hockey ops

After spending most of the last eight years in the women’s hockey program at Harvard, Sydney Daniels was craving a new challenge. However, she didn’t quite know what that would look like.

“I had these skillsets that I built at Harvard and became very good at, so I didn’t know where or how I could fit that in an organization,” said Sydney. “I started talking to a few different NHL teams and that process of figuring out what (jobs) were open, what it would look like, I think it narrowed down my options.”

Through a connection made by her father Scott Daniels, who grew up on the Mistawasis Nêhiyawak First Nation in Saskatchewan before going on to play nine seasons professionally, Sydney met with Winnipeg Jets assistant general manager Larry Simmons at a coffee shop in Boston. The two met for an hour and a half, when it became clear to Sydney what her new goal was and where she wanted to be.

“Right after that conversation, my heart was set on the Jets just with the incredible organization that they are and the initiatives they have in their community,” she said.

And the interest was mutual. Shortly after the meeting, the Jets prepared an offer to make Sydney the organization’s college scout. And in doing so, she became the first female and the first Indigenous female in the Jets hockey operations department when she was officially hired on Sept. 21.

“I was nervous and apprehensive thinking about how much change this would be for people around me, the organization and the players to have a female in the role I am in,” she said. “And then the moment I sat down with the people I’ll be working with … it just was so natural.”

Sydney said the Jets made her feel comfortable and welcome in the organization immediately, while not making her gender the focus.

“They made a conscious effort to make sure that I knew and the public knew that my hiring was not just to look good on a (public relations) front or to look good for their organization,” she said. “It was because I was the best fit for that position and given my resume and my experience and knowledge that I have, I would be the best pick for this position.”

And Sydney’s hockey resume is quite impressive.

Growing up in Massachusetts, where the family lived after her dad finished his pro career, Sydney attended Westminster High School in Simsbury, CT. In her childhood, she also spent many summers in Saskatchewan, where her entire dad’s side of the family still work and live. In 2011, Sydney suited up for Team Saskatchewan at the National Aboriginal Youth Championships, winning a gold medal. That same year, as a dual citizen, she represented Team USA at the IIHF Women’s U18 World Championship, winning gold once again. She was also on the U18 team that won silver the following year. After high school, she attended Harvard University, where she played four seasons and was named captain in her senior year. She was then drafted to the National Women’s Hockey League, where she played seven games for the Boston Pride in 2017-18, before a knee injury put an end to her playing career.

Shortly after that, another door opened and she went right back to Harvard as the Crimson offered her an assistant coach position with the women’s team.

“It was exciting and also very life-changing job,” said Sydney. “I had to unfortunately stop playing hockey and pursuing my own career to have the ample time to focus on the team, recruiting and all of the intricacies that go into being a college coach.”

Now, she’s still involved in the college game, just on a different level, being with the Jets organization. Sydney will primarily work in the NCAA and while she admits there will be a learning curve, the familiarity she has with several of the programs will help ease the transition.

“Most of the places I’m recruiting at and having to travel to, I’ve been to before,” she said. “Having those already established relationships at those institutions is going to be very helpful for me as I navigate the men’s side.”

And when she’s not busy traveling to rinks across North America, Sydney will still come back to Saskatchewan In fact, every off-season for the past five years, Sydney, her dad and cousin Colby run the Daniels Hockey School, aimed at ​improving skills and helping youth succeed both on and off the ice.

“It’s geared towards Indigenous youth and giving them a safe place to grow and have fun and be seen and heard and empowered,” said Sydney. “Each year we’re just trying to make that experience more enriching for the students attending but also making sure that we have more Indigenous role models working it.”

And as Sydney has become one of those role models herself, she hopes the work she puts in with the hockey camp, along with her position with the Jets, will inspire others.

“I am just hoping that my current position and all of the things that I have done thus far, and all of the things I will do, will empower women, Indigenous women and youth to now know that that’s an option, that they too can attain it through hard work,” she said.

“If you see it, you can believe it type of thing.”

Sydney also credits Brigette Lacquette, a member of the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan, for being a leader in the sport. Lacquette, who was the first Indigenous woman to play for the Canadian women’s hockey team at the 2018 Olympics, became the first Indigenous woman to scout in the NHL after she was hired by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2021.

“She, in my opinion, is a trailblazer for me to not only want to pursue this but to feel confident,” Daniels said of her friend. “That’s what I want from this experience, it’s not to be written down in the history book as a trailblazer; it’s to be an active figure in Indigenous communities and beyond.”

And while her dedication and hard work will continue to pave her way in the future, Sydney wants it to also be known that she wouldn’t be where she is today without her grandfather Noel Daniels, a residential school survivor, who passed away in December 2020.

“It’s so important to acknowledge the reasons of why I am where I am and what had to occur to be where I am,” said Sydney. “Our grandfather was taken away at age six and was taken away from his family and he had to endure things no one humanly should have to endure.

“It was because of him, his ability to survive, his ability to get through that, when people around him didn’t have the same fate, that is so important to my story.

“Without him, there would be no us.”