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Women's hockey facing growing pains

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Natalie Darwitz, a forward on U.S. national women's hockey team, skates against Sweden in international competittion. Darwitz pays to play with the Minnesota Whitecaps, the only semi-professional women's hockey team in the USA, to maintain her skills. (Courtesy of USA Hockey)

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Kristin King, a forward on the U.S. national women's hockey team, flies in from Ohio to play games for the Minnesota Whitecaps, the only semi-professional women's hockey team in the country. (Courtesy of USA Hockey)

The New York Raiders and the Minnesota Blue J’s arrived in San Jose, Calif., on March 28 along with 30 other women’s hockey teams for the national championships. Just getting to San Jose was a victory for these teams, stocked with former collegiate players and even some Olympians. Almost every season teams fear they won’t find enough players to fill out their rosters or those of their competitors.

“There’s just not enough teams around New York City for us to get in games,” said Buena Guzman, a founding member and the goalie of the Raiders. This season the 25-member team traveled to Kents Hill, Maine; Orlando, Fla.; and Toronto to play the required 14 games needed to qualify for the nationals.

Angie Rieger, the manager of the Blue J’s, which draws players from the Twin Cities area, took her team to Calgary, Alberta, for games because there wasn't enough competition within Minnesota, the so-called hockey state.

Minnesota has more female hockey players than any other state, yet there are only two other teams in the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota that can compete with the Blue J’s.

Rieger, who was a three-time All-American forward at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, is mystified that she is having such a hard time attracting talented players to her league.

“I don’t know if the players get burned out or they can’t afford it,” she said. “There’s a few theories out there, but a lot of the girls, they disappear.”

Women’s hockey is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, but there are still few outlets for elite players. Since 1992, the number of female players registered with USA hockey has grown to about 55,000 from 10,000. Ten collegiate teams were founded from 2000 to 2005, and the number of club teams has grown to 2,288 in 2005 from 1,406 in 2000, according to USA Hockey. However, opportunities for elite players have not kept pace with the growth in the rest of the sport.

Each year, Rieger, who started playing hockey at 5 alongside boys, sends e-mail messages and makes calls to coaches at the 19 colleges and universities in the Twin Cities area that have women’s hockey teams. When she graduated from Augsburg in 2001, she didn’t want to give up the sport she had played for almost her entire life, and she wants to extend that opportunity to other women.

“You’d think with each team graduating about five players each year, we’d be able to grow,” Rieger said.

Guzman finds players for the Raiders through word-of-mouth and by scouting out the rinks in New York City. Each year she struggles to find enough good skaters who have enough money to pay for ice time and travel expenses and flexible enough schedules so they can play games on weekends.

Guzman’s and Rieger’s recruitment problems are common. When Jim Bugenhagen, the manager of the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers, a sports complex in Manhattan, started his job there seven years ago, there were four women’s teams competing in the spring season. This spring he’s been struggling to fill two to three teams of 12 to 15 players in the women’s league. The Sky Rink plays host to 100 male and coed hockey teams in 10 leagues with more than 1,500 players during the 2006-7 winter season. Of that number only 15 to 20 players are women.

Karen Lundgren, the chair of USA Hockey’s women’s and girl’s divisions, said the increased participation in those programs was a combination of the introduction of Title IX, which provides equal financing for women’s sports in schools, and the USA women’s hockey team’s gold medal in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan--the first Olympic Games to carry the sport. Players are attracted by the speed and skill needed to play the sport.

“Women’s hockey is where women’s soccer was 15 years ago,” said Dr. Howard A. Fidler, the team chiropractor and a booster for the Minnesota Whitecaps, the only semi-professional women’s team in the United States. There are a number of women able to compete at a high level, but not enough sponsors to support the women financially, Fidler said.

The Whitecaps’ roster boasts a wealth of former and current Olympians who gladly pay up to $1,000 a season to play against five other teams in Canada. Kristin King, a three-time Olympian who was on the national team competing in the World Championships in Winnipeg, Manitoba, April 3 through 10, flies in from her home in Ohio for Whitecap games.

“It kind of baffles me,” said Kathy Berg, the director of female hockey programs at Calgary’s Olympic Oval. “The NCAA does such a great job of developing women’s hockey talent, and once they leave the NCAA there’s nowhere for them to go. I think that hurts the program.”

However, Canada’s women’s club hockey program, which encompasses the WWHL and the National Women’s Hockey League, feeds into the national program, giving women the ability to maintain their skill levels after college. The result is half the players on the Canadian team are at least 27 years old and have more experience in international competition. By comparison, more than half of the U.S. national team has yet to graduate from college and only two players are 27 or older.

The U.S. women’s hockey program has lost ground to the Canadians since their gold medal performance in 1998. Canada won the gold in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, and captured first place in four of the last five world championships. Last year in Torino, Italy, the U.S. team won the bronze, losing to Sweden in the semifinals.

But Fidler hopes that players like those on the Whitecaps are forging a women’s hockey culture in the United States.

“I have two little girls who are learning to skate, and when they are two big girls I want to see them continue to play,” he said. “I want them to have the opportunity to have a professional women’s hockey league.”

E-mail: aa2524@columbia.edu