Playing with the boys

Girls’ and womens’ hockey has exploded over the past 20 years, but are our players any better?

Ashley Bray

Two weeks ago my hometown high school girls hockey team made their first appearance in the state tournament. The Rosemount Irish were looking good, led by a powerful first line. Unfortunately the Irish were slaughtered by Edina in the first round. However, seeing them make it that far got me thinking about my childhood experience with hockey.
When I was a kid there were basically two options in my hometown for girls interested in hockey. They could play ringette, âÄî where a rubber ring is pushed around by a bladeless stick âÄî or play on a boys team.
My parents were iffy about their daughter playing on a boys team so instead I played soccer. It wasnâÄôt until I was 14 that my soccer coach, who also coached hockey, convinced me to join the high schoolâÄôs girls hockey program.
I spent four years in that program. Players came and went, but there always seemed to be the same gap in abilities.
There were girls that were really good, almost all of who had grown up playing on boys teams.
There were girls that were good, some of who had played with the boys.
And then there was everyone else who had never played with boys.
Today it is rare for girls to have to play on boysâÄô teams. In the past 20 years the sport has exploded in popularity. In 2010, USA Hockey, the governing body of hockey in the U.S., recorded over 61,500 registered female players, an increase of more than 55,000 since 1990.
While this growth in numbers has undoubtedly been a wonderful opportunity for thousands of girls, I canâÄôt help but wonder if the sport is losing something when girls no longer play on boys teams.
Admittedly, the feminist within me scowls at the thought. Arguably, however, the top women hockey players grew up playing on boys teams.
Take the GophersâÄô Natalie Darwitz, for example, who played from 2002-05 and is MinnesotaâÄôs all-time scoring leader with 246 goals. Her line mates, Kelly Stephens and Krissy Wendell, are also in the top four. At the time this line was arguably the most deadly in the country. It was a team that won back-to-back national championships and boasted several Olympians.
Last year, as Darwitz was preparing to lead Team USA to the medal round of the Winter Olympics, a Mpls.St.Paul Magazine reporter called her a âÄúfemale Wayne Gretzky.âÄù
All three of these Olympians played on boys teams until high school.
I do not believe that such a feat is impossible for a player who has never played with boys, but statistics donâÄôt lie.
Gigi Marvin, who played with the Gophers from 2005-09 is the fifth all-time scoring leader. She played with the boys in Warroad until age 10.
Ronda Curtin âÄì 1999-03. Sixth all-time GopherâÄôs scoring leader with 167 goals. She also played on several boys teams
Before the 2006 Olympic Winter games in Torino, USA hosted a live chat between Darwitz, Stephens and fans. When asked their opinions about girls playing on boys teams, both women said they were in favor of it.
âÄúWe are both big fans of growing up and playing with boys,âÄù the transcript reads. âÄúIf your daughter is good enough to play with the boys, then why switch over to girls?âÄù
Maybe womenâÄôs hockey is still too new to see if solely girl teams develop all-star players like these. I hope the sport continues to grow and we see more great hockey like this. Additionally, I would like to see it from girls who grew up playing with just the girls.