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Women's Hockey in North Carolina

Womenís hockey has grown over the past 5 years. The US Womenís team is one of the best in the world. Hailey Wickenheiser became the first skater to play in a Menís league. Clearly the game of Womenís Ice Hockey is on its way up. This week we take a look at the Womenís game in NC.

Womenís hockey continues to grow throughout the US. North Carolina is no exception. There are thriving Womenís hockey programs in every corner of the State West of Interstate 95. In Raleigh, the NC Trailblazers shines as an example of how Womenís hockey can grow, if given enough ice to do it. In Charlotte, there are enough players for a team, but it does not exist as the a formal organization, while in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point, known as the Triad, the Triad Thunder have a growing organization gaining traction in the area.

HockeyCat sent out to members of these organizations in an effort to understand the issues that affect them. While doing research, HockeyCat also discovered that there is more to the story. To that end, we will run future articles about Girls only teams in NC, VA and points south and take a look at the women who put on the stripes and get out and referee in what has traditionally been a manís field.

HockeyCat asked Autumn Dickert of Charlotte, Nancy Sawicki and Lise Bisson of the Triad Thunder a series of questions. This article will take a look at the challenges these women and others like them face playing what is traditionally viewed as a Manís game.

A question a lot of people ask South of the Border and especially South of the Mason-Dixon Line is why do these women do it? The answer comes down to this. The same reasons men do: Exercise, enjoyment, love of the game, because hockey is one of the most physically and mentally demanding sports in the world. Nothing against sports that take place on dry land, but try hitting something while balancing on 2 thin metal blades, it ainít easy.

Also, the excitement of Olympics and the success of the US Womenís program has a lot to do with women seeing that they cannot only play the game, but play it well. In the South, there is a Hockey tradition, contrary to conventional wisdom. However, playing the sport is new to men and women in North Carolina. But North Carolina is also home to four major growth areas, The Triangle (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill), The Triad, Charlotte and Wilmington. These areas have brought in people from all over the US (what seems like a large number from places like Upstate New York, Pittsburgh and Ohio, as well as a growing Canadian population with companies like Nortel).

These transplants brought with them the love of the game. Lise Bisson of the Triad Thunder is one of those Canadian transplants. She says, "I started playing about 5 years ago after growing up in Canada and always watching the sport, watching my sons play and spending endless hours sitting in rinks."

Triad Thunder Women's Hockey
Nancy Sawicki, also of the Triad Thunder started on "Motherís Day 2001 and hasnít looked back since." In Charlotte, Autumn Dickert "started playing nine years ago after seeing a hockey game."

Many people see the womenís game as being different from menís. There is a feeling among the women HockeyCat surveyed that the Womenís Game is a little slower and a little more relaxed. However, HockeyCat has seen a few womenís games and they are definitely as intense as some Menís games. There is a more collegial feel to them, but you also see that in some higher level menís games where the players know and respect one another.

There is a feeling among the Womenís Teams that they are "low on the totem pole" or an afterthought. Ms. Dickert feels there is another problem: "I feel it is money. There are tons of recreational groups, but hockey really is the most expensive of them all. Itís just easier [for women] to play co-ed at $240 for fifteen games than to fork out $15/20 an hour for each practice."

From a scheduling perspective, women have a harder time getting practice slots, because they are competing with the House Leagues, Travel Associations, Figure Skating and the other groups demanding ice time. Like any other resource, the larger groups will get first pick and then whatever is left goes to the smaller ones.

Another factor that hurts recruitment is the lack of opportunities for girls to play, especially in NC. There are a few Regional Teams, but by in large girls have limited opportunities to play competitive hockey with other girls. Youth organizations are primarily geared toward boys and girls have to drive much farther to play quality hockey. Chances are girls that are good at hockey are also good at school sports, like soccer, basketball, field hockey and lacrosse (in some schools) and those sports seem to have more opportunities for girls to play in High School and beyond.

HockeyCat will take a closer look at the opportunities for girls to play competitive hockey in another report.

One of the hardest things for women to do is play in Menís Leagues. HockeyCat has seen first hand talented male players ring a shot off a woman goalieís head. Other players seem to feel that some teammates are less likely to pass to them. However, the general feeling is that most men will accept a woman hockey player, if she proves herself. Of course, the same can be said at every level where the players know one another and a new player of either sex is introduced.

Hockey Directors offer different levels of support that vary from rink to rink. In Charlotte, the Hockey Director receives high marks from Ms. Dickert for his support of Womenís hockey. The Triangle Sportsplex also worked to put on a Summer Womenís League in 2004 with mixed results. In most cases it comes down to supply and demand.

NC Trailblazers Women's Hockey
In places like Raleigh where ice is plentiful by North Carolina standards, the NC Trailblazers have an easier time getting ice times than most organizations around the state. HockeyCat has spoken with several people who cannot understand why there are not more rinks in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Both places have competitive youth ice hockey programs and adult leagues with high participation.

Even the arrival of the Winston-Salem Polar Twins has not changed the policy of Winston-Salem pulling up the ice for over a month for traditional events. Both men and women are interested in seeing this situation change.

From the rinks perspective it is simple economics. Most womenís groups have one or two teams and need a few hours of ice per month. Recreational Leagues and House Adult Programs are much bigger customers. More ice would give rinks more opportunities to run creative programs for women and girls. Or in the case of Winston-Salem, simply acknowledging the need for ice year round would be a great start.

When asked about how to get more girls playing hockey. There was a unanimous belief that USA Hockey needs to do a better job of promoting the game to girls in the south. Ms. Bisson finds that "Ice hockey is still viewed as a boysí sport." USA Hockey has done an excellent job of promoting the womenís game, but Ms. Bisson and the other women interviewed feel there is still more work to be done.

With Defensemen, Angela Ruggiero of the US Womenís Team playing well for the Tulsa Oilers notching an assist† and finishing plus 2 just a few days ago (click here for the story from the Detroit Free Press), there is an excellent opportunity to promote the sport of ice hockey to women, by simply getting girls to go see games. A Womenís Team charity tour in non-traditional markets would be a good first step, especially while the men arenít playing at the NHL level.

With all of the obstacles HockeyCat wanted to know why these women play the game. Ms. Bisson put it simply, "The thrill of it all!"

E-mail HockeyCat for more information about reaching hockey families all over the world.


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