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HTOHP pt. 3: In Their Own Words

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After getting the opportunity to talk to several of the people helping to run and develop the teams and leagues for women and girls in central Ohio, I was also able to reach out to several women who are playing at various levels and ask them about their experiences, and what they feel about the future of the game, both locally and at the national level.

Photo from the CAHL Women's League skate / scrimmage
Photo from the CAHL Women's League skate / scrimmage
Matt Wagner

Back when I started this series, I said that getting a chance to give women's hockey more publicity in Columbus was important - and part of that isn't just me telling you it's out there, but giving the women who play a chance to talk about the game in their own words.

Thanks to friends, side connections, and the magic of twitter, I had the chance to talk to several, and wanted to share their voices.

If you follow the Blue Jackets on twitter, by blogs, or on Fox Sports Ohio  you know the name Alison Lukan. An insightful voice in the team's "blogosphere", she also does work with the Young Survivor Coalition and has been playing in the CAHL.

Nicole Marisa is a member of Toyota Directin the CAHL (among others - she actually plays or subs for several other teams on two different nights at the moment), and a former teammate of our own Dan P.

Sarah Riegel is a regular "Twitterati" following the team (and lots of other things going on in Columbus) from her account @Windingdot, and plays in the Women's League.

Steph Greegor is a freelance writer in the Columbus area who formerly covered the Jackets for the Other Paper before that publication's closure.

I want to thank each of their for their time and willingness to talk to me as part of  this series, and for their excellent answers!

1) How did you get started with hockey, and how long have you been playing?

Nicole:

I had a bit of a late start when it came to playing hockey; I started when I was 24, so about two years ago.  I fell in love with the sport when I was young, but never played; in my hometown, the opportunity did not exist for girls who wanted play youth hockey.  My grandpa was a season ticket holder for the now non-existent Johnstown Chiefs and would take me to a lot of games.  Of course, growing up in Western Pennsylvania I was, and still am, a rabid Penguins fan.   I did spend a lot of time skating at the local rink.  Friday night skates were really the only entertainment for pre-teens/teens in my town, so I became a decent skater.

I never had the opportunity to play until I moved here to Columbus.  A law school classmate’s brother and his friends were often talking about their rec league hockey games, so I looked in to it.  I was fairly new to the city and saw it as not only an opportunity to stay in shape, but also a place to meet people.

In January 2013 I contacted Martin Spanhel about playing and he put me in contact with a CAHL E-League team: the Jagrbombs (which I was a little unsure of being a bitter Pens fan).  I bought some gear and put it on for the first time at our first game of the session.  (Talk about jumping right in; I should have done a dry-run of the getting dressed part at home.)  I’ve been obsessed ever since and play as often as possible.

Alison:

I'd loved skating as a child, and then in 2012, I decided to take up the sport for real. My husband got me hockey skates for my birthday and, after taking my first "learn to skate" class with a bunch of children age 7 and under (talk about humbling) there was no looking back. I've been playing ever since - I do have to take off during the NHL hockey season so I find a couple hours to actually sleep :)

Full disclosure, I haven't played on one of the women's league teams although I have been invited. I personally like co-ed because it allows me to play with a team of players I know. It also is a big enough league that there's a path to develop your game and move up in skill level (the women's league is still too small to have different divisions).

As for the con's...well. Let's just say a guy checked me into the boards so hard one time (and yes, it's supposed to be a non-checking league) that I thought I might die. There was no penalty called by the way. :)


Steph:

I was introduced to hockey when I moved to Columbus eight years ago. As a reporter at The Other Paper, at the time, we weren't covering hockey, so I asked my editor if I could cover a Blue Jackets game. I immediately fell in love with the sport and it soon became a full-time beat for me, in addition to covering the cops and court beat, as well as cold cases. After a few seasons of learning the sport and the players, I felt like a journalist who was talking about a game she had never experienced. The only way to solve that problem was to put on a pair of skates and see for myself. So a few seasons in, I learned how to ice skate and then I joined an E-league team with the CAHL. I lasted about three games before I realized I had no business being on the ice. I don't play to this day, but I can tell you I respect the sport a lot more now, than before I tried and failed.

Sarah:

I got interested in hockey as a teenager in Cincinnati, watching NHL games on ESPN. I had some friends who ice skated on Sundays at Northland Ice Center and so I started going with them and learned to skate and play hockey - late 80s, early 90s. I played on and off over the years. I went to grad school in Canada and at one point was playing 4-5 times a week up there.

I moved back to Ohio in 2002 and kind of fell out of playing, with work and stuff and just generally being out of shape. From 2002 to 2010 I only ice skated a handful of times, never mind playing hockey.

When the women's league started up in 2010, I heard about it through a friend and decided to give it a try. So I've been back on the ice for five years after a long "retirement."

2)  How do you feel the community has grown in Columbus over the past five years? Do you think the prominence of women's hockey in the last two Olympic cycles has helped with that growth?

Steph:

I think support for the Blue Jackets has grown, particularly given how well the team performed in the playoffs last season. Because of the Blue Jackets and their support of the community, I think Columbus has seen overall growth in hockey, across the board. And, certainly for women, the U.S. women's hockey team has raised the visibility of the sport and what it means to females.

It does wonders portraying women as strong players who participate on the ice as competitors. Pro sports have long said to women, "You can be a part of our world if you wear a skimpy uniform and cheer for men." Olympic hockey and local female leagues help perpetuate a greater story that says, "Women can be part of this world as true competitors and athletes, as well as educated and loyal fans." And that's important on a level that goes far beyond just growing leagues. That's setting an example that grows a stronger generation of female competitors.

Sarah:

In women's league I think we've had more of an ebb and flow than steady growth. We started with four teams as an official CAHL league but were having trouble maintaining numbers. There were a lot of weeks where I'd end up playing in both games because teams were short, and we'd have only three D. That's when we moved to the more informal shinny set-up with three teams that you watched.

You know, I'm not sure if any of the women I play with got into because of seeing women's hockey in the Olympics, at least not that they've said. I think it's one of those things that adds growth in a more indirect way. A lot of women who start playing hockey as adults start out with their kids playing hockey, and then they decide to give it a try. So I think the more young girls who see women's hockey in the Olympics and want to start playing, their moms are potential players themselves.

Nicole:

I haven't been active in the hockey community here in Columbus for very long, but in the two years that I have been involved, I've noticed an increase in female participation at the adult league level. The women's locker room has become a lot more crowded on CAHL gamedays. There are several all women's teams playing in the coed CAHL leagues, and a lot of the teams have at least one woman on the team.

I think any time a women's sport gets media coverage, especially at the national level like the Olympics, you're going to see more women out trying that sport. I'd liken the recent prominence of women's hockey to the coverage of women's soccer around the time of the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup.

That team influenced many young girls to start playing soccer. The media coverage plays a huge role in increasing female participation in sports. With the media coverage of women's hockey at the Olympics, girls are able to watch a game that they have previously viewed as a male-dominated sport. They then want to play.

Additionally, I think many of the women playing in the CAHL have children playing at the youth level and the moms want to experience the game for themselves. It's not just a sport for dad and son to enjoy anymore; it's something the entire family can play at some level now.

Alison:

Any time the sport gets visibility it helps a little bit - and the Olympics, last year in particular, made a dent. But sadly it's a small dent.

If I'm optimistic I say that we don't see the impact of events like this for perhaps five years or longer. Women my age aren't always able to consider taking on hockey for the first time, and I haven't seen a significant uptick in attendance at Ohio State women's games nor at the CWHL level (although at least that story line is starting to get some attention).

Where things like the Olympics hopefully help is with the little girls who finally see themselves in the face of players like Kelli Stack, Julie Chu, AManda Kessel and Hilary Knight. THat's when buy-in to a sport happens - it makes the idea of playing hockey a real thing to girls who then say they want to play and follow through with that.

3) What do you see as the challenges in continuing to develop women's hockey here in town?

Sarah:

Time is the biggest issue. That's one of the reasons we've had a lot of people drop in and out of the women's league. Some people only play in the summer, or only in the winter. They have commitments with work and family and kids' activities and it can be hard to carve out the time to play hockey. Especially when a lot of women also play on co-ed CAHL teams or for the Columbus Capitals. There's only so much time in the week.

Of course, the time issue is compounded by the ice time issue. We've got a limited number of ice sheets in Columbus, and between kids hockey, CAHL, public skating, etc, ice times end up being pretty late, especially in the winter. It's hard to play hockey at 10pm and then get up the next day for work.

The other big challenge we've had specifically in women's league is how to incorporate different skill levels and keep everyone satisfied. We have women who have just started skating and playing hockey, and others who played club at Ohio State and are highly skilled. You want it to be fun for the more skilled players, but not so fast and competitive that it turns off beginners. That's one reason we adopted the first line/second line structure that Lisa probably explained to you. Without the critical mass of women playing to have teams or leagues at different levels like in the wider CAHL, that's a challenge.

And of course, money is always an issue in hockey. Equipment is expensive, ice time is expensive. That can be a barrier to someone who wants to try it out. When I played in grad school in Canada, you could borrow equipment from the rink free with your student card, and that allowed a lot of people (men & women) who had never played before to try it out. I know you can't really take a model from an on-campus rink and transfer it to a for-profit rink like the Chiller, but I think anything that could give people the chance to try it out before they lay out hundreds of dollars on equipment would be good.

Nicole:

Women's hockey will face a lot of the same challenges that most other women's sports encounter. Finding ice time to practice, lack of community support, and limited amounts of media coverage are a few of the challenges that exist when it comes to developing women's hockey.

There aren't many youth girls programs in the area, so that would require a lot of travel to play other girls teams. That takes time and money. Unfortunately, the girls' programs aren't going to have the same financial backing that the boys' programs may have.

Alison:

Well the program certainly isn't at a lack for support. I can't compliment the Chiller, Martin Spanhel and the CAHL enough for their continuous encouragement, feeding and coaching support for women who play hockey. I have learned so much from James Nash and Martin and these guys don't care if you're a guy or a girl, they want to grow the game.

The challenges come at the point of entry. First, hockey is expensive. It's a lot of gear, and there's a set of basic skills one needs ot have to start playing - so you either teach yourself how to skate/pass/stick handle or you have to fit one of the classes from the Chiller (which are excellent by the way) into your schedule.

Also, and I think this goes for any new experience hockey or otherwise, we as women who do play need to do a better job of encouraging and supporting other women to come out. To join a team - particularly if you choose to play co-ed - where you know noone is intimidating.

One thing I know the CBJ has looked into is extending their "Hockey 'n' Heels" program to include on-ice work. I think that would be a huge door opening. I still talk to women (and men!) who don't know women can play either in the CAHL women's league or co-ed league.

Another HUGE part of this puzzle is local school systems buying in to offering the sport. High school age girls have only one option if they wish to play for "their school" and that's to "join the boys team".

And, ultimately, the challenge lies in each of us women to say "heck yes, I want to try it - let me find a place to try it where I feel comfortable!"

Steph:

The challenge for women's hockey is the same as any sport, male or female - does it make money and where do they go once they develop? Case in point, check out this recent article on Hilary Knight and her Boston team:

I think many people want to support women's sports and want to see it grow, but there's a huge difference between wanting it and actually putting people in the seats who will use their expendable income to pay for a ticket and all the extras at the game. And that's a challenge for any sport.

The bottom line is, sports are a business, like any other business. And businesses have to make money. If you've got $200 to spend on tickets, and you live in Columbus, which tickets do you buy on a Saturday in October when the Buckeyes, the Blue Jackets, the Crew and a women's hockey team are playing? Now, women's hockey in Columbus can continue to develop without those things, but the overarching issue goes right back to the Hilary Knight article - we can develop them, but then where do they go?

The development for women's hockey has to be bottom-up AND top-down. We need to broaden women's opportunities to develop, which I think we're doing in Columbus, but then we also need more places for women to aspire to once they're done at the high school, collegiate or Olympic level.

4) We're starting to see a more professional women's league take off in the form of the CWHL (and since this series began, the newly announced NWHL). Do you think Columbus might eventually be able to support a team here, and do you think there would be a strong interest in seeing a higher level of the women's game locally?

Alison:

I wish I could say yes, but sadly I cannot. Financially it's just not yet viable.

Steph:

There will always be interest if they're a competitive, winning product.

Sarah:

Possibly. I'll admit, I'm a women's hockey fan, and every year I have the best of intentions to go watch the Ohio State women's team, and in the 11 years I've lived in Columbus, I've only gone to a handful of games, all times they were playing against one of my alma maters. So we could probably be doing more to support the high level women's hockey we already have in Columbus.

The Canadian and US national teams played an exhibition here at Nationwide before the 2006 Olympics and that was reasonably well-attended, so it's possible if the CWHL came here and was tied to the Olympic teams and names people know, that might turn out people who won't go to Ohio State games.

Nicole:

It's sort of difficult to say whether or not Columbus would support a women's professional team here when there aren't any other women's professional teams in the area (that I'm aware). Unfortunately, I'd tend to lean towards it having very little support.

If you look at the men's professional teams in the city now, the support isn't there for those teams. Unless it's Buckeyes football, teams in Columbus have trouble filling the seats. Look at the Blue Jackets. Unless certain teams are visiting, there are a lot of empty seats at Nationwide. Until football season is over, the Blue Jackets are an afterthought for most. You can still find people in Columbus that don't even know there is a NHL team here in town.

Women's sports historically do not get the support necessary to be successful. Look at the other women's professional sports leagues. How many people care about the WNBA? Women's professional soccer shut down for a few years due to lack of support and finances. Given the lack of support for the already existing professional hockey team and the lack of interest in general for women's sports, it will be a struggle for a women's professional hockey team to find support in Columbus.

5) What do you think women's hockey will look like in the next five to ten years?

Sarah:

I would expect the skill level to keep getting better, as more girls who have grown up playing the game and played minor hockey at a high level start playing adult hockey. Hopefully there will still be room for newbies, though.

Nicole:

I expect participation to increase at the youth and adult level.

I foresee more Columbus area girls having an opportunity to play at the collegiate and, hopefully, national level because of the growth of the youth programs.

Columbus is quickly becoming a hockey town. Boys youth hockey is beginning to catch up with some of the other successful youth hockey programs around the country. With support from the media and the Columbus hockey community, I fully expect girls youth hockey to do the same.

Alison:

I honestly have no idea. the pessimist in me fears even the CWHL goes the way of women's professional soccer. The optimist in me hopes that the existing teams become financially viable and expansion starts to become a serious consideration.

Locally - I do believe you'll see more and more girls and women playing. And the games will become more frequent and more accessible. I liken it to when I played lacrosse in high school. We were one of four teams in central Ohio and drove all over New York and Pennsylvania to just find another team to play - now it seems that every high school has a program and there are games happening close to home. That not only makes it easier for the players, but the community "Sees" it more - they have awareness these games are happening. That's a huge part of the culture shift that is needed, in my opinion.

Finally, I had to ask Alison and Steph: has playing the game changed how they covered the Blue Jackets as a writer?

Steph:

Playing hockey for me was an opportunity to step into the skates of the team I was covering.

I wanted to make myself a more compassionate writer by being able to understand, at a basic level, what the players were experiencing. I've always been athletic and competitive, so that part I got, but the technical aspects of ice skating and playing hockey were all new to me.

For starters, I didn't know about that whole toe pick thing - hockey skates are definitely a different animal than figure skates. And just ice skating itself is hard enough, let alone having to perform the athletic maneuvers required by ice hockey players.

I always respected the ice skating athletes but I certainly am no longer ignorant to the nuanced skill that's required of them. I would challenge any athlete to attempt their sport on ice and then go watch a hockey game. It certainly changes ones perspective for the better.

Alison:

I hate to sound cliche, but honestly, the first time I fell and had to get back up in gear my whole perspective changed. The amount of physical skill and strength required to do things that professional athletes make look so simple is astounding.

In my opinion, hockey may be the most difficult sport there is and I didn't know that until I started to play. The balance, hand eye coordination, core strength, body movement / control needed are simply astounding. What NHL and CWHL players do on the ice is nothing short of miraculous. Even if it's just getting up after going down on the ice.

I've also developed an appreciation for how the game "looks" to a player. We all spend the majority of our time watching games on our tv's or from a seat that is raised up from ice level.

We don't understand why players don't "make that pass" or "take that shot" - I mean it looks obvious - it's right there! But when you see what the game looks from eye level, you have a whole new perspective, and that's not even taking into consideration the speed. When you know how hard you are working and see how SLOW you are compared to a professional player? You understand the lens you must apply to the plays and decisions you see from the bench.

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What started as "hm, I wonder if people would be interested in the CWHL in Columbus" a little more than a month ago grew into this series. It revealed how broad the community of women who enjoy and share this sport has become, and how much potential it has to keep growing, and I am so grateful to everyone who was willing to take the time to speak with me on the phone, over email, or in person to help make it happen.

For what it's worth, I do think that if the CWHL or NWHL continue to grow, and they received partnership and support from the Blue Jackets (as the CWHL teams in Calgary and Montreal receive from the Flames and Canadiens), they could be a success here - but as others have said, we aren't there yet, and it may be five, perhaps even ten years before we really know if those leagues will be a real success.

If there's anything that working on this series has shown me, it's how strong the women's game is, and how passionate those who are involved with it are. The sport is here, the players have arrived, and they will not be going away.