If you want to see the difference between a boys' and a girls' ice hockey game, stop by the Edge Ice Arena early on a Sunday morning. The building, part of the Foothills Recreation Complex southwest of Denver, is one of several erected in the metro area in recent years. Even these facilities can't keep pace with all the new skaters, however, and ice time remains a precious commodity. The center's two rinks are busy non-stop, starting at 6 a.m. daily and pushing late into the night.
On a recent Sunday, before church has let out and the boys with body-bag-sized athletic sacks arrive, both rinks are humming. An elevated hallway runs down the center of the structure, with doors leading to ice on either side. A boys' peewee team practices on the left. The session is loud and frantic. A half-dozen coaches blast whistles and yell, urging the ten- and eleven-year-olds through their furious paces. The team's practice jerseys project swagger and sacrifice. "No pain, no gain," they say on the front. "SWEAT in practice so you don't BLEED in the game" is on the back.
The girls practice on the opposite side of the aisle. There, a single coach patiently guides all three of them through the basics of wrist shots, slap shots and backhanders. "Nice job!" he calls. "Excellent!" The girls talk quietly between drills.
Still, an hour later, the difference between the sexes isn't as great as it might first appear. A girls' ten- and eleven-year-old A team takes the ice against a boys' B team. For a while, the action is fast -- and equal. The girls' goalie, Amanda Vandenberg, has skills. "We took her to an open skate, and she put on skates and just took off -- she loved it," recalls her mother, Barb. "We asked if she wanted to play hockey or figure skate. She said, 'Figure skating? Yuck. I want hockey.'"
Amanda started out playing on boys' teams, but as she got older, she found them less and less appealing. So this year, she gave in to the pleas of several girls' teams eager to have her minding their nets -- goalies are always in short supply -- and joined her own sex on the rink.
It felt like coming home. "In the locker room, the girls are loud and funny," she explains, "and the boys are acting stupid and trying to be cool." Besides, Barb points out, the girls' game does not permit checking. She points to a six-foot-tall boy hulking in the middle of the ice: "I don't want him hitting my girl."
The girls' team is missing three of its best players, who are home in bed with the flu. But Amanda is a wall, knocking away several clear shots, a couple of them breakaways. Eventually, a few sneak by. The game ends in a shutout, the boys winning 3-0. Still, the girls are satisfied. They say they win about half their matches against the boys.
Five years ago, when Walter Johnson's daughter told him she'd like to try playing ice hockey, he did what any parent would do: He started looking for a league or team for her to play on.
There wasn't one. "And I couldn't even get her through the front door of the boys' teams," he recalls. It wasn't that some of the boys' teams didn't have an occasional girl on them, or that the boys didn't like girls playing hockey -- although there may have been some of that. There just wasn't enough ice time even to accommodate all the boys who wanted to play, much less a new wave of girls.
Alexis, who at ten was just a novice, would have to compete for a spot directly with boys, many of whom had already been playing competitively for years. "The coaches told us that the likelihood of her making any team was next to impossible," Johnson remembers.
Luckily, Johnson stumbled into the University of Denver, one of only a handful of places at the time to support a girls-only team. Today Alexis is fifteen, and her father coaches the team.
When he lived back East, Johnson coached boys' hockey. The difference, he adds, is immense. "Girls are better sportsmen," he explains. "They play for the enjoyment of playing. They also become teammates and bond; it's a social thing. They're better at losing. The boys want to beat you into the ground -- and sometimes their own teammates, too. The girls care about the other kids."
They're also getting a lot more interested in the game. Quietly, girls' hockey has become the fastest-growing segment of the sport. In 1991, USA Hockey, its Colorado Springs-based sanctioning body, listed 6,350 registered female players. This year the number is about 45,000 -- a sevenfold increase. Karen Lundren, director of USA Hockey's Girls and Women section, credits both Title IX, the law demanding gender equity for athletes, as well as the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team victory over Canada in the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, with raising the profile nationally.
In more frozen parts of the country, of course, girls with pucks are old news. Minnesota, Michigan and New England have long traditions of girls' hockey. (Isabelle, daughter of Lord Stanley -- the man who donated pro hockey's iconic trophy -- played hockey in Canada in the late 1800s.) But players with pigtails are more unusual here.
USA Hockey divides the country into eleven regions. Colorado is in the Rocky Mountain division, which includes nine states from Arizona to Montana. When it comes to female stick-handlers, the area boasts a strange split: There are more registered adult-women's hockey teams here than anyplace else in the country. Ellen Yeiser, a founder of the Women's Association of Colorado Hockey, says a women's hockey league has been around in one form or another for nearly three decades. Today the WACH boasts thirty teams, including the Aspen Motherpuckers and the Steamboat Springs Chix With Stix.
At the same time, the number of area girls' teams has lagged far behind the rest of the country. As recently as 1995-96, USA Hockey records show not a single girls' team in the Rocky Mountain region. That year, however, the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado and, as the newly named Colorado Avalanche, won the Stanley Cup in their first year. As of last year, there were nearly twenty girls' hockey teams in the Rocky Mountain region.
An old shaving commercial shows an executive proclaiming, "I liked the company so much I bought it!" The short history of girls' hockey in Colorado has been one of individual parents declaring that the experience was so essential to their daughters' happiness that they started their own teams. The problem has been that, when their daughters stopped playing, the teams generally left with them.
One of the girls' hockey pioneers was Cathy Crum, an Aspen mom who played for the Motherpuckers. When her daughter Ali started to show some promise on the ice, there was no place for her to participate. So Crum began showing up at development camps across the region and buttonholing the few girls -- or their parents -- who were in attendance, trying to convince them that a local hockey team for girls only made sense.
For many girls who grow up playing hockey with and against boys, the joy of the game disappears by the time they reach fifteen or sixteen. By then, hockey is more about survival than skill. The boys have grown noticeably bigger and stronger.
"The boys' testosterone kicks in," says Ian Dennett, who has two hockey-playing girls. "It's a mighty drug. At a certain age, the girls are really playing against men."
For Crum, the idea of starting a girls' hockey team was partly for Ali's pleasure and partly for her advancement. With no real girls' squads in the area, she recalls, "no one [from colleges with hockey programs] was scouting our region -- and there were starting to be a lot of opportunities for girls who wanted to play in college."
The Aspen Avalanche debuted in the 1997-98 season. The team had been gathered from all over the Rocky Mountain region, with members coming from as far away as Wyoming and Montana and Utah. Indeed, the distances made it impossible to practice. Instead, Crum would arrange for everyone to meet at the site of some tournament in Minnesota or Michigan or New York. A local business helped defray travel costs for the girls who couldn't afford to pay. Once there, the girls would gather on the ice and play -- strangers at first, teammates eventually.
The first year, recalls Crum, "we were terrible." But as news of the team spread and better players showed interest and began trickling in, the Avalanche improved. During the next three years, the team earned a spot at the national championships; two of those years, they made it to the final four.
By 2001, Crum had achieved her goal: Ali was admitted to Harvard University, in part because of her hockey skills. Another girl made it to Brown. A third got into the University of Vermont to play hockey. With Ali now in college, Crum asked the other girls' parents which one of them wanted to take over management of the team.
"No one did," Crum says. "So it went by the wayside."
Pam Erickson was the next mother to build her daughter a team. "One day when I was six or seven and we were looking for something to do on a weekend, my dad said, 'Let's go ice-skating,'" remembers Lacey, Pam's daughter. She loved it from the start. When her godfather bought Lacey her first pair of skates, they were for hockey. "I've never been the girly type, so figure skating just wasn't that interesting to me," she says.
She started out playing on boys' teams, but soon after she hit her teens, she found that the game being played by the boys was leaving her behind. "I wasn't growing as big as them," Lacey says. "I couldn't get my skills out on the ice; I couldn't even muscle my way through the boys. The checking wasn't a really big deal, but it was getting rough."
So Erickson, working with another parent from Colorado Springs, formed the Colorado Xtreme. The idea, she recalls, was to "get the best girls from Colorado and put them on one team and take them on the road." At first, recruiting went slowly. One reason was cost. Unlike Crum's Avalanche, the Xtreme had no sponsors. Erickson estimates the annual tab of shlepping one girl to tournaments in places as far-flung as Minnesota, Texas, Seattle and California ran about $10,000.
The Xtreme began with a single team, for girls nineteen years old and under; the goal was to include as many girls as possible. Soon, however, Erickson was able to form a second team, the under-fifteen squad. That team made the nationals two years in a row.
For a while, fearful that her skills would wither playing only girls, Lacey played on both boys' and girls' teams. (At one point in her mid-teens, she was playing for four separate squads.) Eventually, however, she dropped the boys' game for good. They guys had grown too big, fast and rough. In the meantime, the girls on the Xtreme had turned out to be pretty talented. Like Crum, however, Erickson's interest in girls' hockey waned once Lacey was admitted to a Minnesota college on a hockey scholarship, and the Xtreme disappeared last year.
Dan Minnick is the latest frustrated Colorado parent to assemble a hockey league as an outlet for his daughter. "Evan picked up a bat and swung like a boy and threw like a boy right from the start," Minnick recalls. "And thank God, because I'm not much of an athlete."
Evan began skating at age four, playing in a Littleton boys' hockey league. "I liked hockey because it was different," she says. "Not many people played it. And it was fast and exciting." The arrangement worked fine -- for a while. "When they're younger, girls can play with boys," Minnick says. "But after their growth spurts, the boys get too big and strong.
"It takes a special kind of girl to be the only girl on a boys' team. With my daughter, the novelty eventually wore off."
But Evan still wanted to play. To her father, the fact that she'd once been able to but now was being edged out simply because she was a girl, seemed like a setup. "Boys' teams got my daughter interested in hockey," says Minnick. "And now that she's a bantam (a category for thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds), there's nothing for her. Most girls just end up quitting -- and for Evan, it was the thing she loved more than anything."
Minnick began toying with the idea of sending his daughter to a prep school on the East Coast just so she could play hockey with other girls. "Or," he says, "I thought we could start a program here." Given the alternative -- "I didn't want her to go away; she's my little girl" -- the headaches of starting a hockey team from scratch seemed the lesser of two evils.
In 1999-2000, Minnick founded the Colorado Select girls' traveling hockey team. Like Crum and Erickson before him, he found it a challenge convincing girls and their parents that a hockey league without boys was worth their while. Because girl players are so unusual, Minnick says, "a lot of parents think their daughter is the best in the state. Until they see the other girls play."
Others had a broader objection. "There are people who say that girls shouldn't play hockey at all," sighs Minnick. The first year, he chose seventeen girls to play on the Select's inaugural team, a fifteen-and-under squad. The team traveled to four tournaments. "We got shellacked," he remembers.
In 2000, the USA Women's national team staged a series of skills camps and demonstrations across the country. One stop was in Littleton. Girls came from all over the Front Range to watch real live women play a brand of hockey most girls had seen only on TV. The Select used the opportunity to stump for itself; parents passed out fliers touting the new girls' league.
The publicity worked. By the time the next hockey season rolled around, there were enough girls to fill three teams. One of them, the under-fifteen team, took fifth in the national tournament in Alaska. Last year the league grew to six teams.
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In fact, it seems that the Denver area is finally ready to accept and support an all-girls' hockey league. At the end of last season, the Select hosted a beginner's camp called the Test Drive. Organizers prepared for sixty girls to show up. Instead, 120 did. As a result, the Select doubled in size again this year, filling twelve teams.
About the same time, another Colorado girls' hockey organization representing the rest of the state, the Mountain State Girls Hockey League, started up. Today, about 250 girls play on thirteen teams. USA Hockey also appears confident that the sport is here to stay: The national organization recently chose Denver as the site for the USA Girls National Championship Tournament. The Select will be the host team.
Barb Goodbarn couldn't be more thrilled. She smiles and cheers as she watches her nine-year-old daughter, Grace, glide around the ice among a dozen other girls. Grace, who started playing hockey with the neighborhood boys on Rollerblades and who "wakes up every morning watching ESPN," needed a place where she felt like she fit in with other girls, her mother says. "Here," Barb says, "she loves it."