Longform

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.

@rule:
@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?"

@rule:
@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.

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Dave Walker