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How The Other Half Plays: Women's Hockey in Columbus (Pt. 1)

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Columbus is beginning to be known nationally for the strong amateur hockey community that has developed since the Blue Jackets came to town, but there's a part of the game that's rapidly growing under the radar.

The CCYHA Girls U19 Blue Jackets at the 2015 Mid Am tournament.
The CCYHA Girls U19 Blue Jackets at the 2015 Mid Am tournament.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Fischer and the CCYHA

We've talked a lot about the growth of the amateur hockey community here in Columbus - and even did a podcast with one of the people overseeing that growth. But there's a side of that growth that is very real, yet tends to get overlooked: How many of those amateur players are women?

Women's hockey has always been there - in fact, the reason Lord Stanley got interested in the sport, back in the late 1800s, was because his daughters wanted to learn the game. From there, a few organized women's games were held, but it didn't really take off at a national (or international) level until after World War I, and it was almost seventy years before it was recognized as an Olympic Sport.

Since that time, most casual fans don't think of the women's game until those Olympic years roll around. We root for players like Amanda Kessel or Hayley Wickenheiser, but we don't put much thought into where they go after the games have closed.

Over the last few years, that's beginning to change.

NCAA women's hockey has been getting more recognition as elite talents have been recognized as coming out of programs like Boston U, Minnesota, and our own Ohio State. The CWHL has grown considerably over the past few years, finally getting recognition in the US and Canada in no small part to a vocal fanbase who encourage "game watching parties" of web streamed games and participation on twitter.

There's still a lot of room to grow - and in particular, the NHL can and should be doing more to help, but we are at a point where more women are playing hockey, professionally or at an amateur level, than ever before.

I wanted to take a look at the state of women's hockey here in Columbus, and was pleasantly shocked by the depth of the community, and the interest in getting the word out. What began as a relatively short piece has become a much larger effort - I've had the opportunity to talk to women involved at nearly every level of the game, and I hope to do some justice in sharing their stories.

Begin at the Beginning

After some discussions with Martin Spanhel of the CAHL that I'll touch on when we spend more time talking about the women playing at that level, I was put in touch with Emily Moersdorf, the head coach of the CCYHA's Girls Columbus Blue Jackets (Tier II) U-19 and U-16 travel teams.  Emily's a perfect example of the growth of the game in Columbus - she's an alum of the CCYHA program who went on to play club hockey at Ohio State, and now plays in the CAHL in addition to her coaching work.

The CCYHA offers travel programs for girls from ages 14-19, but anyone with children under 14 can put their daughters into house programs where they can play in co-ed teams or the CCYHA's all-girls teams.

"At the younger ages, it's all fundamentals. Passing, shooting, skating," Moersdorf explained, "We don't really start to split them up until checking comes into the picture."

When I asked about what she's seen in the growth of the game over the past few years, Emily's explanation was mixed between excitement and frustration. "Right now we have three full teams in our program, and a contact list that includes almost 200 girls - some who are currently playing, some who have been to clinics or expressed interest, and some who played for a while and then moved on. As it is, we could probably form another U-14 team pretty easily, and are planning for that growth,  but the problem is ice time. Between our program, the CAHL, and other groups like the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets (who field a "Tier 1" U-16 girls team), we're competing for rink time that just isn't there. We've actually had to hold some of our weekend practices at the ice rink out in Springfield - and to their credit, the parents have supported that."

The travel team programs in Columbus are in an awkward position because they're relatively young, and there's a lack of local competition. There are no Ohio based travel leagues for them to compete in, so their trips can take them all over the Midwest - Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota, in particular, and sometimes up to Ontario in order to participate in tournaments there.

It's a demanding situation in terms of time and money, but the interest is there, and more and more families have become involved, particularly after the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics did a great deal to boost the visibility of the sport.

"A lot of the girls in our program saw Team USA play in the Olympics, and it inspired them. They want to have the chance to put on that sweater someday."  Moersdorf also credited the Blue Jackets with helping to raise interest, both by the presence of the team and their commitment to youth hockey by holding learn to skate events, hockey schools, and partnering with USA hockey and organizations like the Girl Scouts to make the game more accessible to families in Central Ohio.

The CCYHA program isn't quite ready to start sending girls on to the US National Development Team Program yet - Moersdorf feels that they're probably 5-10 years away from having the ability to develop that kind of top tier talent - but they have plans to get there, building up their development of not only players on the ice, but training their coaches and constructing the support systems needed to help them reach their full potential. As it is, CCYHA alumnae have gone on to play at nationally recognized prep schools, club teams for several Big Ten schools, including OSU, and even a few DIII NCAA programs.

Another leader and advocate for girls' and women's hockey is Leslie Walker, who serves on the CCYHA board of trustees as the Coordinator for the Girls' Hockey program in central Ohio and a coach with the girls' teams.

"The biggest responsibility we have is to create programs that are inclusive and sustainable," she explained when we spoke, "Many girls come to hockey later than boys do. Where a boy might have been playing from age five or six - or younger - you get some girls who are just being introduced to the sport at 13, 14, or even later. We want to create an atmosphere where they're welcome, and can get the opportunity to develop their game, while still taking care of girls who are playing at higher levels."

One of the biggest changes and steps in the right direction is that CCYHA and other local programs, like the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets, are now working together to make sure that players can get a chance to play on teams that match their skill level. "In the past," Walker noted, "Things sometimes got silo-ed. Organizations competed with each other and splintered the girls, never really establishing a 'community', which is key to success. Now, working together, we can see a clear path to develop talent from house through tier 1 and ensure that the kids have teams where they can compete at all skill levels."

The growth of the program over the last several years is point of pride for Walker, and a source of concern. "Our Sting program (their house league focusing on girls ages 8-10 and 11-13) has doubled in size each of the last two years. That's great - there are a lot of cities that see a temporary boom, and then can't field a team after a year or two - but it means that we have to get creative to find ice time, make sure they're getting the opportunity to play, and support the parents - especially since the parents are our coaches at the house team level."

"We want to make sure that the program will keep growing, but it has to grow in a way that will make sure it lasts. One of our biggest successes is that women like Emily are going through the program, playing in college and as adults, and coming back to help coach and keep that cycle of learning going. That's so important, and we want to make it keeps happening."

It's a process, and one that will take time, but there are roots in place now, and clear signs that they will continue to grow.

For more information on the CCYHA programs, check out their website or contact Leslie Walker, girls' program coordinator, at cbusgirlshockey@gmail.com.