It’s the type of summer day that people dream about to make it through the harsh Minnesota winters.
A slow but steady stream of SUVs and minivans turn up the road that leads to the Thaler Sports Center in the Twin Cities suburb of Mound and into a nearly empty parking lot.
Moms in their summer attire make that all-too familiar trek up the sidewalk, past the empty ball fields and vacant tennis courts, and on into the rink, just as they do a thousand times during the hockey season. This time something’s different. Rather than heading straight for the coffee machine or a familiar perch in the bleachers, these women make a beeline for the locker room, with stick and hockey bag in tow.
It’s their turn to play.
The Changing Face Of Motherhood
In all the years “Leave It To Beaver” has been on the air, in both prime time and syndication, June Cleaver never strayed far from the front door of her house on 211 Pine St. She never seemed to stray far from the kitchen, for that matter. She never had to drive Wally to hockey practice or organize a carpool to get Beaver to a tournament in another town.
But then again, motherhood has changed with the times, just as televisions have made the transformation from black & white to high definition. The days of the one-size fits all frock and apron have given way to super moms who juggle careers, families and so much more.
As the number of girls playing hockey continues to be the fastest growing segment of USA Hockey, the number of women lacing up the skates and hitting the ice has also grown considerably. The most recent registration numbers on file show that the number of women playing hockey has steadily increased since 1990.
To meet the demand, USA Hockey included a third level (Senior C) to its National Championships for Women in 2004, and will add a 30 & Over division in 2009.
A Break From The Routine
“I’ve been around the rink for a long time,” Kym Swanson, a mother of three hockey-playing boys, says as she slips on her shoulder pads. “I thought it would be fun to enjoy something that my boys enjoy.”
Once a week Swanson joins a core group of women who skate with a group called Chicks with Sticks. Their white and purple hockey jerseys are adorned with a logo featuring a June Cleaveresque-looking woman with a conservative frock, hockey gloves and stick. And just for good measure, she’s sporting a black eye.
These days, women all over the United States, from New Jersey to Minneapolis to northern California are finally getting in on the fun that once seemed to be reserved for their sons, daughters and husbands.
“I had a friend ask me, what is it about hockey that you like so much? Is it the team? Is it the camaraderie? Is it the workout? It’s all of the above,” says Julie Johnson, who has spent more than her fair share of time driving her three children to hockey over the years.
“This is completely separating yourself from your everyday life,” adds teammate Laura Hotvet, who runs a successful wedding and event-planning business in nearby Minnetonka.
“There are not a lot of opportunities for women to play team sports and so it’s fun to bring that back and work together as a team.”
The Tables Have Turned
Until Cammi Granato and other female pioneers broke down the ice barriers in the early 1990s and turned hockey into a mainstream sport for girls with a dramatic gold-medal victory at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, hockey was generally considered a male-only activity. If girls were in the rink at all, it was either to figure skate or watch their brothers play.
“I grew up as the only girl in a family of four brothers. They all played hockey, so I was a little rink-rat sister,” recalls Denise Saatzer, one of the most talented and dedicated players in the group.
In addition to skating with Chicks With Sticks, Saatzer also plays in the Women’s Amateur Hockey of Minnesota league, and another co-ed league around the Twin City suburbs.
So what do family and friends think about mom lacing up the hockey skates? Most of the women say that once they get over the initial shock of mom in shoulder pads, the rest of the family is ready to embrace their newest family member in skates.
“I think they were excited for me, but they were also wondering ‘OK, so how’s this going to go?’ ” says Swanson.
“My husband loves that I play. It seems to be one of the first things he tells people. If it comes up in conversation, he says, ‘Kym plays hockey, too.’ ”
Even the kids seem to like that mom is on the ice.
“Our whole family plays, so it’s kind of cool,” says 11-year-old Jack Hotvet. “I usually give her tips, but it’s kind of cool to see her progress.”
And what do his teammates think of Jack’s mom playing hockey?
“They’re kind of speechless.”
Fighting the stigma that is unfortunately still associated with the game is part of the challenge to not only recruit new members but to gain acceptance among family and friends.
“Some of my friends will say, ‘Oh, I’m not tough enough.’ Well, I’m not this tough chick. I just have a good time out there,” says Swanson.
“It can get pretty feisty out there,” add Saatzer. “You’ll get back to the bench after a shift and everyone is talking about that one girl who is giving a little extra elbow or trying to get away with whatever she can. But it’s not that bad. Nothing too serious.”
The Man Behind The Chicks
Putting the women through their practice paces on this Thursday morning is Mike Curti, a 47-year-old former goaltender who has been leading the charge for five years.
If Curti’s name sounds familiar to anyone associated with USA Hockey, it’s because he’s been creating illustrations and cartoons for USA Hockey Magazine for the past 15 years.
When he’s not creating Slaps Shooter, Stix Handle and Gordon Stickler, Curti can likely be found at a number of rinks around Minnesota coaching a Squirt team or running an increasing number of women’s clinics.
He started when his wife Julie was getting back into hockey after the birth of their fourth son, Cooper. Together, they wondered aloud how many women in the area were no longer content to sit on the sidelines while their sons and daughters had all the fun. He created a flyer soliciting interest from women in the area.
“Being the mom to four boys, Julie has that ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em mentality,’ ” Curti says while standing outside the locker room as his charges get ready.
“The first time we held a clinic, 35 ladies showed up. It was definitely more than we anticipated.”
As word spread, so did the demands on Curti’s time. He now conducts clinics at seven different rinks in the area – Eagan, Edina, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Plymouth, Chaska and Mound.
The diehards carry on as the weather warms, but things really pick up when school is back in session.
“I’d much rather do this than go to a health club,” says Swanson. “I really wasn’t that great at working out, but this has added a new dimension. Being on the ice definitely beats running on a treadmill.”
Fun And Fundamentals
Curti’s clinics begin with 45 minutes of skill-developing drills and conclude with a spirited 30-minute scrimmage. It is the perfect combination of fun and fundamentals that keep these women coming back week after week.
Ask him what the difference is between coaching 10-year-olds and women and a broad smile creases his face.
“One thing is they definitely listen,” Curti says with a laugh.
“With kids, you can look in their eyes and you know that they’re not listening. You’ll ask them if they understand the drill and they’ll shake their head yes and then go out and mess it up.
“With the ladies, they listen, they want to learn and they will ask questions. If they don’t understand a drill or don’t know what a drill is for, they’ll ask me.
“Another great thing is that the ladies have a great sense of humor. They’re out there trying something new and they laugh at themselves. They’re really serious about what they’re doing, but they still have a good time.”
Coaching women has also taught Curti a lot about himself as a husband and a member of the male species.
“I do have to be a little more tactful with my assessments of the ladies’ skills,” he says. “With a 10-year-old kid I can yell across the ice, ‘Hey, get your butt down when you skate,’ or whatever. With a lady you have to skate over to them and say ‘You could probably bend your knees a little bit more.’ I have to be a little more tactful, a little more diplomatic.”
Armed And Dangerous
These days their kids have to live with the fact that mom is watching their house league and travel team games, armed with a new perspective of what’s going on when they hit the ice.
“That’s been the really nice offshoot of this. The ladies can now converse with their kids and can be critical of their kids about more than just cleaning their rooms,” Curti says.
To improve on the women’s understanding of the game, every clinic includes a chalk talk that explains the concepts and nuances of the game.
“I totally watch things differently now. I get why they do certain things,” says Hotvet. “I used to say, ‘Why are they doing that?’ and now I understand why they have to hold back and play defensively on a penalty kill. I understand the offsides rule now.”
Catching Up On Lost Time
Long after practice is over, the women sit around the locker room laughing and sharing success and horror stories from the past 90 minutes, seemingly in no hurry to get on with their day and the multitude of pressing tasks at hand. For many, they are finally sharing in that locker room camaraderie they’ve heard so much about. This is their time, and it’s been a long time coming.
“I had one woman come up to me and say ‘I feel so cheated,’ ” recalls Curti. “I said, ‘Didn’t you have fun?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘ I feel so cheated that I didn’t have this opportunity when I was growing up to play hockey.’ ”
Now you can imagine how June Cleaver felt.