Women’s hockey growing in Pittsburgh

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By Chris Dazen and Stevie Watson

Point Park News Service

While searching for a new form of exercise after becoming a mother, Laura Reisinger came across a newspaper advertisement for women’s hockey.

Gretchen Maxeiner stumbled across the same ad. “It was the least likely thing I could think of to do,” she said.

Maria Totin was eager for a life change after undergoing a lumpectomy when a friend recruited her.

All of these women are part of the unique and rising sport of women’s hockey. With a collective make up of assorted careers, there is a special bond that comes from playing with total strangers every week. While some are playing for love of the game, there are those who are searching for an escape from their daily lives or just looking to build friendships.

The Steel City Sirens and Pittsburgh Puffins represent two of Pittsburgh’s competitive women’s ice hockey teams of Western Pennsylvania. Women’s hockey in Pittsburgh has grown from one team to many in independent adult-leagues throughout the tri-state area over the past ten years. The biggest addition was in 2002 with the establishment of the Pennsylvania-Ohio Women’s Hockey Association (POWHA) which looks to promote women’s hockey at the adult level. POWHA is made up of two divisions; an upper and lower, each designated for a team’s geographical make up. While in addition to the Puffins and Sirens, the Pittsburgh Piranhas and teams from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton and Columbus also represent the POWHA.

“Pittsburgh started off with one team [Puffins] and now there are many teams. It speaks highly of the sport and how many people do enjoy it” said Shannon Caryll describing the growing scene.

No matter the competitive makeup of its players, the teams are supported more by the friendships forged than stick handling ability.

“Even if they don’t own any equipment, if they’ve never skated, and don’t know what they are doing, it shouldn’t hold them back,” Puffin Maxeiner said of the opportunities playing women’s hockey. “There’s a spot for you somewhere in Pittsburgh.”

Many of the women began playing in adult instructional leagues at Robert Morris University Island Sports Center and Mount Lebanon Ice Center. Others, like Emily Furbee and Tracy Brown of the Sirens, began in their driveways with baseball gloves, couch cushions, and magazines taped to their legs as replacement shin guards.

“My brother and his friends were playing street hockey and no one wanted to be goalie.” Brown describes on how she became a goalie. “I wanted to be Patrick Roy.”

Others such as Sara Young, the captain of the Puffins, are natural athletes, who simply wanted try another sport.

“I played football for the Pittsburgh Passion. I played football for 20 years and I need something that was less strenuous on my knees- actually my whole body.” said Young. “Four years ago, I learn to play ice hockey at RMU with some friends. It was just something different to do. I’d always wanted to learn how to ice skate.”

The Steel City Sirens are new to competitive ice hockey scene. The team was founded in 2010 by police officer, Caryll and is the newest member of POWHA gaining acceptance for the 2012-13 season. For Caryll, an athletically built blue liner, playing hockey serves as an escape from the stress of her job. “It’s an outlet. I have a very stressful job, so it’s nice to be with people who aren’t police officers.”

Caryll’s enthusiasm for the game helped excite and recruit Kate Dougherty while playing at the Southpointe Icoplex. Dougherty, a petite third year forward whom makes up for her small stature with her bright personality, spoke fondly about Caryll and her teammates. “I think that our team is a very social team…We’re not just players, we’re friends.”

Deb Bayha of the Puffins is a United States Marshall who also understands these bonds and close relationships that form with any hockey team. “It’s not about playing hockey, I mean, that’s a part of it, but the social aspect. It’s pretty remarkable.”

A soft spoken librarian by day and gritty forward by night, the even tempered and well-spoken Maxiener echoed the sentiment of Caryll on the dynamic of their respective teams. They agree that the strength of their teams come from the diversity in age, skill level, professions, and backgrounds. But it is their love of sport that binds them all together.

“We love to play and we have fun doing it and to me, that’s what the team is about,” said Caryll prior to a scrimmage against the Piranhas.

Though the ladies may lack the physical make up of their male counterparts, they are still prone to the same aches and pains. Think women’s hockey is all tape to tape passes with no hitting? Think again as these women do not lack aggression and the occasional fight can occur.

Bahya described an incident in Menard, Ohio where a teammate was attacked by an opposing player with a stick. The Puffins were on the winning side of a blowout when tempers flared and a fight broke out. Bayha played the role of peacekeeper and pulled her teammate away from the offending player. “I turn around and see my Puffin teammate.” Bayha kneeled on the floor of the locker room and motioned as though she was beating someone into the ice.

After pulling teammates away, she eventually exchanged words with the opposing player. “I had to yell and say ‘I’m gonna floor you if you don’t stop.’” Bayha herself has also engaged in combat, fighting a man in a co-ed adult league whom checked her into the boards.

Brown described a similar incident with the Sirens when they played a game at CONSOL Energy Center. She pointed to defenseman Madde Whitney. “She got into a fight.” While describing the scene, a few Pittsburgh Penguins were on hand signing autographs. Arron Asham, a known fighter throughout his career, looked up at a screen and witnessed the fight. Asham had a few interesting choice of words about the incident but loved what he was seeing.

Through fights, travel, late night skates, and off-ice antics, the teams build companionship and a sense of identity through their memories.

The teams have each traveled as far as Canada for various tournaments. Five years ago, the Puffins played in a tournament in Brampton, Ontario. Mario Lemieux’s daughter was also playing in the tournament. The Puffins (and Sirens) are used to playing in empty rinks, but confusion in the crowd drew large audiences to the Puffins games because spectators thought one of Lemieux’s three daughters played for the Puffins.

“We were getting clobbered…It’d be like 14-0 in the first period, I swear to God, and they’re all going, ‘Which one’s the Lemieux girl?’” Maxeiner said with a laugh.

A women’s hockey league in Western Pennsylvania is not something everyone might be aware of as they often play to empty seats.

“It’s usually spouses. Boyfriend, girlfriends, anyone we can drag and they usually are working the doors or doing score sheets” said Dougherty of the crowd situation.

But they hold promotions and benefits to bring awareness to the league as well as raise fees for themselves.

“We had a fundraiser, take over an entire bar. Bartend, sell food, 50/50 raffle. Hockey is so expensive, POWA registration fee is $750, we try to cover the cost of that.” said Dougherty about a recent promotion they did.

They play in local rinks, small in size creating a constant feeling of cold with that familiar smell of damp hockey equipment only a hockey player can appreciate. The sound of a puck echoing off the boards to utter silence from the stands is normal. Despite the poor crowds, it goes beyond that for these women and they will do anything to play the game they have fallen so hard for.

“I live in Oil City so there’s not a rink within an hour’s drive. I commute two hours and fifteen minutes to get here. That’s four and a half hours of driving every night that we have practice.” Brown said about her efforts to just get on the ice.

There is a passion in each of these women that drives them. Each player has a story and reason for their involvement, but each are part of something unique to the area whether they realize it or not.

It isn’t about the size of the crowd, the score sheet, the late night ice times, or even winning the season. Hockey for these ladies is about so much more. It is engraved in who they are and what makes them a team.

“We are here for us,” Maxeiner affirmed.