YOU GRETZKY, ME JANE
Hockey is brutal, high-speed mayhem. The players wear metal blades on their feet and 20 pounds of plastic and padding everywhere else. The object of play--the puck--is a fistful of rock-hard rubber. The playing surface--ice--is wet, slippery, cold and dense. You can't play the game well unless you skate better than most people walk. Forward, sideways, backward. Is there a more unnatural act in sports than skating backward--okay, maybe bowling--while falling, while controlling the skittish puck with the slim blade of your wooden stick or while throwing punches at some toothless thug who just opened your cheek with his own slim blade? Sure, hockey is lots of fun to watch. So was Pickett's Charge, probably. But to participate--for most normal, easily bruised people, it's just unthinkable.
When 22-year-old Jamie Aronson announced she was going to take up the sport, her mom's first thought was to call the family dentist. "I went, 'Oh, my God. You've had braces twice,'" says Jamie's mom, Mimi Aronson.
The dentist didn't offer much solace, for he had played in an adult hockey league. "Get her a mouthpiece," was his advice. Mimi wasn't totally reassured of the safety of her daughter's smile (and other parts) until Jamie staged an equipment inspection. As piece after piece of road-warrior gear came out of Jamie's duffel bag, her mom's fears began to fade. In fact, the family had planned to assemble at Tower Plaza's Ice Palace on Thanksgiving eve, kicking off its holiday festivities by watching Jamie take the ice as a member of the Lady Kings.
Believed to be the Valley's first all-female hockey team, the Lady Kings play their games on Wednesday nights. All of their opponents play for one of the other five teams in the league for hockey beginners. And all of their opponents are men.
Plans for an Aronson family rooting section were wiped out, though, when Jamie's knee was wiped out. She didn't do it by hurtling into the boards after a puck. Jamie is out of action for another week or so because of an injury she received playing basketball--a comparatively gentle sport, played in short pants and jerseys.
She was the only woman playing in the hoop game. And she was not wearing her mouthpiece.
@body:Hockey for women is not all that unusual. Women were playing organized hockey in Canada in the early 1900s, and national tournaments have been conducted up there since the 1920s. By the 1980s, about 12,000 females were playing hockey in Ontario province alone, according to Everybody's Hockey Book. In the United States, women's hockey hot spots are Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado. Women's hockey is being considered as a possible demonstration sport in the upcoming Winter Olympics. Ironically, the manly National Hockey League--in which fighting is as much a part of the action as scoring goals--may be the first professional sports league to let a woman play in a regular-season game.
Hockey history was made this fall when Manon Rheaume, a 20-year-old Canadian woman, played in a preseason exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning, an NHL expansion team. She is currently on the roster of the Lightning's minor-league affiliate in Atlanta (which plays in the same league as the Phoenix Roadrunners, and is scheduled to play here February 12-13, 1993). Not surprisingly, Rheaume is a goalie. "A lot of hockey players feel that hockey is probably the only sport that a women can get into the pros--as goalies. It's reflexes. It doesn't have to be size," says Jim Glazer, who helps run the Phoenix Adult Hockey Association, a local amateur league in which women have played on men's teams.
Glazer also believes that female physiology, specifically the ability to spring into and out of leg splits--to "butterfly," in goalie talk--might give a female goaltender a natural edge. "One of the best goaltenders I played against, in a tournament in L.A., was a woman," he says. "She could butterfly like nothing you've ever seen." Rheaume is good enough to start for a quality men's high school team, but probably not for many college teams, E.M. Swift wrote in Sports Illustrated. Her game with the Lightning, he said, should not be hailed as a true breakthrough for women in hockey, but rather as a Bill Veeck-caliber publicity stunt. Listed as back-up to the Atlanta team's first-string goalie, she has yet to appear in a real game since her September stint with Tampa Bay, after which one sportswriter asked her, "Did you break a nail?"
@body:Nobody knows for sure how long women have been playing hockey in the Valley, but a handful of women have been playing on men's teams for the past several years. Those women, joined by more recent converts, decided this summer to band together as a single unit. They would have joined a women's league, if one existed. As it was, the only place for the Lady Kings was Tower Plaza's all-male beginners' league.
If the history of the Lady Kings were to be written today, it would show several Friday night practice sessions and exactly five games, which have been lost by a combined score of 56-2. The team's current roster includes about 20 women, although not all players attend every practice or every game. The 25-game season started in late October. The Lady Kings, named after the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL, wear black on the ice. Several of the Lady Kings are in college. One is a professional golfer. Another works for American Express. Some of the players have been skating since childhood. Others have been skating since June. Jamie Aronson, the five-foot-two, 110-pound college student whose mom was so worried about dentition, visited the Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe for the first time this past summer, her first experience on skates. She saw a sign advertising hockey classes and, figuring that the endless circling of open-skating sessions would get boring, Aronson amazed her boyfriend by signing up for hockey lessons. "The funny thing is, I'd never seen a hockey game before," she says. "She never even let me watch games on TV," says Jonathon Orenstein, Aronson's boyfriend. "She would say, 'That's not interesting. That's boring, and you can't even see the puck.'" Cheryl Wolfe, 32, another Lady King new to the sport, grew up in Michigan, where hockey is as much a part of the atmosphere as oxygen. A multisport athlete in high school, she never came closer to hockey than figure-skating lessons. Wolfe's teeth also figured in her own hockey story.
"I always wanted to play when I was a kid," says Wolfe, who works as stage manager for a local heavy-metal band called Where's Valentino. "But when my mom paid for braces, she said, 'No, you're not gonna play. I paid so much for your teeth, so forget it.'"
Now that she's had the opportunity, Wolfe is thrilled with the sport, despite its difficulty. "I get hit a lot by the puck and stuff like that," she says. "I mean, it doesn't hurt. You fall down a lot, of course, all the time."
At the opposite end of the experience spectrum is someone like Wendy Hering, who played several seasons in local men's leagues before becoming a Lady King. Hering grew up in hockey hotbed Massachusetts and has been a fan since childhood. She got her start by accompanying her sports-nut dad to athletic events. "From the time I was 9 until I could drive a car, he was toting me along to games," she says. Hering, a 29-year-old customer-service rep for American Express (her colleagues think her hobby is "pretty weird), spends most of her rink time helping less-experienced players learn the game. She sometimes misses playing on a more competitive team. "The Lady Kings are competitive, but you don't have the hunger and desire to mutilate people," she says, kidding. "With women it's a different game."
@body:Parents and loved ones of Lady Kings are of two minds about this rowdy hobby. Some think it's just dandy, no big deal. Others aren't so sure. The Gook family fits into the first group. A good-natured hockey match was an annual tradition for the Gooks, who lived outside Quesnel, a town about 400 miles north of Vancouver. The family's ten kids, augmented by assorted friends and spouses, would don skates every Boxing Day, Canada's day-after-Christmas holiday. Daughter Kathy would be the one to sweep the snow off the pond near the house. Today, Kathy, 31, is a professional golfer who lives in Chandler when she's not playing on the European or Asian golf tours. And when healthy (she's currently suffering from a pinched nerve in her back--a golf injury), she suits up for the Lady Kings. Almost all the Gook kids played hockey at one level or another, and one of Kathy's seven brothers went on to play professional hockey in Germany. "Oh, boy, have I ever spent a lot of time at a hockey rink," says Genevieve Gook, the family matriarch, who now lives part-time in Chandler with her husband, Peter. "Women didn't play in my day. In fact, I'm not a skater at all. I've hardly ever been on the ice. All I ever did was watch and yell." Still, Genevieve has never been totally at ease with the idea of her daughter's puck-chasing. "Well, of course you think, dear, dear, dear, she's gonna get banged up," she says. "But she's always been so sports-minded. She put herself through college with a scholarship for basketball, and there were many times when I worried about her playing that, too."
Louise Stevens, a 26-year-old boat-dealership employee by day, tends the Lady Kings' goal by night. "My parents, of course, think it's ludicrous," she says. "My mother wanted the ballerina who plays violin."
Others close to Lady Kings have learned to be blas about such seemingly outrageous diversions. Men and women who gravitate toward hockey tend to immunize their friends and family against the shock.
Example: Susan Starr, 40, who played farm-pond hockey as a kid growing up in Kansas, made her way through heavy-metal music and jet-ski racing before finally arriving at the sport of the Lady Kings. Starr played guitar around town for a decade, ultimately fronting an all-woman band called Tigress, though she says she's now semiretired from the music scene. It was her Tigress drummer--and now teammate--Cheryl Wolfe who introduced her to hockey. Starr's husband, Bob, has grown accustomed to his wife's extreme hobbies. "He approaches everything I do with the same attitude," meaning ho hum, says Starr, who runs her own marketing and printing company. As for this latest endeavor, "He says, 'I hope you're having fun, because you're not very good.'"
@body:The teams pummeling the Lady Kings aren't that much better, according to volunteer Lady Kings coach Ben Nolan. "As far as talent and ability, I would say we are right there, neck and neck with the other guys," says Nolan, who played high school and college hockey. "As far as speed and strength, though . . . they get beat to the puck. They're just not as fast. Once they do get the puck, they can't skate away from these guys." Each game, it seems, the male players' strength and stamina tend to overwhelm the women midway through the three-period contest.
"The guys take it easy in the first period, thinking it's gonna be a cakewalk," says Susan Starr. "But then they're only ahead two or three to nothing at the first intermission. When they realize that, they get back on the ice in the second period and it's push, push, push."
A few of the Lady Kings sense that the men cut them some slack. "I think we're approached by the men with a little more sympathy," says Wendy Hering, who now plays against some of her former teammates.
"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.
When that day comes, the pioneering Lady Kings will have a big decision to make. Do they break up the team and distribute their talent to several teams, or do they stay together and rule the new league for a season or two? As long as the team must endure double-figure shutouts, it might not be a fair question to ask. "Personally, I'd rather keep the team together," says Susan Starr, one of the newer players, who admits the idea of winning is appealing. "We've only played five games, and we're just starting to play like a team. No doubt we're getting pounded, but the experience we're getting is great.
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