When I had the chance to talk to some of the women helping to provide more opportunities for younger girls to learn how to play, there's a certain level of straightforward progression.
Parents can get their daughters started at the Atom level. From there, go on to a Mites or Sting team depending on age and skill. Perhaps get into the CCYHA program or the Ohio AAA Jackets. If she's showing a strong talent, perhaps you're asked about joining a travel team. From there, if you're really lucky, she might get a chance to play for a college level club team or even an NCAA program.
But what's out there after college - not just for someone who has grown up playing the game, but for women who decide they'd like to learn?
The answer, it turns out, is a bit complicated - and depends in no small part on who you want to play with.
A Place To Play
When I walk into the Chiller North on a Tuesday night, there's a group waiting to get on the ice as the learn to skate classes wrap up.
After the zamboni sweeps through, someone goes into the scorekeeper's booth and turns on the radio. Classic rock starts playing as skaters come out in the usual pastiche of gear you see at a drop in. A few blanks, some practice jerseys, OSU branded gear, old rec team jerseys - pretty much what you'd see at any drop-in skate.
Lisa Taylor is one of the organizers, and she's pleased but a bit frustrated as we talk while the various skaters get comfortable on the ice.
She's wearing a walking boot, and hasn't been able to skate for "a couple weeks." It's pretty clearly making her unhappy - not surprising, considering this drop in (and the game that is about to start) were her idea in the first place.
"It started around the same year they announced that Columbus was getting an NHL team," she explained. "I'd moved down here around that time from Michigan, and my son wanted to play hockey, so he was taking classes at the Chiller."
"Well, after a little while, I started getting interested in learning how to play. And so did some of the other hockey moms who were at the rink. So we talked to the staff there, and not long after, Pat (Murphy) arranged to do skating classes for us. Those turned into hockey classes, and pretty soon we had actual games going - at the high point, we had four teams running, and they set up a little league for us."
That lasted for a while, but as Lisa described it, time and turnover began to take a toll.
"We realized that we only had a core of twenty people, maybe thirty, who could consistently make it - and there were a lot of variations in skill level. So what we decided was instead of folding up or joining the main CAHL, we'd compact it down a bit."
The setup for the Women's League is fairly simple - there are two teams, and the women who come in to skate are put on one or the other. More advanced skaters are put into "first line" groups, while people still working on their game are on the second line.
After warmups and some free skating, the two teams head to the benches, goalies get set up, and the first lines for the respective benches head out.
There's no referees - the women police themselves - so one of the wingers handles the drop of the puck if there's a stoppage in play. They skate for a minute, then a buzzer sounds, and the second line goes out to pick up where they left off - picking up the puck wherever it is on the ice. They repeat the pattern, back and forth, with each line finding scoring chances, battling for the puck, and moving up and down the ice.
"Setting it up this way (with the two line system), was really important," Lisa explains, "Because we want everyone to enjoy themselves. If we were running an "A" team against a "B" team, people could get really frustrated, and it's not fun for anyone. This way, each line plays against someone at about the same skill level, and it gives everyone a chance to work on their game - that's really great for the second line players, especially, but the first line players like being able to go all out, too."
That plan to keep things fun is also part of why there are no refs. It's a no-checking game, and allowing the women on the ice to keep an eye on each other gives it a low key vibe. There's certainly energy in how they go after the puck, and sometimes accidents do happen. In the game I watched, one of the "dark" players didn't realize a "white" forward was closing on her, tried to turn with the puck, and the two collided, with the "dark" player needing a minute to get back to the bench. (She returned a couple of shifts later.)
When I asked Lisa about what she hoped to do in the future, she wasn't really sure what would be around the corner.
"We'd love to grow again - the problem there is ice time. In places like Minnesota or the Northeast, where hockey has been big for a long time, each city builds a rink. We don't have that. The Chillers do a lot for us, but until Columbus, or the suburbs, start building their own rinks, we're never going to have enough ice for everyone who wants to play. Then you have scheduling. It's tough. We're always happy to have people come join us - we've gotten people who ask the Chiller staff about where they can play, and they get in touch with me, and there's a decent bit of word of mouth. But people move away, jobs change, families need time...you never know. If we could somehow get every woman in town who plays to come out for us, it'd really be amazing. But we aren't there right now."
At Their Own Game
That's not to say that the women's skate nights are the only option. In theory, the entire CAHL is co-ed, but the number of teams who actually skate a mixed roster varies by the league. Many of the E-Leauge teams have at least one woman, if not more. Several D league teams do as well. But then there are the BOBs...
When I called Martin Spanhel, director of the CAHL, he was downright gleeful talking about them. "They're our only all women team - and do you know what the "BOB" stands for? Band of Bitches. It's great. I love seeing them play."
Unlike the women's night games, CAHL games are full contact, and opponents don't hold back.That doesn't bother their captain, Dana Worth: "It's stiffer competition, but that's part of the fun."
The team now known as BOB started out of that same group of moms who decided to learn how to skate and play - in fact, the membership has overlapped more than a few times, and it's clear that Lisa and Dana respect and like each other. But that doesn't keep Dana from occasionally trying to poach a player or two.
"We absolutely scout around. The D league, E league games - when we see someone who has the talent that would make us that much more competitive against other teams, I do my best to grab them."
"We started with those skating lessons," Dana explained, "and then the Wednesday morning classes turned into scrimmages. And from there we started getting more and more people joining in, and some of us decided we really wanted to play more often, and with different competition, so we signed up for the main CAHL, calling ourselves the Vixens, with The Hockey Stop as our sponsor, and we've been going ever since. Hockey is...well, once you start doing it, and you get over the hump of having to think about everything you do, it really gets into your system."
That said, Dana admitted that no matter how much some people want to play, things can get in the way. "There are some girls who play all of the time, but there's just a matter of time for a lot of us, and a lot of women have to pick and choose - do you go for the stiffer competition, or go with the community and the more laid-back atmosphere? The good thing is that there are plenty of women who want to play - and the Chillers have done a good job of making a place to play for that - and when women express an interest in playing, the staff there do a great job of letting them know about the options, and putting them in touch with teams."
Despite the "hard edged" image their name implies, though, Dana is quick to assure me that winning isn't everything. "We have a good group together, and even though there's a competitive group it's really all about the fun."
Hitting the Road
Dana is also involved with the Columbus Capitals - a traveling team playing in the Pennsylvania-Ohio Women's Hockey Asssociation. "It's hard to get a travel team going - the city used to support two, the Capitals and the Bandits, but we're down to just the Capitals because we've had trouble getting the word out. We've struggled to get younger players involved - and for someone who's just out of college, or starting a career, it's a big demand in terms of time and money."
"More and more people are playing the game as kids, or moving to Columbus and are looking to play. But playing on a travel team is a really big commitment, so a lot of women who might have the talent we're looking for are going to prefer options like the Women's League skate or the CAHL."
The best news that you can offer a woman who wants to find a place to play in Columbus is that there are so many options - like skating with more of a focus on fundamentals and building your game? The Women's League skates are perfect. Want to play with a mixed group of friends? The CAHL is a good bet. Want to hit the road? COGAWHA, the parent association of the travel teams, would love to be able to fire the Bandits back up.
That diversity strengthens the community, and every sign is that it will only grow as hockey continues to sink roots into central Ohio. As Dana said, it's a game that gets into your system - and there's never a bad time to start. Both Lisa and Dana spoke glowingly of the hockey school classes at the Chiller, and of the skills development classes offered by coach James Nash.
"I was 42 when I started," Lisa noted, "I didn't even know how to skate, really. It's really never too late."
If you are interested in joining the Women's League, Lisa Worth can be contacted directly at email@example.com, or via the Chiller and the Columbus Adult Hockey League.
Our series on Women's Hockey in Columbus will continue next week.
EDIT: Not long after I filed this story for publication, the Blue Jackets announced that former Columbus Ice Hockey Club player (and now occasional skills coach) Cassidy Guthrie has won one of the NHL's Thurgood Marshall scholarships. It's not directly related to this article, but worth recognizing, considering what I've been writing about. Congratulations, Cassidy!