November 17, 2013

Women's Hockey: The State of the Game

By Brion O'Connor

Alex Carpenter (North Reading, Mass.), daughter of former NHL player Bobby Carpenter, is a standout forward for the women’s national team after starring for Boston College last season. (Getty Images)

When Tara Mounsey, the pride of Concord, N.H., skated around the Olympic rink at Nagano, Japan, in 1998, draped in the American flag moments after she and her teammates captured the inaugural women’s ice hockey gold medal with a scintillating 3-1 win over Canada, few could have foreseen the shock waves that were about to roll through the sport.

“That was a big year, a huge year for women’s ice hockey,” Mounsey said. “It was the first time it was ever in the Olympics. That really put the sport on the map. Then we won the gold medal, and people saw that these girls are good, and this is a great sport. So people really took an interest.”

Those people included a number of young girls who would become the current stars of the women’s game.

“If you look at our generation, we can all identify that as a turning point in our lives,” said Molly Schaus, a 25-year-old goalkeeper for the USA national team that is preparing for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. “I was 9 when I was introduced to the women’s game, because of the 1998 Olympics. That was pretty unique for us, to be able to watch a women’s game. Now you can go watch a professional game. You can watch college hockey, the national team, a high school game.”

The proof of this unprecedented growth is in the numbers. From 1990-91 to 2002-03, female participation in Massachusetts jumped from 1,268 players to 6,153, with a healthy leap (3,712 to 4,540) coming right after the 1998 Olympics. Over the same time period, New Hampshire — Mounsey’s home state — increased almost tenfold, from 110 to 1,042. Nationwide, the numbers went from 6,336 to 45,971, with a bump of more than 5,300 after the United States triumphed in Nagano.

Keri-Ann Allan, president of Massachusetts Hockey and a native of Littleton, Mass., was playing for Northeastern University when the Americans won gold in 1998. It was, she said, a watershed moment.

“When I got out of college and started doing some Mass. Hockey stuff, and working for Carl (Gray at Assabet Valley), I was shocked to see the number of girls playing,”  said Allan, now 35. “We had a team at every level. It was amazing to see the growth just in that one program.

“The growth of the sport has been absolutely unbelievable. When I was a kid, there were two programs around, the Assabet Valley girls and the Chelmsford Lions. But growing up in Littleton, I still started with boys. I ended up leaving Littleton Youth for Assabet because Carl Gray saw me in a rink and approached my parents. That’s how I ended up in girls hockey, just because of that chance interaction.”

For the 2012-13 season, USA Hockey had almost 66,000 registered female players, and Massachusetts alone had 9,462. The rest of New England accounted for another 6,543, for a total of 16,005. And Allan expects another significant jump next season.

“With it being an Olympic year, we always see a boost,” she said.

In Massachusetts, girls hockey is driven in large part at the club level, by forward-thinking people like Gray, former Olympian Scott Fusco (Burlington, Mass.) of the East Coast Wizards, Vicki Movsessian (Lexington, Mass.) of the Massachusetts Spitfires, Richard Gallant of the Middlesex Islanders and Bob Rotundo of the Boston Shamrocks.

More recently, dozens of other programs throughout New England have sprung up to feed the need for all-girls programs. The New England Girls Hockey League has 24 divisions (U-19 down to U-10), with 18 organizations representing more than 180 girls teams around the Northeast, including both town programs and club squads.

“That’s an indication of where the game is now,” said Stephanie Wood, the women’s director for the Middlesex Islanders. “It used to be that you just had one or two options. Now, you have multiple options, which is great for girls hockey. You have multiple organizations that are highly competitive, which again promotes and produces better players. Massachusetts and New England are definitely leaders in that right now. In this area, we have some of the strongest girls hockey in the country.”

Still, most town programs don’t have enough girls to field all-girls teams, so most young females (and their parents) must choose between a club program or playing on coed teams with the boys. In fact, every player or former player NEHJ spoke to for this story had played coed hockey at some point during her career.

“We all basically grew up playing guys hockey,” said Wood, who left New Brunswick, Canada, in 2002 to play for Northeastern. “That was pretty much the only option you had.”

The draw of the game

At its core, hockey draws girls for the same reason it attracts boys. It’s fast. It’s fun. And you can play it with a lot of friends.

It’s also a sport that goes beyond the rink, beyond the boundaries of the game.

“I’ve thought about it a little more, as I’ve gotten older. It’s a great sport, and it’s especially a great sport for women,” Mounsey said. “It doesn’t require a certain body type. There’s not a whole lot of judgment. And it’s a good team sport, even more so than soccer or basketball.

“With those other sports, you can leave certain players in for the whole game if you have to,” she said. “You cannot skate an entire hockey game. You can skate for two minutes max, and then you need your teammates out there. It’s the ultimate team sport. You really learn how to lean on other people, and trust other people, because you have to. I think it has a lot of value for kids, in terms of life values.”

One big roadblock for girls, and their parents, is cost. While town programs can run in the vicinity of $1,000 to $1,400, club programs often cost twice as much. Asked if the cost disparity was a barrier for some families, Allan replied, “That’s a great question. I never thought about it, to be honest with you.

“The kids who really love the sport and take it seriously, they do go to the club programs,” she said. “A lot of them stay with the town as well, because they want that relationship with their friends. It doesn’t seem like money is really an issue with (the club programs). I think the parents see the value of a child playing amongst her own peers, instead of always battling for a position or being a part of a boys team.”

The challenge, Allan said, is to make the sport both affordable and accessible. “There are still way too many towns that don’t have the option for girls, so I still feel these programs are very much needed,” she said. “It’s hard to have a female play with the boys program their entire career.”

Boys vs. girls

At the Bantam level, when checking is introduced into the boys game, the differences between the two games become more apparent. Ben Smith (Gloucester, Mass.), the former women’s national coach who was behind the bench for the 1998 Olympics, says the women’s version is a cleaner game, because the emphasis is on playing the puck, not the body.

“It’s a very different game,” Allan said. “The girls game is much more skilled than the boys game. As a defenseman, I just can’t take you out. I have to figure out how am I going to get that puck off your stick and maintain control.”

Mounsey, the only female player to win the New Hampshire Player of the Year award after leading the Concord boys team to the 1996 state championship, agreed. “The women’s game mirrors the European style,” she said. “The European men play with a lot more finesse, more focused on skill. You just can’t be this goon who makes up for lack of talent because you can fight, or make a big hit and get off the ice. That role just doesn’t exist. So it keeps the game pure.”

That’s not to say that playing against boys is a bad thing. “I do like to see girls get some exposure with the males, because it gives them that tenacity as a player,” Allan said. “You can’t teach that. You have to bring it out of them. And I think the boys bring that out, because you’re battling them.”

“Go to a U.S.-Canada game,” Mounsey said. “There are times when you may not know that there is no checking, because you can use the body. You have to learn that element. I felt that was a big advantage, coming from playing the sport with boys.”

Results at highest levels

Schenectady, N.Y., native Reagan Carey, USA Hockey’s director of women’s hockey and general manager of the women’s national team, is awed by the talent on the current Olympic team roster and the U-18 national team.

“The skill level is just unbelievable,” Carey said. “The skill level that these 16-year-olds have, because they’ve been able to compete on more teams, and do it more consistently, and have more opportunity to play, has pushed the game along so quickly.”

Rotundo, of the Boston Shamrocks, an elite squad with the Junior Women’s Hockey League, said the progress of the girls game has been impressive, but added, “I would like to see more development. The only way you can do that is to model yourself after Minnesota’s Community Olympic Development Program.”

That program, according to the Community Athletic Development Program website, was the vision of 1980 men’s Olympic coach Herb Brooks. In 1996, Brooks and Jack Blatherwick, a University of Minnesota physiologist, developed a hockey-specific training regimen for females. They started with a small group of players in preparation for the 1998 Olympic Games, and those programs have grown to serve more than 1,500 athletes. Since 2004, Blatherwick and his staff have expanded CADP from a six-week summer camp to a year-round specialized training program. Rotundo said he believes there is interest in establishing a similar program in Massachusetts, despite some opposition.

“We had Ben Smith and (USA Hockey president Ron) DeGregorio here, and they were willing to do it,” Rotundo said. “Hopefully, someday soon, we can come back with it and try to do it, or put together a group with Mass. Hockey.

“We want to make these girls better players, and the only way you can do that is to have everybody come together, which is a very tough thing,” he said. “How are we going to make this better? Who is willing to step up to the plate, and who is going to donate ice.

“If you got four or five programs that were really committed, we could do it. It’s just a matter of getting everyone in the same room to agree.”

The value of Title IX

Title IX, the landmark legislation (passed in 1972) that ensured “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,” also has played a major role.

The law radically altered the landscape of women’s sports, including hockey, effectively opening the door for competition beyond high school as more and more collegiate programs were established.

“When I coached Harvard’s first team in the late 1970s, there wasn’t any infrastructure for girls and women to play hockey,” said Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.), the commissioner of Hockey East and Women’s Hockey East. “Many of our first ‘varsity’ team had never played the game beyond ponds with their brothers. I’ve watched steady growth of the game and steady-but-slow acceptance of it by the culture.”

Assabet Valley’s Gray said the law had a clear domino effect. “Title IX affected colleges, and colleges affected prep schools, and prep schools affected youth programs,” Gray told USA Hockey Magazine.

The timing was serendipitous. More girls started playing just as more collegiate women’s hockey programs were established. The result is a game that has changed dramatically over the past two decades.

“Even 10 years ago, if you had two really great forwards and an outstanding goalie, you could win a championship,” Schaus said. “Now, it depends more on what team has the best second or third lines. Or a good backup goalie. You just look down the roster, and more and more outstanding players are playing, which makes the games more fun and makes the seasons more fun. You can’t necessarily predict a champion on Day One.”

“It really speaks to the growth of the sport,” Mounsey said. “It’s not that long ago that the third or fourth line didn’t exist, or couldn’t skate that well. Now, you’ve got to roll at least three lines to play a competitive game.”

The future looks bright

Most observers say that girls and women’s hockey should continue to grow, though the rate might not be as extraordinary. At young ages, USA Hockey’s American Development Model, or ADM, offers an introduction to the sport that doesn’t discriminate between boys and girls and encourages more involvement of every player.

“USA Hockey has nailed it, evolving the way they teach the game at the younger level,” Wood said. “If you do your research, it’s dead-on about how instruction should be at the youth level.”

According to Carey, the early years don’t present many differences between boys and girls hockey. “If you look at our membership development programs, our ADM programs, all of it is geared toward eliminating those hurdles, whether it’s financial, or just the numbers of players in your areas, and focusing on having fun with the sport, and putting more kids on the ice at one time,” she said.

“You don’t need a full sheet of ice to play hockey,” Carey said. “Instead, we have these small-area games that kids love. They all get off the ice, and they’re sweaty, smiling and ready to go back out there.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Schaus would like to see the Canadian Women’s Hockey League take root and expand, which would give more women an opportunity to keep playing competitively after college, providing more role models.

“Kids always said, ‘I want to play in the NHL.’ Now girls can say, ‘I want to play in the CWHL,’ “ said Schaus, who played for last year’s CWHL champion Boston Blades. “We have something to aspire to. Without that, I don’t know what the kids out of college would do to stay at that level for the national team.

“But if you look at the Blades (last year), half were national team players, but the other half were D-1 players who loved the game and wanted to pursue it while pursuing their jobs,” she said. “To have that opportunity to play the game you love at such a high level is huge. It gives us an option for the future, which is really exciting.”

Which brings the sport full circle. Mounsey wants to see the sport grow but hopes that fans remember the team that sparked the revolution, and what made that squad so unique.

“It was a special time for women’s ice hockey, but it was also a very special team and a very special group of athletes,” she said. “Everyone was on the same page. Everyone got along really well. Everyone knew why we were there, and everyone showed up every day. Everyone held everyone else accountable. Everyone knew her role on the team. It was just a very well-oiled machine.”

Members of the current national team, such as reigning collegiate player of the year Amanda Kessel of the University of Minnesota, and New Englanders Schaus (Natick, Mass.), captain Julie Chu (Fairfield, Conn.), Alex Carpenter (Reading, Mass.), Meghan Duggan (Danvers, Mass.), Kate Buesser (Wolfeboro, N.H.), Kacey Bellamy (Westfield, Mass.) and Michelle Picard (Taunton, Mass.) hope to turn the tide against Canada, which has won the past three Olympics, at the Sochi Games in February.

That’s an immediate goal. Long-term, the objective of the team is to maintain the momentum first created by the 1998 squad.

“I hope girls continue to take an interest in the sport, and that parents introduce the sport to girls who want to play,” said Mounsey, who earned her graduate degree from Boston College after graduating from Brown and is now a physician’s assistant at New England Baptist Hospital. “It’s a great sport, with great camaraderie. They’ll have fun. And it will help them in life. That’s the most important part.”

The national team’s mantra includes a verse, “We’re part of something bigger than ourselves.” That sentiment, Carey quickly adds, applies to the sport in general, and not just the Olympic team.

“Everybody has a real connection and desire to make sure this sport succeeds, and that everyone has an opportunity to enjoy it and learn from it, whether it’s on-ice skills that come with the game, or the life skills that come with hockey, which I think are pretty unique,” Carey said. “It’s that kind of effort where people say, ‘This is the right thing to do for the sport,’ and everyone is willing to pitch in. It’s everyone saying, ‘We’re all in this together, and let’s just roll up our sleeves and make sure we keep pushing this sport forward.’ That’s special.”