Nation

Women take the ice in a hockey league of their own

EDINA, Minn. — Rink rat Judy VanVoorhis recalled the first time she saw female fists fly on the ice. The bad blood started with a shove, maybe a sharp elbow to the chin.

Then, as quick as a wrist shot, the gloves came off.

"They swung their sticks — gosh, it was ugly," said the 48-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel and mother of three. "I never heard language like that, even in the Army."

In the recreational program Chicks with Sticks, the women play hockey for keeps. While fisticuffs are rare, games are fast-paced, sweaty, noisy and often roughhouse.

In Minnesota, hockey is king, and many children learn to skate not long after they can walk. But hockey is queen here as well. In recent years, girls and women of all ages have taken to the sport. Today, an estimated 2,000 women play in leagues or take part in regular clinics.

Most of these players were already out of high school before girls leagues became part of the curriculum. For years, many had shuffled the kids to pee-wee and high school games — like soccer moms always on some tyke's schedule, but with ice.

Then curiosity got the best of them. "What would it be like to lead a scrum along the boards?" they wondered. "To slap a puck past a goalie?"

If that wasn't inspiration enough, women's hockey has been an Olympic sport since 1998, and the U.S team barely missed the gold this year, losing to the Canadians in Sochi. That got some dander up around here in Edina, a Minneapolis suburb.

On the other hand, on the same day as VanVoorhis' team had a practice, the University of Minnesota women's hockey team met with President Obama after winning last year's Division 1 national championship.

"Hockey just looked like so much fun; I just never had time," said VanVoorhis before a recent clinic at an ice complex here. With shoulder pads and baggy black shorts known as breezers, she looked like the real hockey deal — except for her earrings, which she'd forgotten to remove.

She began playing three years ago. Her first lesson: Hockey is hard work. She was exhausted by the third period of her first hourlong game.

There was a lot to learn. At first, she was teased by her husband, a longtime coach, and her older son, a University of Denver defenseman. They called her Little Jo, the name of her first pet hamster. "Learn to skate," they challenged.

She mastered the "Superman fall," the slow dive to the ice, hands and legs sprawled and, later, the backward crossover, the graceful weave of veteran players. There were rough spots. Once she fell backward on the ice without pads, bruising her tailbone: "I rolled around, screaming like a baby."

Hockey fanatic Mike Curti started Chicks with Sticks 12 years ago with a few gung-ho women. Since then, he's coached more than 300 in finding their hockey legs. "At the start they're tentative. A lot apologize if they collide with somebody," he said. "Slowly, they get more aggressive."

In this league, checking is verboten, but bodies still fly. Those who insist on rough stuff are asked to leave the rink. "Sometimes I worry about them getting hurt," Curti said. "But heck, you can break an arm falling on the sidewalk."

His goal, he says, is to keep things low-key. His website advertises shirts with women in 1950s garb saying things like "I do my cooking on the ice!" and "Do these breezers make my butt look big?"

"It's recreational," he said. "We don't keep score."

"We keep score," added Martha Friedel, a mother of two. "We always know."

Friedel began playing hockey three years ago at age 50, quickly learning to brace her body while she was slammed into the boards. "I'm a little competitive," she said. "You get hit once, it makes you jump in stronger the next time."

The women say it's a moral victory every time they take the ice in a sport long dominated by men. "Sure, men are bigger, better, faster and stronger," VanVoorhis said. She pointed to her head. "Women still have an advantage. It's not all brawn and muscle. We're more strategic."

Women are astute hockey students, Curti says. "With kids, when you tell them something, they go 'Yep' and then go right out and do it wrong. These women are like sponges. They want to learn the game, often as a way to relate to their kids."

But getting time on the ice has become harder. Curti competes for rink time with youth leagues and figure skaters, whom some of his players dismiss as "chicks without sticks." He sighed: "We learned our place in the pecking order."

On a recent morning, the Chicks with Sticks crews commanded two rinks. One hosted a clinic for novices. Next door, more veteran players skated not-so-fast but still furious, as a black-clad Curti played referee and coach, yelling, "Move that puck, ladies!" and "That was a weak shot! Be aggressive!"

From the bench, players stormed the ice in waves, some opening the small wooden door to the rink and others climbing the rail like the men do, blond pigtails poking out from under their helmets. Plays developed almost in slow motion. There were whiffs. A few fell without prompting, but spirits stayed high.

Suddenly, Curti blew his whistle for a tripping penalty as a player sprawled to the ice. Then something happened that makes the women's sport unique.

The offender went over to the woman who fell, and gave her a hug.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading