By Jenny Neyman
Someone walking into the Soldotna Sports Center the morning of Dec. 18 might not have noticed anything unusual about the hockey team practicing on the ice.
About 15 players were arranged in two scrimmage teams suited in black and gray jerseys and a mishmash of other gear — broken-in, borrowed, brand-new or approaching antique.
The teams were fairly evenly matched, though with a range of experience and skill levels from player to player — with the experienced players shaving off sprays of ice from their quick stops and nimble maneuvers, while those new to skating concentrated on staying upright and getting turned around without needing the boards for a push.
Teammates hollered when open for a pass and cheered or groaned when the puck buried in a net, depending on which net it hit. Above it all, the coach yelled a steady stream of encouragement and instructions — “Skate hard! Defense, get in position! Play it off the boards!”
Everybody wanted to win but was equally interested in having fun and improving as they were psyched with the final score.
In that, the Alaska Ambush hockey team could pass for any of the others regularly on the sports center ice, from kids’ Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association teams, to high schoolers or the adult Rusty Blades league.
But to a closer observer, there are some differences: The “hockey flow” hair extending out the backs of the helmets was much longer than even the shaggiest guys generally prefer. The mixed assortment of gear involved more instances of pink. The shouts and chatter came in a higher-pitched register, and involved pronouns not usually heard as often on the ice. Like, “she” and, “her.”
At the end of the hour, the central Kenai Peninsula’s Alaska Ambush women’s hockey team members circled up at center ice and peeled off their helmets to reveal female faces with locks of hair dampened from their hard work in practice, and pierced ears tuned to coach Shannon Murray to listen to the week’s announcements before being dismissed with a cheerful, “Good practice, ladies!”
Aside from gender, Alaska Ambush isn’t much different from any other team.
The players came to the sport for the same variety of reasons — they were looking for a new activity to do; friends, family members, schoolmates or co-workers talked them into it; or they’ve been a spectator and wanted to give it a try.
“When I came to Alaska I came to watch every hockey game — high school and KPHA,” said Heidi Hanson. “I’d pick out a player that was on the ice and watch where they went — that’s how I learned positioning. I joined Learn to Skate and pretty much taught myself everything, from how the game is played to skills — which I never perfected anyway. I just fell in love with it and wanted to play.”
They become addicted to the sport for the same reasons as the guys.
“How fast you go, you’re out there and it just feels like you’re unstoppable. The momentum and that whole thing of skating and shooting — I love it,” Hanson said.
They juggle to fit the cost into their budgets and practice time into their schedules. With players ranging in age from teenager to 50s, that means shoehorning practices amongst all kinds of other commitments: school and other sports and activities — for themselves or their kids — jobs, community involvements and family duties.
“My boys come first. I just got back from a hockey tournament with them,” said Julie Tree, whose 6- and 8-year-old sons play hockey. In the Dec. 18 practice, she was fighting a lack of sleep as she struggled into her cumbersome hockey gear. “It’s a lot easier to get on me than suiting up the kids. I probably should have gone home and taken a nap, but I didn’t want to miss this.”
Though women’s hockey is a nonchecking league, the Alaska Ambush team is also only in its second year, with most players being brand-new to skating, much less hockey, so wipeouts and the occasional collision do occur.
Brooke Ames missed much of the early season this year — practice started in October — for a broken ankle, but was lacing up her skates again in December.
“Once your bone is about 80 percent, you’re fine,” Ames said.
Coach Murray has played through an ankle injury herself.
“I’ve skated with a sprained ankle. I couldn’t even walk and I cried to put my skates on, but once I put my skates on I was fine,” Murray said.
It’s not a rough league, and with all the pads and protective gear injuries are rare, Murray said, but when bumps and bruises do occur the ladies ignore their discomfort and bounce back from injuries to play, just like the guys do.
“Marcy is tougher than me,” Ames said of teammate Marcy True. “She had a baby and was back playing about three weeks later.”
Though the Alaska Ambush team is only in its second full year, women’s hockey on the central peninsula has been around in various incarnations since the 1980s.
Ambush players Hanson, Murray and Dawn Lesterson all played on the Puffins women’s team in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and through a name change when the team became the Lynx.
Lesterson has been playing hockey the longest. She grew up ice skating as a kid in Minnesota, and after moving to Alaska her son played all through KPHA, high school and still is involved as a coach and referee. She started playing in 1987 after meeting members of the Puffins women’s team.
“I used to be really competitive. I’m at the point now where I’m enjoying the recreational part of it. I like helping the new people with positioning and giving them tips and pointers,” Lesterson said.
As a kid, sports were a big part of Hanson’s existence, until a snowmachine accident her sophomore year of high school left her with a broken leg needing surgery and out of commission from most activities. After moving to Alaska, she joined a softball league for something to do, but once she discovered hockey she didn’t need to look any further for a favorite activity.
She talked Murray, a 1995 Skyview High School graduate, who also had never skated before, into joining the women’s team.
“‘Oh, you’ll be fine,’ she tells me,’” Murray said. “They told me to skate backward and I was like, ‘Yeah, right!’ But I turned around and the first thing I did is I fell. And you know what? That was the best thing that could have happened, because when I fell I realized, ‘Hey that didn’t hurt,’ and once I realized that I was able to try harder. Once you realize those pads are there to protect you then you’re willing to give it a shot and you excel. When you kind of sugar-foot it around you’re not going to get any better.”
The Puffins, then Lynx, played women’s teams from Homer and elsewhere in Southcentral, and sent players to Outside tournaments, as well — one in Arizona and three in Las Vegas.
“We lost by one goal,” Hanson said of the last Las Vegas tournament the central peninsula women played in. “We were so exhausted. We had 10 skaters and triple overtime. It was so cool, though. When we got off the ice I felt like I was in high school because we just had that adrenaline of how fun it was to just go as far as we did.”
“We were down to like six people a few years ago. There was nobody to play. We were playing kids, and that’s no fun after awhile,” Lesterson said.
The cost to rent the sports center ice for an hour of practice is the same whether there’s 60 people to shoulder the bill or just six, so it got too expensive to keep the team going, Lesterson said. Hanson moved out of state for a few years. Lesterson played occasionally with the women’s league in Homer, and Murray joined the men’s league.
That kept her skating, but she missed the women’s team.
“When I’m out there with the men a lot of them are faster and bigger. Until my team finally accepted me, a lot of times they wouldn’t even pass to me, and when they would pass to me and I’d miss it, they’d go, ‘Well, I don’t want to pass to you, you’ll miss it.’ But how am I ever going to get good if I don’t get practice in? The benefit of playing both is with the women I get to practice and I’ve actually seen improvement in my men’s game because I’m able to work on individual skills with the women’s team,” she said.
Having a women’s team also is a conduit to improve participation, as well as skills. Though the men’s league is open to women players, few choose to join, especially beginners.
“A lot of the guys are very accepting of women and learning, it’s just more intimidating to play with the men,” Murray said.
“It shows it’s OK to learn a sport or try something new at any age,” she said. “I thought it would be cool because I always wanted to play hockey but I wouldn’t have joined the guys. This was having people I felt safe with, people who are older and new at it, too, that I could skate with.”
Tree got interested in hockey through her kids. One of her sons plays goalie and needed someone to practice with, even if it was just family members skating on the homemade pond in the family’s yard in Sterling.
She heard about women’s hockey starting up locally and quickly overcame her original trepidation.
“I’ve never skated before. That was the hardest thing for me was coming out and doing it. I felt like a freshman going out for the varsity team. I’ve never been more nervous in my life trying out for a team,” Tree said. “But it’s a lot of fun. I’ve played every sport I possibly could and hockey has become the funnest sport I’ve ever played. I love watching people skate. It’s almost like dancing; it’s just a different type of sport. You’re on your own two feet but it’s faster paced and you can do a whole lot more than you can with shoes.”
Murray started gauging community interest in re-starting a women’s team last fall. She posted an ad on craigslist, asking if any women on the central peninsula wanted to play hockey.
“I got about five hits off of just craigslist alone, which got me excited. Women emailing me back saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know how to skate, but I’m interested,’ so I made flyers and put them up all over Soldotna and said, ‘No obligation, just come to this meeting and we’ll talk about it.’ We had 33 women show up,” Murray said.
Women being women, word of mouth spread quickly. Ames, for instance, joined last year. This year, she talked her sister, Shonia Werner, also a hockey mom, into playing.
“It’s gradually growing, and everybody’s excited and they talk to their friends and they talk to their friends,” Murray said.
She also recruited among her men’s team.
“I told my guys, ‘OK, wives or girlfriends, send them my way,’” she said.
The team had about eight to 10 regulars and a handful of sporadic attendees last year, and a solid 15 regulars this year with even more who make practices when they can. They’ve attended a few tournaments in Homer last year and so far this year, and are thinking about trying to attend another tournament in Las Vegas next year.
“Our biggest obstacle is trying to get ice time, being a new league at the bottom of the barrel,” Murray said. “And then, of course, trying to get ice time that’s acceptable to a woman’s and a mother’s lifestyle. A lot of our women are in college or mothers that have kids in hockey or busy schedules, so we have to juggle our schedules to try and accommodate the team, and that’s sometimes a trial.”
With her job working two weeks on, two off on the North Slope, Murray enlisted Hanson to help coach the team, and Murray’s boyfriend, Trevor Farrington, has become an honorary male member of the team, helping with everything from collecting paperwork to assisting in organizing fundraisers and standing in as goalie in practice.
Many of the players are hockey moms, and the nature of the team has been that those with experience help orient those who are new, giving tips on skating, explaining the rules of the game or just lending a hand tugging a snagged jersey over a teammate’s shoulder pads.
“It’s a really good thing for women to start together. You don’t have to know how to skate, that’s what the league is all about. It’s competitive, but it’s more to learn and grow together and camaraderie — we’re such a close-knit team. We have a great group of ladies,” Murray said. “Of course, you need different skill levels to help others grow, but it’s nice to be able to start as a team and build ourselves up.”
Murray said she’s already noticed a huge improvement in players’ abilities just since last year, and expects that trend to continue.
“From the start of last year, we had people who would barely could stand up, nobody could stop, nobody could skate backward. By the end of last year … three of our beginners scored during the Homer (Jamboree Tournament). So just to see the improvement from the beginning all the way to the end of the season was just amazing. Everyone starts from square one, but because we have so many in the same level, we’re able to grow faster.”
New players are welcome to join at any time, no experience necessary. All that’s really required is a set of gear, the ability to make practices and the willingness to try.
“This year is probably the funnest year I’ve ever had playing,” Hanson said. “With this group of women, the personalities, attitudes and enthusiasm are unbelievable.”
For more information, contact Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Alaska Ambush page on Facebook.