Apr 27, 2017

Girls’ Hockey Makes Power Play in Texas and Beyond

Reporting Texas

Micaela Ross felt no shame if others thought she skated like a girl.

She started playing hockey as a 6-year-old in McKinney, a Dallas suburb, where the sport was uncommon for boys and unheard of for girls. But Ross grew up watching her two older brothers play, so following their path seemed natural.

Other people didn’t always feel the same way.

When she was 10, she started at goalie in a playoff game. She overheard the backup goalie’s father screaming at her coach for starting a girl over his son at an important tournament. For years, she tried not to listen to anyone who treated her differently as a female player. She knew she had a chance to play college hockey.

Ross played throughout high school for the Alliance Bulldogs, an all-girl Dallas travel team, and was recruited to play Division I hockey at Brown University. Now, the 24-year-old is back in Texas, interning at Austin NPR affiliate KUT until July, when she plans to start graduate school at the University of Sydney in Australia. She’s also staying involved in hockey by working as a goalie coach.

Ross said she wants the next generation of female players to have more support than she encountered. Changes to girls’ hockey around Texas are making sure that happens.

Girls’ hockey trails boys’ hockey in registration totals, but it’s growing. For the 2015-16 season, USA Hockey reported that 73,076 females registered to play hockey across the country, a 4.78 percent increase from the previous season.

In 2006, 366 girls were registered with USA Hockey in Texas. Ten years later, that number has more than doubled, and the state’s annual growth remains consistent with the national rate.

“There were younger teams getting set up when I was there, so I think it just slowly takes a while for things to get built up,” Ross said.

Hockey began its gradual climb to relevance in Texas when the Minnesota North Stars relocated to Dallas in 1993. The team established rinks around Dallas, and youth hockey participation boomed as a result. Chris Peters, a former communications coordinator for USA Hockey, reported on his blog that 868 youth players, boys and girls combined, registered in Texas in 1990-91. Today, 13,276 are registered.

The low number of girls registered in Texas often forced girls to play on boys’ teams, but the Lady Wolves girls’ program emerged in 2008 to remedy that. The program, in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine, was one of the first in the state where girls could play on an all-girl team as opposed to starting on a boys’ team.

Last season, the Dallas Stars Elite club program introduced a 12U girls’ travel team to expose girls to more competition from a younger age.

For Paige Winterberg, the draw of those Dallas girls’ teams extends throughout the state.

The 16-year-old sophomore at Vandegrift High School in the Leander school district, switched to hockey from figure skating three years ago. She immediately felt at home with the sport. Winterberg planned to try out last season for the Texas Jr. Stars boys’ travel team in Austin, but she broke her wrist. This season, she is deciding whether to try out for the boys’ team in Austin or commute every two weeks to Dallas to join an all-girl travel team.

“If you’re looking to be really good, play on a girls’ team and go to a girls’ D1 college, that’s going to be hard to do if you’re not based out of Dallas,” Winterberg said.

Angie Vaught, the general manager of Chaparral Ice Center in Austin, is doing her part to grow the game in Central Texas. She tries to invoke a sense of empowerment when teaching girls to play at her rink.

“I think that we have a really original sort of atmosphere that we bring in from the beginning, where they see females as equal,” Vaught said. “If this is going to be the girls’ sport, we’re kind of like the island of misfit toys.”

Each Saturday, Vaught runs a female-only practice called Girl Power. The hourlong session allows the 40 girls who train at Chaparral, ranging from 6 to 18 years old, to run skills and drills under female instruction. Practice ends with a scrimmage to provide a chance to play against other girls and women.

“There’s close to 5-year-olds up to adults, and people who just learned to skate to people who have played on travel teams,” Winterberg said. “It’s a wide range of people, but I think it’s fun and it’s helpful to show everyone who else is out there and who they can talk to if they need help with hockey stuff.”

Vaught said hockey remains “a boys’ club,” but things could soon change.

In March, the U.S. women’s national hockey team announced it would boycott the IIHF World Championships in Plymouth, Mich. The players demanded from USA Hockey better compensation, equitable treatment compared to the men’s team and improved resources for girls’ programs. The opposing sides negotiated for two weeks before USA Hockey struck a deal with the team March 28, just days before the start of the tournament.

The deal includes the formation of a women’s hockey advisory group made up of current and former players. This group will aim to advance girls’ and women’s hockey programming and strengthen existing programs.

“It’s really important that attention is being brought to it,” Vaught said. “I think that just getting it out there is positive.”

The public fight thrust the women’s national team into the spotlight, drawing support from NHL players, U.S. senators and players’ unions of the NHL, NBA, MLB and U.S. women’s soccer team.

Ross said she believes the sport will continue to build in Texas with the widespread support of the boycott and increase in girl’s hockey programs.

“Everyone before you is a role model, and now there’s more and more role models,” Ross said. “As it grows it just gets faster and faster and now there’s more people to look up to. It seems less crazy.”