Women’s hockey: Grown from a love of the game

Talent, resources, exposure have especially risen in the last two decades.

vs Clarkson

Matt Mead

vs Clarkson

John Hageman

Images of bruised and bloodied men flashing toothless grins have become synonymous with hockey. For years, the sport was once deemed to be too violent for the opposite sex. But a generation of women is proving that hockey is not just a sport for men, and with rising participation levels in all age groups, womenâÄôs ice hockey is now in a league of its own. Next weekâÄôs Olympic Games in Vancouver will mark the fourth time womenâÄôs hockey has been featured as an event, and the sport has grown in worldwide popularity in the past two decades. âÄúI started coaching [womenâÄôs hockey] in 1995, and the growth has just been absolutely astronomical ever since,âÄù Minnesota womenâÄôs assistant coach Tom Osiecki said. In 1995-96, there were just 235 Division I female student-athletes playing ice hockey, according to a participation report by the NCAA. That number had more than tripled 10 years later. In 2007-08, there were 837 Division I womenâÄôs hockey players. By comparison, the number of womenâÄôs basketball players increased by less than 13 percent during that same span. Osiecki began coaching boysâÄô high school hockey in 1964 and was a scout for the Minnesota North Stars in the early 1990s. After a brief stint as a scout for the Minnesota North Stars from 1990 to 1995, Osiecki was invited to coach the girlsâÄô hockey team at Burnsville High School, where he had coached boysâÄô hockey for 24 years. Like a handful of other girlsâÄô hockey programs that started in that time period, Burnsville had to start with open tryouts, thin schedules and no postseason tournaments, Osiecki said. Minnesota became the first state to sanction womenâÄôs hockey as a varsity high school sport in 1994, as 24 teams took the ice that year. Four years later, the sport became an Olympic event for the first time at the 1998 Nagano games, and the United States took home the gold over Canada. Since then, according to USA Hockey, the number of female players registered with the national governing body for hockey has more than doubled. Osiecki said the success of the 1998 Olympic team perked the interest of many young girls who may not have otherwise tied up skates. Some of those once-young girls are now playing college hockey with eyes toward performing on the highest stage. âÄúEveryone kind of wants to set [the Olympics] as their goal,âÄù said Gophers sophomore Anne Schleper, who, along with Gophers teammates Sarah Erickson and Alyssa Grogan , was a member of the U.S. team that won gold in the inaugural International Ice Hockey Federation World WomenâÄôs Under-18 Championship in 2008. âÄúIt kind of sets something out there for kids to reach.âÄù Schleper, a St. Cloud native, is proof of the progress the game has made. She grew up learning the game from her older brother and playing pick-up games with him and his friends. Many of her female peers did the same. âÄúThere are a lot of sisters whose brothers had been playing hockey forever, who went out and skated with them for years,âÄù Osiecki said. âÄú[With girls and womenâÄôs teams] they finally had the chance to go out and play the game for themselves.âÄù Playing with all girls was a big change for Schleper, who said she played on boys teams until the Pee Wee (ages 11 and 12) level of youth hockey and had wanted to continue playing on Bantam (ages 13 and 14) boysâÄô teams. Gophers senior captain Brittany Francis said she didnâÄôt enjoy hockey as much when she made the transition from boysâÄô teams to all-girls teams because the talent level wasnâÄôt competitive enough for her. Former Gophers player and current U.S. National Team captain Natalie Darwitz , is trying to develop young talent among both boys and girls. Four years ago, she started Darwitz Hockey Development, a summer camp for boys and girls ages 6 to 14 . She said the participation numbers are split down the middle between the two sexes. âÄúThatâÄôs one of the reasons I did boys and girls, because thatâÄôs the way I grew up playing,âÄù Darwitz said. âÄúI think each gender can learn something from each other.âÄù As the popularity and participation levels increase among girls and women, Darwitz said the depth and talent has also grown, making the game much more competitive. Darwitz said she saw teams with one or two good lines in the past, but now teams have three to four solid lines. âÄúI donâÄôt think youâÄôre seeing players these days that can skate up and down the ice [against overmatched opponents] âĦ and score a goal,âÄù Darwitz said. âÄúWith the depth that the womenâÄôs game has brought, you canâÄôt do that anymore.âÄù Although womenâÄôs hockey has come a long way and continues to gain momentum, it still has further to go. The Minnesota womenâÄôs hockey team generated more than $150,000 in revenue in 2009, but the menâÄôs team brought in nearly $6 million, according to data compiled by the Office of Postsecondary Education Equity in Athletics disclosure database. Tickets make up a large portion of those revenues. The men averaged more than 10,000 fans per game last year at Mariucci Arena, while the women averaged 1,435 per game just next door at Ridder Arena. But even with a smaller audience and less revenue, the sport continues to grow, thanks to the tireless promotion by players and coaches. For example, the U.S. National Team came to Ridder Arena for a recent exhibition matchup with the Gophers as part of the Qwest Tour. Team USA head coach Mark Johnson said the tour and camps put on by the U.S. National Team are good exposure for the sport. âÄúGenerally, the people that are watching it enjoy the product they are seeing,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúIn the big picture, you have to certainly go out and try to help to promote our sport and try to get more people involved in womenâÄôs hockey.âÄù Johnson, a former National Hockey League player who was the leading scorer on the 1980 âÄúMiracle on IceâÄù U.S. MenâÄôs National Team , will try to lead Team USA to its first gold medal since the 1998 Olympics. Former Gophers star and Team USA member Gigi Marvin will try to do the same in her first Olympics. âÄúIâÄôm just excited to finally get to the Olympics,âÄù Marvin said. âÄúIt was something I think all of us who have made the team have been working for quite a while.âÄù Their male counterparts will arrive in Vancouver from various NHL teams, but the women have no multi-million-dollar contracts in their foreseeable futures, only the thought of playing the sport they love. âÄúTheyâÄôre in it for the reason why sports ever existed to begin with. TheyâÄôre in it because itâÄôs a fun activity and a competitive thing to do,âÄù Osiecki said. âÄúTheyâÄôre doing it for that reason and that reason only.âÄù