Ready for Prime Time
By Chris Julin
February 5, 2001
It turns out girls can play hockey. Some old-timers were doubtful when the first girls high school teams took to the ice six years ago. Some folks chuckled at girls who wobbled on their skates and goalies who fell down when they saw the puck coming.
But across Minnesota, thousands of girls traded in their figure skates for hockey skates. They went to hockey camps and goalie schools. This year, 120 Minnesota high schools have girls hockey teams. Today, two-thirds of the girls playing high school hockey in the entire country live in Minnesota.
Learn more about girl's hockey in MPR's online slideshow focusing on the Cloquet team. You'll need a fast Internet connection to view the show.
A SMALL HERD OF HELMETED HOCKEY PLAYERS, stuffed into their pads, tears around an indoor ice rink, cutting sharp turns, and slapping pucks. Three coaches tweet whistles and holler directions as the skaters weave up and down the ice. It's a familiar enough scene to many Minnesotans. But then your eye catches a pony tail trailing out from a helmet, and your ear catches a voice.
Just five years ago, one glance would have told you these are girls - from the way they skated, the way they held their bodies. But today, even to a practiced eye, these are just hockey players doing a drill.
Ninth-grader Tamara Price flashes a smile through her wire face mask, and races away when the whistle blows.
Another ninth-grader, Whitney Roe, is leaning against the boards.
I just like the aggression pretty much. I just love to hit people, and I'm not tall but I'm pretty strong," she says.
Roe played boys hockey for years, like several of her teammates, because there wasn't a girls team in Cloquet. When the girls team started three years ago, Roe joined up. She got a lot of penalties at first. Girls rules allow for plenty of pushing and shoving, but don't allow the players to smash each other into the boards.
"I've adjusted, and it's really fun because you can joke around with them in the locker room, and it's fun to be with girls," Roe says.
Some of the girls still think about playing on the boys team. Captain Danae Olean starting playing on boys teams in fifth grade. She remembers going to watch an early girls high school game when she was still in middle school.
"They were horrible," she recalls. "I told myself, I swore to myself that I'd never play girls hockey, and here I am."
Olean says the girls game has gotten much faster, and more physical, which she likes. But with a wistful look, she says she might have been able to play on the boys varsity team.
Olean is a sturdy five-foot-three, but some of those boys she used to play with are over six feet. She thinks for a moment, and says she's glad there's a girls team.
Most of these girls would never have played hockey if Cloquet hadn't started the girls team. Tenth-grader Steph Gassert says she almost didn't get to play on the girls team.
"My parents didn't like it at first. My mom was like, 'No way.' My brother played, and he got his teeth knocked out, and it was too dangerous, but my dad was like, 'Oh I think it would be a good idea; I think it would be really fun,' so he talked my mom into it," says Gassert.
Now, Gassert says, her mom and dad are diehard fans.
In the locker room, the girls crank up the stereo and pull a curtain across the changing area. As with most girls hockey teams, the Cloquet coaches are men. Head coach Dick Bartholdi started teaching social studies and coaching boys hockey at Cloquet High School 30 years ago. When the school started a girls team, he took over - thanks, in part, to his daughter Brigitte.
We had her in figure skating, and one day we were riding home in the car in July, and she said, 'I want to play hockey.' And of course I don't have any sons, and I'm a hockey coach, so my heart soared like a hawk at that point," says Bartholdi.
That was five years ago. Brigitte Bartholdi is now in ninth grade, and plays on the Cloquet team.
Dick Bartholdi says the Cloquet girls took some flak when they first got going. A few people complained that the girls were taking valuable ice time away from boys. A few said girls weren't cut out to play hockey. Bartholdi didn't buy it.
"My mother played hockey for the Duluth Library Wildcats in 1929, and I have the picture to prove it. And so there were women who wanted to play in the '20s, but they weren't allowed to. It was discrimination - or whatever you want to call it - against girls. They've always wanted to play."
Girls hockey is starting to catch on with fans. At last year's state tournament, the girls championship game drew 1,000 spectators. But about 15,000 watched the boys. In the hockey-crazy towns of northern Minnesota, boys teams frequently fill small arenas to standing room, but last month, the Cloquet girls played Greenway of Coleraine in front of 150 fans. That's about typical for a girls hockey game.
The future looks bright for Cloquet girls hockey. This year's team includes only one senior, and a dozen girls in ninth grade or younger. In spite of their youth, they finished the season with a strong winning record. Now they're looking to the playoffs - and beyond.
Team captain Danae Olean has one more year of high school.
"I hope to get a full ride scholarship to college. I don't know where, but I'd like to," she says.
Cloquet and Greenway played to a 2-2 tie last month, and they'll play again in the first round of sectional playoffs, the first step on the path to the girls high school hockey state tournament.
Chris Julin covers northern Minnesota for Minnesota's Public Radio's Mainstreet unit. Reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org