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Women of All Ages Learning to Play Ice Hockey

Originally posted: Canon-McMillan Patch

As the NHL lockout threatens to cancel the season, some female fans are extremely disappointed, while others know exactly how they are going to get their hockey fix.

That’s because they are not only hockey fans… they are players too.

I’m happy to say I’m one of these women, and have been playing for more than 2 ½ years now as a forward and goalie. Back when I was 29, I wanted to try something new and competitive that would also keep me in shape. 

As a big hockey fan, I thought I’d give it a try, and I’m not the only one.

In recent years, there’s been a surge in this region of adult women learning to play hockey, and there are many different reasons why they wanted to learn how to play.

“I initially wanted to start learning how to play (hockey) for the primary reason to get better at cyclocross racing. The cardiovascular requirements that are used for CX are similar to hockey shifts,” said Holly Gatto, who got her start at age 37 playing at a local rink where her husband instructed “learn to play” clinics for kids. Since there were no adult “learn to play” clinics at that rink at the time, she learned with 5-13 year olds.

Kelly Ackerman, who started playing at age 24, never imagined there’d be anything out there for women because she said that it’s always been marketed as a ‘man’s sport’.

“I got into hockey in 2007 when I met my boyfriend, Bob. He played dek hockey and always had the Pens on when I was over his house, so soon enough I started to really enjoy it," she said. "After a few years, simply watching it wasn’t good enough and I really wanted to play it.”

While Ackerman was watching the men’s hockey teams compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics, she would turn on the women’s hockey games. “I saw that they were regular girls of all shapes and sizes and realized that maybe I could do it too.”

Amanda Wareham decided to start playing at age 30 also after watching the women’s teams play in the 2010 Winter Olympics. She didn’t grow up in the area, but now lives near Pittsburgh.

“There were a few sports I’ve always wanted to play when I was a child, hockey being at the top of the list. We didn’t have a rink nearby much less the financial resources that would give me the opportunity," she said. "With the Olympics in Vancouver and watching the women play, I again decided to pursue the dream since I was then in an area that supported adult beginner hockey.”

Wareham has recently started to learn goaltending in addition to working on her other hockey skills.

Some women such as Stephanie Dugan, started playing hockey as a goalie and prefer it over playing another positions. Dugan has been playing hockey for 5 years. She started goaltending in inline hockey at age 18, and has been playing ice hockey for the past 2 ½ years. “I had expressed interest in playing when I was in fourth grade, but my parents quickly said no, due to the expenses of the sport. When I was 18, I mentioned to my friends (one in particular) that I was interested in playing, and she gave me the push I needed to get over my timidness and give it a try. I went to House O’Hockey in Aspinwall and picked up all the cheapest gear I could and the rest is history.”

So, where did many women turn to in order to learn to play?

Most women I’ve talked to who were just getting their start in learning to play didn’t want to take ice hockey classes with men because they didn’t want to feel embarrassed and some weren’t sure how rough playing with the men might be. At the time, there was a women’s learn to play hockey class available at the RMU Island Sports Center on Neville Island.

This is where I got my start and became friends with many other women who were beginners just like myself. Though it still exists, it’s been turned into a co-ed program and is not as desirable to some women now because of that.

Shortly after the women’s-only program ended at the Island Sports Center, Valley Sports Complex in New Kensington started a women’s-only beginner program of its own.

Some women didn’t mind learning how to play with men.

Val Sweeney, a mother of four boys who started playing hockey at age 40, learned some of her skills in the women’s-only class, but also attended co-ed hockey classes outdoors in the winter.

“E&P at Schenley is great to get your start. It’s billed as a learn-to-play so even though there are people there who are quite good, I’ve always convinced myself it was ok to suck there.” Sweeney also works on her skating by going to public skates.

“The more time you spend on the ice, the better you will get,” she said.

There are also many beginner co-ed pick-up games and leagues in the area that many women hockey players attend to work on their skills and to just have fun.

I’ve played in many games at various rinks in the area and have met a lot of great fellow hockey players of all ages and skill levels. Playing in a co-ed hockey game seems to bring the most competitive person out of me and others too.

Sara Petyk learned to play hockey when she was 35, and has been playing for almost two years now. She prefers co-ed hockey games “for the faster pace and physicality.”

Cori James, 22, who started playing hockey at age 20, likes co-ed hockey because "it can be challenging playing someone at a similar skill level that is twice your size. You have to push yourself harder because their stride is twice yours.“

Sweeney also loves playing co-ed.

“I play a fairly physical game and that meshes better with the way most men play," she said. "Besides, I get a kick out of telling non-players that I play co-ed. Their eyes always get BIG.”

I can definitely relate, Val.

For some female hockey players who are beginners and want to play for a women’s-only team, there are a couple options out there.

The Pittsburgh Puffins and Steel City Sirens are teams made up of women of all ages and skill levels. They are both traveling teams that play in the Pennsylvania-Ohio Women’s Hockey Association league.

I’ve played as a forward and goalie for the Puffins the past couple years and it’s been a great learning experience. Check out the Puffins at their website at pghpuffins.com and the Sirens at steelcitysirens.com.

If you’re a woman who thinks you could never play ice hockey, think again. There are many options out there and you really can start at any age. If you need help getting started, check out the Pittsburgh Women’s Hockey Resource. A few friends of mine and I created this site in order to help women in the Pittsburgh area get connected with the resources necessary to be able to learn and build the skills to play hockey.

Oh and if you need that last final push, here’s some advice from some fellow hockey players:

“Just do it. Find a beginner-level program and give it a try. You don’t have to prepare; you don’t have to know how to skate; you don’t even have to know the rules.” – Sara Petyk.

“Don’t be intimidated like I used to be. I held off for a few years because I just didn’t think there’d be anything out there for women. But there’s tons of programs out there for beginners and some especially for women.” – Kelly Ackerman

Since an NHL season might not happen this year, why not try learning to play hockey? Not only will it keep you in shape, you’ll most-likely become addicted to it. As Val Sweeney says, you will love the “bad-assed-ness of it.”


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