The Original Trailblazers circa 1995
No organization stands as a better example of the success of Women’s hockey than the North Carolina Trailblazers. Starting by a handful of women in 1995, the NC Trailblazers have grown to over 68 members ranging in age from 16-48 playing on 3 different teams in the Triangle.
Click here to visit the NC Trailblazers website
From the State Games
Even with this success there are still a number of challenges the Trailblazers, like all women’s hockey programs face. The biggest challenge is availability and cost of ice according to Trailblazers's Officials. "For many years, getting a rink to give us practice ice time at all was a major problem."
Today, the Trailblazers have found support from the Hockey Directors at both the RecZone in Raleigh and at the Triangle Sportsplex in Hillsborough, but there is still the number one problem facing all of hockey: the cost. "Ice time costs are constantly rising and weed out a lot of potential skaters. [The Trailblazers] get no break on the cost of ice time."
As was noted in the January 27, 2005 HockeyCat article about Women’s Hockey (click here
for link), women’s hockey still struggles for public acceptance. While the Trailblazers have been successful at competing at the B, C and D level, some people remain unconvinced. One Trailblazer notes: "I think a lot of people (including my apprehensive parents) view all hockey as portrayed by the NHL – people being thrown into
the boards with no teeth left."
In a sense the Trailblazers are like many of the Elite youth programs that HockeyCat talks with on a regular basis. Women’s hockey has been put in a special category and the biggest problem is not selling hockey to the players, but overcoming the stereotypes of hockey players that are promoted by the NHL, team owners in smaller markets and others outside of hockey with a limited understanding of the sport and the hockey community. "My commercial would show the fun, the laughs, the fitness benefits, the travel and the camaraderie," according to the Trailblazers Team Officials.
The level of ice hockey being played by women has improved dramatically over the years. Sticks have become lighter, equipment both lighter and more protective and manufacturers now make at least some attempt to make hockey skates and other protective gear for women.
There have been several instances of women playing in professional leagues. The most recent being USA Women’s National Team Defenseman, Angela Ruggiero putting up an Assist and going plus 2 for the Tulsa Oilers (click here for story from the Detroit Free Press). The obvious question: Can women play the pro game?
The Trailblazers think so: “There is no reason why they should not have the opportunity. Every player [man or woman] accepts the risks that come with the game.” She also notes that “it may even broaden the fan base.” Given that hockey has one of the highest percentages of female fans, this could only help in a post Lockout world.
Even with its success, the Trailblazers still suffer from recruitment problems. These problems have hit many hockey programs, but they become especially large in smaller organizations. Some of the factors affecting recruitment are that "many women don’t know the opportunity exists or they believe that they must already be very competitive to join a women’s hockey organization. [Some] may feel intimidated that hockey is too rough. [The Trailblazers] welcome all players regardless of experience." One benefit that the Trailblazers have is that they have volunteer coaches, who create a "supportive playing environment."
One of the special challenges facing women’s hockey is keeping young women from 16-25 involved in the sport. While it is common to see father’s playing in the Summer Adult programs with 14-18 year old sons, this right of passage is not always available to women due to the lack of playing opportunities and House Leagues. As the Trailblazers continue to grow, it is possible that these leagues could form during the summer season. Attempts so far have met with mixed results.
The Trailblazers make an effort to reach out to girls playing hockey by opening up their practices to girls 14 and up. While insurance and liability issues preclude having them on travel with the club, the extra ice time and instruction can be invaluable to a rising hockey player. There are women on the Trailblazers who played in College and on High School teams and can help young woman learn more about the opportunities to keep playing hockey.
When asked what one thing that could be done to get more girls playing hockey,Trailblazer Officials have a simple answer: "More and better marketing. I wish I could portray the gentler version of the sport to girls and women who may want to play recreationally."
Clearly, the consistent growth of the NC Trailblazers and the success of their program is something that can and should be copied by other smaller men’s, youth and women’s organizations. These dedicated women have come together to build one of the strongest women’s programs in North Carolina, if not the entire Southeastern region.