Bringing an ethereal serenity to the ball hockey court, Karen Levin’s comforting presence has established her as the backbone of the US national women’s team. In 2017, Levin’s illustrious career would take on great luster, as the red, white and blue gained its first-ever podium finish at the ISBHF Worlds.
Raised in Morton Grove, Illinois, Levin is one of ball hockey’s most prominent American-born stars, simultaneously emerging as an ambassador for the game. With the number nine adorning the back of her jersey, she was one of 10 competitors on the US roster at least 30 years young, Levin brought a youthful spirit to the team.
Akin to so many of her teammates, her hockey background also consists of elite competition on the ice. Reaching the century club in points scored after four fantastic seasons with Middlebury College, the mathematics major would also experience the jubilation of an NCAA Division III championship, while also competing on the varsity golf team.
The road towards the podium finish in Pardubice had been two years in the making. After a disappointing finish at the 2015 edition of the Worlds in Zug, Switzerland, a significant step forward occurred in an unlikely place.
With eternal rival Canada having captured the gold medal in Zug, the Ontario city of Barrie (located north of Toronto) would serve as the site for a prestigious ball hockey championship. Numerous members of the US national team were on-hand, although split into two different clubs.
Part of the roster known as USA Happy Endings, an unfortunate injury resulted in Levin being inactive for play. Rather than despair, it was an opportunity to expand her horizons, abandoning the familiarity of competitive play to approach the more cerebral component of coaching. Such a contribution was essential two-fold; not only did Levin grow as a leader, but USA Happy Endings qualified for the gold medal game.
“The weekend of Barrie in 2016 I was a player on the Happy Endings, however I was battling an injury. I spent the weekend helping our coaches, Gwen Lemieux, Dorene Sheets, and Jason Glista on the bench and sidelines as we formed our team. (I coached in Barrie two years ago, the 2015 Team USA team that lost in the semis)
The tournament in Barrie was a very important step for us to come together and begin learning how to play as a team. It’s not the best group of individuals that wins hockey games, it’s the best team, and Barrie was our first opportunity to play on a really competitive scale.
Our coaches emphasized the four stages of a team: forming, storming, norming, and performing, with the ultimate goal to be performing by Worlds. Barrie was where we began forming the bonds that ultimately allowed us to perform as one at the ISBHF World Championships in Pardubice.”
Statistically, Levin’s her biggest point came in a round robin victory against a highly competitive squad from Slovakia. Gaining an assist on the second goal scored by Liane Dixon, it heralded a riveting transformation for the club. Considering that Slovakia had upended the defending champion Canada in round robin play, the subsequent loss to the United States indicated that the balance of power was undergoing a significant shift.
With the victory against Slovakia, it was the catalyst that made the Americans believe that they were no longer an underdog, but a team capable of competing for a medal. Such a wave of confidence cascaded into their semifinal victory against Canada, a first in program history. Reaching the gold medal game against the host country Czech Republic, overtime would be needed to settle things, testament to the tenacity of an American team that transformed many sceptics into true believers.
“The win against Slovakia was a big confidence builder. The day before we beat Slovakia, we watched them beat Canada. In our game against Slovakia, we worked hard and took advantage of our opportunities.
When we heard our anthem played after our 3-1 victory we knew we could beat any team in the tournament. We bought in to the plan our coaches laid out and every player played her role.
It was this belief in the idea that we are stronger as a team that allowed us to carry strong energy into the semis, beating Canada, and taking the Czechs into overtime in the gold medal game. A silver medal is big for us, but we know we still have work to do. We want to bring home gold.”
The opportunity to experience the elation of a podium finish represented a treasured reward for Levin. Considering that the game remains far from the media spotlight, this podium finish is an opportunity for nascent fans to reappraise its growing importance and appreciate what women such as Levin mean to hockey in the US.
Such reward was also enhanced by the presence of a teammate who also takes on a dual role as mentor and colleague. Goaltender Alessandra Glista is truly one of the builders of women’s ball hockey in the United States.
Along with Levin, their devotion to the game is accentuated by their entrepreneurial spirit as key builders in the United Women’s Ball Hockey Foundation (UWBHF). This admirable effort is not only built on the spirit of collaboration, it is a labor of love which embodies the sense of teamwork that shall help continue to expand the sport.
“I am honored and humbled to share the podium with Alessandra Glista. Alessandra is a pioneer in women’s ball hockey. She has been to eight World Championships (6 ISBHF and 2 Masters) and spent many years building the US program. All the while, she does this while caring deeply about those around her, and making sure to give back to the community by investing her time and effort into building the United Women’s Ball Hockey foundation.
For us to bring home our first medal just goes to show all the work that Alessandra and many more have put into the sport. I could name so many people that contributed time, money, and passion into women’s ball hockey, laying the groundwork for the 2017 team to find their way to the podium.
As for the UWBHF, Alessandra, Sarah Wilson, and Jason Glista are the true co-founders. They had the vision to see that there needed to be an organization for women by women and they made that dream a reality.
They created the United Women’s Ball Hockey Foundation to provide opportunities for increased women’s participation, advancement, and awareness at a local, regional, and national level. Though the women’s game has been gradually growing, they wanted to ensure it keeps growing.
I had the privilege of joining a few months in because I was inspired by their mission to grow the women’s game. To share the podium with Alessandra and know that the women’s game is growing both internationally and locally was a dream come true.”
The opportunity to help grow the game through initiatives such as the UWBHF, while encouraging a new generation represents a pair of exhilarating challenges for Levin. While the achievement of a silver medal definitely brings with it prestige to the UWBHF, furthering its mission of fostering the next generation of stars, it also represents an artifact of Levin’s growing ball hockey legacy.
“The first ever medal is amazing. It gives credibility to a team that has been knocking on the door of the top three teams for a few years now. We will be looking to build on this year and continue to move forward as we look towards 2019.
A silver medal will definitely spark interest for more players to get started, but this sport is about relationships and what will keep those players around is the community they will find once they start playing.
The sport is really fun (aside from all the running… spoken like a true ice hockey player), but the sticking point is that ball hockey players are warm, welcoming, open and extremely enjoyable to be around. I have made some of my best friends in the last few years at ball hockey events and it is what keeps me coming back.”
Bringing a remarkable authenticity to the game, one sees a compassionate sincerity among Levin’s greatest qualities. As proud as she is of her own individual achievements, it is the bigger picture that holds her focus.
The potential for the game to expand, possibly leading to an increase in high-level competitions and the increase in the player talent pool could see the next two years as the time frame where the resources required to capture the elusive gold medal truly materialized. With talent from the NWHL prevalent on both Team USA and Team Canada, it is an example of the increasing impact of ball hockey, simultaneously improving the quality and intensity of competition.
Considering that there is already a sense of nostalgia with USA Happy Endings and its impact in Barrie, a necessity which was a key factor that led to the revitalization of the team, propelling said team towards unprecedented growth. Regarding the next two years, the passage of time may bring with it a similar nostalgia, holding the same potential to mirror the positive progress attained over the last two.
“For some more contexts about the growth of the game, over the past few years the sport has really grown. The caliber of athlete that has been playing not only at Worlds, but at the local tournaments like Cool Hockey’s North Americans and Holiday Bash.
Four years ago at North American’s there were about 8 women’s teams. In 2017, there were 6 women’s A teams and about 12 women’s B and C teams. The women’s side has more than doubled in the past few years.
The competition is getting stronger with the addition of players like Amber Moore, Cherie Stewart, and Paige Harrington, all current or former NWHL players. There is also plenty of Division I ice hockey, field hockey, and players from other sports.
The diversity of player backgrounds is one aspect of the sport that I truly cherish. As more and more players join, they will bring their friends and the game will snowball with talented, driven, passionate athletes. I’m looking forward to watching and admiring the growth of the sport.”
”All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credit: Daniel Soucek