FYI Multimedia

Girl hockey players a passionate, small sisterhood in KC

Updated: 2009-02-09T10:34:27Z

By LISA GUTIERREZ

The Kansas City Star

Loud, giggly girls clomp around in their rented skates at a party at Ice Midwest. Someone’s celebrating a birthday, and the girls have come for a free skate.

Tiny Spencer Berard trudges through the commotion like Moses. In one hand, her hockey stick. The other pulls 15 pounds of hockey gear stuffed into a bag almost as tall as she is.

The wispy 10-year-old, wearing shorts on one of this January’s bitterest days, slogs down the hall to a smelly locker room. There she joins 10 boys and one other girl getting dressed for their Saturday night game.

One by one the dads arrive. Some seem to just want to hang out and hear the coach talk hockey. Some come to help their sons lace up their skates.

The coach is Spencer’s dad, Canadian-born Mike Berard. He doesn’t help Spencer tie up the girly, baby-blue laces on her black skates; she’s been lacing up her own since she was 3.

Her team, the Kansas City Stars, was supposed to take the ice for a game at 7:45 p.m.; it’s closing in on 8:15. The game before theirs ran late.

Finally …

“We got five minutes and then it’s game on,” Mike Berard announces to the room, now crowded with little boys, big boys and a whole lot of testosterone.

One dad pulls open the door to leave and calls out, “Skate hard, boys!”Oops.

“And girls,” he quickly corrects himself.

Over in the corner, Spencer’s female teammate mumbles under her breath.

“… always forgets the girls.”

It does a body good

The girls on ice are a passionate but very small sisterhood in Kansas City.

They play hockey with the boys, dressing in the same locker rooms, suffering the same contusions and concussions.

They play hockey with the men, using the same locker rooms, suffering the same broken fingers and rib cages.

They’re so scarce that guys usually don’t believe Wenonah Bird when she tells them she plays hockey. The 31-year-old Canadian-born mom and college student plays on three coed teams in KC.

“I like to wear makeup. I like to wear heels,” says Bird, who now lives in Lawrence. “You’d never suspect I play hockey.”

Face it. When it comes to hockey, Kansas City is not Detroit or Cleveland or Chicago, where it’s more common to see girls strap on hockey skates before they know how to add and subtract.

Hockey is said to be one of the fastest-growing women’s sports at the collegiate level, but you’d never know it in Kansas City, miles from any major school that even offers the sport for women. We have no NHL team. Transplanted Canadians get their fix by playing recreational hockey, coaching their kids’ teams and subscribing to NHL Center Ice to watch games on television through iN Demand.

Girls here who dream of hockey greatness suffer a geographical disadvantage, which is why some move to hockey-friendly schools generally north and east of here. Local organizers struggle to put together competitive all-girl teams. Girls and women who want to play with others who possess the XX chromosomes often wind up driving and flying to more hockey-centric cities on the weekends to do it.

Spencer Berard convinced her parents that she was serious about playing three years ago when she wore her brother’s hockey gear — helmet and all — to the dinner table at Thanksgiving. Even though the Overland Park fifth-grader says she finds Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers annoying, she’s no tomboy. She doesn’t quite feel like “one of the boys.”

“No one really picks me as their partner,” she says. “Boys get along really well. I think it’s different because I’m a girl.”

So hockey remains largely a man’s world in Kansas City, where sightings of girls in hockey pads are so rare that crowds sometimes go berserk when the lone girl dumps the puck into the net.

“It’s definitely a unique area to have hockey, for sure,” says Andrea Trupp of Topeka, manager of the Kansas City Storm girls teams that play at Ice Sports in Shawnee. “It’s like you go out and turn rocks over, and along the way you find girls who are interested.”

Trupp’s 13-year-old daughter, Mariah, plays for the Storm. She learned the game when she was 3 after she became fascinated watching the former Topeka Scarecrows minor-league team play.

Trupp and her husband, both of whom played sports in high school, figured Mariah would move on to “traditional” sports when she got older. It hasn’t happened yet and, at her Catholic grade school, Mariah is the only girl who plays hockey.

“Heaven forbid (she’d) play a sport that you can play in the state of Kansas, let alone in the city of Topeka,” Trupp says, laughing.

So what attracts the passionate few to the game here? What prompted 8-year-old girls and 50-something women alike to sign up for hockey lessons at Ice Midwest last year, which organizers hope signals a trend?

“I think some of it is the simple uniqueness of it and the challenge of going fast on two blades of metal,” Trupp says. “I think there’s some challenge to that. It’s probably no different from why most girls would want to do any sport.”

There’s that. And women who play recreational hockey don’t mind one bit how skating fast while lugging a hockey stick around the ice keeps their arms and shoulders and legs toned and strong.

Wenonah Bird credits the sport with her strong leg muscles, which come in handy when she dances at Native American powwows.

“When you first walk into a rink, it’s freezing cold. But when you’re on the ice, you’re nothing but sweat,” Bird says. “I’ve burned so many calories playing hockey, I love it. I have girlfriends who say, ‘How can you eat so much?’ Hockey!”

Anything he can do …

S

ometimes when Morgann Madill needs to dress for hockey practice at Line Creek Community Center in the Northland, she puts a sign on the door of one of the locker rooms next to the rink.

Women only.

It takes her more than 20 minutes to get ready. Everything gets pulled on, strapped on, stuck on and tied on in orderly layers. The pads. The socks. The thick, foamy shorts. All to protect her body from missile-fast pucks searching for skin to bruise and bones to break.All suited up, the Platte City High School freshman looms large. Her 14-year-old shoulders look wide as a linebacker’s under her pads. She stands more than 3 inches taller in her black Reebok ice hockey skates, a $450 birthday gift from Grandma.

Morgann: Warrior Princess.

She’s hockey royalty, the daughter of former NHL right winger Jeff Madill. Morgann is one of a handful of girls in the area who skate at levels considered elite for their age groups.

“She never takes a shift off,” says her father. “She’s 100 miles an hour.”

That there are that many talented girl players in town right now is unusual, says the Storm’s Trupp, who credits the boomlet partly to a surge of interest created by the Kansas City Blades, who played at Kemper Arena in the 1990s.

Jeff Madill, who now coaches kids’ hockey in town, calls his daughter a late-bloomer because she didn’t start playing until she was 7. That sounds harsh, but you’d expect that from a man born in Ontario with a proverbial hockey stick in his mouth. But Morgann’s interest in hockey was piqued when she watched her little brother play.

“I didn’t like sitting in the stands watching,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘I think I can be better than my brother.’ ”

Truth is, young girls can often skate faster and better than young boys.

Truth is, young boys hate being bested by young girls.

Some really hate it.

Morgann has heard the whispers:

“Ten dollars to hit the girl.”

The ponytailed target

W

hen they’re on the ice, hidden under pads, faces covered with helmets, the girls look just like the boys.

Except for the hair.

Sometimes it flows unfettered down their backs; other times it sticks out from under their helmets in ponytails.

The ponytails can make them targets for that rare boy behaving badly.

Wenonah Bird used to tuck her hair under her helmet so opponents wouldn’t know that she was the only woman in the game.

“There’s always that one guy that doesn’t like girls,” she says. “They’ll try to discourage you from being on the ice. They might trip you or hurt you on the ice so you don’t get back up.”

But after a family member told her to stop being ashamed of who she was, Bird bought a pink hockey stick and pink gloves.

“The boys are kind of rough, and sometimes they’re kind of mean to girls,” Morgann says. She says she has been slammed into the boards, hit in the head and called nasty names by boys on the ice.

“It kind of makes me mad that they feel that way,” she says. “There’s no difference between me and the boys.”

Hockey mom Julie Young recently saw a boy deliberately elbow one of her 13-year-old daughter Jessica’s female teammates in the head. Was it just a part of the game or something else?

“Maybe he would have done that to a boy, but when it’s so deliberate like that, you wonder,” Young says.

Last spring Jessica and her brother played on the same team.

“Somebody took my daughter down, and my son … it was the first time I’ve ever seen him retaliate against someone for hurting her,” Young says. “It was clear to the kid: ‘Don’t mess with my sister.’ ”

Girls will be girls

J

essica Young’s teachers at Indian Hills Middle School in Prairie Village are used to marking her absent one or two Fridays every month during the hockey season.

She plays on an elite girls’ traveling team that draws its members from across the country. (Morgann Madill also plays on the team.)

By 9 a.m. on a travel Friday, Jessica and either her mom or dad are on a plane leaving Kansas City International Airport, off to Cleveland or Detroit or Toronto or some other hockey town for a weekend tournament. The trips are physically grinding and expensive to boot — sometimes as much as $1,000 a trip.

“Most of the time you fly in on a Friday, you have a Friday night game, a couple of games on Saturday and a couple on Sunday,” says Julie Young. “Her last tournament in Detroit, they played seven games in a 40-hour period. They were exhausted.”

All three of Young’s sons — ages 5, 10 and 15 — play hockey, but Jessica’s habit is by far the most expensive, because she has to travel to find a game. She took figure-skating lessons when she was 3, but, tomboy that she is, Jessica didn’t want to wear the fancy girlie costumes.

Instead she wanted to play hockey like her older brother.

“We said, ‘Go right ahead,’ ” Julie Young says. “I never hesitated.”

During the week Jessica plays on coed teams. Though some don’t want to believe there are any differences between the boys and the girls, there are.

The girls, for one thing, tend to be more social in their approach to the game. Julie Young says that when girls are with each other, “they are silly,” pulling antics like zipping themselves into their giant equipment bags.

“It’s almost like you’re sitting there going, ‘Are you really getting ready to go out and play a hockey game?’ ” she says.

For the girls, especially at their weekend tournaments, what happens off the ice — like hanging out in the hotel lobby making jewelry — is just as important as what happens on, says Trupp.

“The game is good and fine, and when they’re on the ice they’re as competitive as they can be,” Trupp says. “But when they step off the ice, you’ll find them in the lobby … with kids from other teams, socializing. My daughter has friends from teams all over the U.S.”

Bruises to show for it

N

o. 22 flies across the ice, blond hair flapping above the red numbers on her white jersey, $1,000 worth of hockey gear on her back.

She reaches the puck and shoves it across the ice to a teammate who dumps it into the net with a wicked slap shot.

Defeated, the goalie slaps the net with his stick in disgust. Near center ice, 46-year-old Barbara Roland — No. 22 — earns a fist-bump from another teammate for a great assist.

Roland plays hockey with both the guys and the “gals,” as she calls them. She belongs to a women’s traveling team based in St. Louis called the Hericanes.

On this night, past 10 p.m. at Ice Midwest, she’s playing in her regular Thursday pick-up game with the guys — engineers, journalists, salesmen, attorneys among them.

Adults skate late at night, the only time the ice is free of kids’ hockey and figure-skating. The grown-ups play like it’s recess. No one keeps score. The shussssing of skates braking and the hard clacking of sticks on the ice pierce the quiet in the big, cold, empty arena. It sounds like Canada.

Tonight Roland is the only woman on the ice. It’s a familiar position for her — she’s also the only full-time woman on the Westwood police department.

She started playing hockey 10 years ago when her then-husband’s roller hockey team decided to switch to ice hockey. The team asked her to play, and because she’d never been on ice skates, she took a class at Ice Sports in Shawnee.

In the decade that she’s played, Roland has rarely run into men who resent her presence on the ice, especially not in this group, a league whose organizer goes out of his way to choose members who will follow a “let’s-get-along” approach to playing.

Roland’s gender “never comes into your conscience when you’re playing,” Scott Crouse says. The paper salesman from Prairie Village makes sure to mention how Roland cut him on the lip with her stick during one game.

Hockey hurts. There’s no getting around it. Though kids’ teams and adult teams adhere to a “no-checking” rule — that means no slamming your body into someone else’s — “that doesn’t mean it’s no-contact,” says Roland. “And we’ve all got our bruises to show.”

Julie Young says daughter Jessica has never had any significant injuries. Oh, except for that concussion she got when she flew into the boards awhile back.

“It was a bad one,” she says. “She was having headaches for a while after.”

Wenonah Bird shrugs off her “couple of concussions. You rest for a while and take your time.”

The split rib cage hurt more.

“Three or four of us collided, and one of the big guys fell on me,” Bird says. “Two days later I took myself to the hospital. I couldn’t breathe. The doctor asked if I’d been in an accident. I said no. Then I told him I play hockey.”

Roland admits that her pastime gives pause to her supervisors on the police force, who tell her to be careful out there.

Maybe they worry because of that one time a puck hit her glove, breaking her finger and relegating her to light duty for a while. She’s also sprained her ankle, injured her knee and, man, where do all those weird bruises come from?

No matter. Even though Roland grew up in Texas before Dallas ever heard of the Stars, Roland is addicted and she’s not giving up the game.

“I wish I would have started when I was a kid,” she says. “You can tell the women who came up skating. Their talent level is amazing.

“And watching these girls’ teams play? It’s amazing to see how talented they are at this age. You just want to go out and shake them and say, ‘You’ve got a great chance!’ ”

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send e-mail to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

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