YOU GRETZKY, ME JANE

PUCKISH ALL WOMAN TEAM BREAKS THE ICE IN VALLEY HOCKEY LEAGUE.

"Whenever somebody runs into me, they always apologize," says Megan Collins, 22, another Lady King. "Watching these guys play who are really into it, really aggressive . . . I guess you wear all that padding for a good reason."
Such behavior disgusts goalie Stevens, a true hockey purist. "If you're going to shoot, shoot a good shot," she says. "Don't dribble it in."

There are equal amounts of dribbled shots, tentative skating and poor passing on all teams in this league. Beginning hockey isn't much fun to watch, but clearly is a riot to play. One team in the league is made up mostly of police officers, another of Intel and Motorola employees. Each of the men's teams seems to have an obvious ringer or two who tend to dominate games.

"No way in hell do they want to be the first guys to lose to the girls," says coach Nolan. Conversely, there doesn't seem to be any desire to see blood on the ice, figurative or otherwise.

"Nobody likes to get blown out every time, and late in games, our guys end up rooting for them," says Jeff McDowell, captain of the Intel Sharks, who beat the Lady Kings 14-0 in their first meeting this season. This is the Sharks' second season in the league.

"Nobody would want to see them say to hell with it and quit, because basically they're not that bad," McDowell says. "That was basically us last year." @rule:

@body:Talk about how every new team endures a period of pastings does not sit well with Louise Stevens, arguably the hardest working Lady King. Stevens' job as goalie is to catch or kick dozens of sizzling pucks each game. Stat sheets from games show that Louise's success ratio mirrors professional hockey standards. Sure, she usually surrenders 10 or 12 goals each game, but she denies four or five times that many. Her own team typically attempts less then ten shots.

A soccer player through high school and college, Stevens took up hockey a year ago. For reasons she no longer recalls, she wanted to be goalie. (It's not a coveted position: At the Oceanside rink's pickup hockey sessions, position players pay $8 for their two hours of ice time. Goalies play for free.) Not long after launching into hockey, Stevens found herself on an otherwise male league team. For the first several weeks of her first season, she carried one of the best goals-against averages in the league. Now, with the Lady Kings, Stevens is getting a crash course in puck-stopping. She enjoys having her back to the net, and says she couldn't ask for a better opportunity to hone her skills in game situations. "I wouldn't want to play against a team that would only take three or four shots in a period," she says. "I like having the game riding on my shoulders." @rule:

@body:As for violence, the Lady Kings play in a noncontact league, meaning all but incidental contact between the players is illegal. There would be no checking--the hockey term meaning a controlled, strategic collision--allowed in this league even if no women were present. "You play the puck," says Wendy Hering. "Not that there isn't physical contact. But I think your focus is playing the puck and not running into bodies out there."

But advance just one level in skill and the focus changes. Checking is an important tactic in hockey, and the number of strategic collisions usually increases as the hockey gets better. "In beginning hockey, the refs call it closer," says Jim Rogers, who oversees the hockey leagues at Tower Plaza's Ice Palace. "But even in a noncheck league, you've still got body contact. If a player likes to go into the slot [the area in front of each goal], they're gonna get hit."

In those situations--which occur dozens of times in every game--the overriding instinct of even slightly more experienced players (such as each team's one or two ringers) is to shove first and think later, which could endanger the often-weaker women players, Rogers says. "In hockey you don't have time to analyze. You see the color of the uniform and you hit it," says Rogers. "You don't have time to react and say, 'Hey, it's a woman coming in here. I better not hit her.'"

Concludes one Lady King: "In any team sport, there's always an asshole on the other team."

Each of the Lady Kings can catalogue her own personal collection of inevitable bumps and bruises. But nobody on the team, so far this season, has had a serious injury related to hockey. League administrator Rogers, who says he's heard no reports of fighting in Lady Kings games, says real rough stuff is rare in lower levels of amateur hockey. "The people playing, we don't want to be checked into the boards, because we've all got to go to work the next day," he says. @rule:

@body:True hockey safety comes at a high cost. A full outfitting of regalia and uniform (women wear special breast and pelvic protection) costs about $400. Rink fees for practices and games cost the players several hundred dollars more each. The Lady Kings have played a few fund-raising games (against media teams and retired Roadrunners) to help pay their way into the sport. The women also want to raise their visibility, in hopes of attracting other women to hockey. And the more women they can get playing, the better the chances are of starting an all-women's league.

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