Boy, can this girls hockey team play
MORRISTOWN, N.J. -- The coaches were witnesses to the surprise. Having a girl or two on a youth hockey team is completely ordinary these days. But as the Colonials Pee Wee team skated out before games in their first season playing in the New Jersey Youth Hockey League, ponytail after ponytail took the ice and, invariably, a few eyebrows went up.
"I think they open eyes every time they take the ice," said Bill Kaufman, an assistant coach and parent. "It's sort of the David and Goliath story or the underdog story because it's a male- dominated sport."
Except that these girls are the ones winning. The Colonials, who are 14-2-6 in a 12-and-under Pee Wee B division made up primarily of boys, begin the playoffs this weekend. By and large, the team is the exception to the rule.
Women's hockey was added as an Olympic event in 1998. It has been more than 14 years since Team USA won gold in Nagano, yet even now girls who play hockey often have to blaze their own small trail in programs filled primarily with boys. Even though more than 67,000 girls play -- up from 2,500 in 1988 -- outside of hockey strongholds like Minnesota and the Northeast, there just aren't enough girls to field full teams in many places.
At least yet. Dave Fischer, a spokesperson for USA Hockey, looks at the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and sees another opportunity for little girls to become interested in the game.
"We've seen the growth," Fischer said. "The numbers just keep ticking up and I don't see it ending."
And, as much as opportunities for girls to play have increased, one thing remains true, at least anecdotally, in this case: Boys still hate losing to girls.
In the Colonials' first game, they went up by 10 goals and invoked a mercy rule they didn't know existed. The quick and early wins surprised even coach Mike Cornell, who didn't have a great feel for how the team would compete in the league.
"We'd played enough with this group that we had an idea, but we didn't know if we'd be at the top of the division," he said.
During the course of the Colonials' season, opposing coaches at first seemed surprised their teams were losing to girls. Frustration boiled over at time and players threw down gloves. One coach forced his losing players to skate sprints immediately after the Colonials had beaten them.
"The coaches got really mad," said 11-year-old Carly Snarski.
The opposing coaches can thank former Olympian Shelley Looney for their frustration. Looney was on the Nagano team, and she was put in charge of recruiting girls for the Colonials club 12 years ago. Her influence has led to a rink thick with ponytails.
"The way she works with the kids, the way they look at her," Cornell said. "She's been to the top, so if you're a girl walking in now, that's your god."
When travel from central Jersey to play comparable girls teams became cumbersome, the parents and coaches explored the options of playing locally in the NJYHL.
Hockey mom Wendy Sanford said she had gotten used to driving to Massachusetts and Connecticut on weekends, hotbeds for the good girls competition the Colonials needed, but it was a strain. Sanford has two hockey-playing sons in addition to her 13-year-old daughter, Megan.
"It's a lot, you have to be really committed," Sanford said.
So the coaches and the parents devised a plan to play a season locally in New Jersey, but continue the high-level competition on weekends. Most of these girls had competed against boys; they were just the only girls on a team or one of a few.
"[Megan] played with boys for two years. The first year she was the only girl on the team and it was tough," Sanford said. "She was in her own locker room and part of the experience of being on a team is the camaraderie."
Megan, who is a head taller than many of her Colonials teammates, said playing with girls on her team has been more fun. But that's as much about gender as winning.
"I thought it was a good idea because there aren't many girls teams around her and it gave us more variety," Megan said.
Megan, a defender, likes testing her game against the "tough" boys as well as the experienced "good skaters" on the girls teams. Aynsley Kaufman, 11, said boys generally do less passing. Getting the puck a little more with the girls makes her feel more like part of a team.
"Some of the best teams we've played all year are girls," Cornell said.
If it hadn't been for a rules change two years ago, the girls probably wouldn't have been able to play in the NJYHL. That's when USA Hockey took a look at checking, and reevaluated the age groups that should engage in full-contact hockey. Although there were some traditionalists who wanted to keep checking in the 12-and-under division, it was removed. The prevailing argument was young players trying to avoid the big hit didn't develop other skills as quickly.
"Change is, many times, tough," Fischer said, "until once you realize there is a good reason to do something."
Fischer said given emerging science on concussions and their effects, the move was a good one. It also meant that girls can play with boys for a little longer, something that is good for their game, Harvard and national women's team coach Katey Stone said in a radio interview to preview Hockey Weekend Across America, which starts Saturday.
"Some places have fantastic girls club programs or high school programs and that's awesome," Stone said, "but, if not, I say stick with your boys program as long as you can before it becomes a health risk."
The girls on the Colonials this season didn't have to choose. The team went 14-2 versus the girls teams they faced, and is about to embark on the postseason in both boys and girls tournaments.