Hockey in Minnesota just took a step forward.
Oct. 13, 1997, marked the first day of official practice for the new Minnesota women’s hockey team. Women have been playing hockey on the East coast for years, and with the sudden growth spurt in girls’ hockey in Minnesota area high schools, the time seemed right to add a varsity women’s team to the rich tradition that is Minnesota hockey.
Not that the occasion was somber. The women, in their pre-practice workout pads and equipment, looked like rollerball players. The large initials “GWH” — short for “Gopher Women’s Hockey” — emblazoned the practice jerseys, and excitement and fun were in the air.
“I’m trying to go with the flow,” said head coach Laura Halldorson.
Media people were everywhere, tape recorders and notepads at the ready. Camera crews got set up in the stands, and there were constant demands to speak with players.
With the media fanfare, did she get distracted from the task at hand? “I’m just trying to get the team ready for their first game on Nov. 2,” she laughed. Halldorson comes to Minnesota after being head coach of the women’s program at Colby College, in Waterville, Me.
“There are no TV cameras in Waterville,” she noted.
The other Eastern transplant is senior captain Julie Otto, who transfered from Northeastern University in Boston — one of the top programs for women’s hockey in the nation — to play near her home in Buffalo, Minn.
“This has more tradition, more nostalgia. Northeastern was not my dream. Hockey was, but not the school.” Otto is the only senior on the team, along with five sophomores and a whopping 17 freshmen.
Even though practice just officially started, the women on the team have already started to form their own bonds. One of those experiences came when Coach Halldorson introduced them to their locker room.
“It used to be the visitor’s locker room, but we’ve made it our own,” Halldorson said. The coach didn’t let anyone into the room until after the team was announced — there was to be no preferential treatment for some girls over others, and a feeling of awe and respect was nurtured in them all. The team was led in, all at once, after the final cuts had been announced.
“I didn’t want them in there there before that. I had 31 people try out. I didn’t want those I recruited in there, to form divisions in the team.”
Otto thought it was a special moment. “You just got that big, circular butterfly feeling in your chest. We wanted to get our equipment on and play right then.”
Brittny Ralph had her own reasons for being excited. “My senior year [in high school], I played for boys’ hockey at Brooklyn Center. We didn’t have a locker room, so this is very special for me.
“It took me a moment to realize just what it meant. The anticipation grew every day. I graduated in 1996. I have been waiting a year for this, and it has been worth it.
“When we walked in, it was all of us. We were a team.”
Halldorson thought it was important that they go in together. “I said ‘Remember this moment. You’re making history.’ Now we have a home.”
And it is important to keep that home clean. Halldorson has special ‘Reminder Skates’ prepared for anyone leaving their equipment out of place in the room. “It helps develop a sense of pride, for the room and for the program.”
Unlike the men’s team, not all of the players on the women’s team are from Minnesota. There are players from North Dakota, Wisconsin, Alaska and — gasp — even one from Canada. Nadine Muzerall is from Mississauga, Ont. Forward Ambria Thomas, from Fairbanks, Alas., attended the USA Hockey Olympic camp, along with Ralph and Jenny Schmidgall, the first woman to sign a letter of intent with Minnesota.
While Schmidgall is the only one still with the Olympic team, the others aren’t taking it easy. Standing just a few feet away from the nine-thousand-plus seats in Mariucci Arena, Thomas said, “We want to play in front of a lot of people. That’s one of the reasons I came here.”
Another reason? The coach.
“I had my school all picked, but [Halldorson] convinced me to come here instead, and I’m glad I did. She was my coach at junior camp, and I never thought I would have the chance to be on her team for real.”
Minnesota has received a lot of press, new equipment, and the team gets to play in a fabulous, history-rich arena. But despite all the hype, what chance does a start-up program have in the first year? Shouldn’t the older, longer-existing teams roll right over them, while Minnesota continues on with developing the fledgling program?
None of the team members think so. “I think we’ll be competitive right away. Everyone’s working hard,” Thomas says.
Otto agrees. “I think people will want to beat us early, because we are a new team. So we want to go out and show them that we’re good.
“I think we’ll do great. I think we have a good chance of being at the nationals at the end of the season.”
Halldorson also likes their chances. “I think we’ll have more depth than some teams out East do. They have maybe two lines that are really stong, but we will have three or four. I think we’ll be able to wear some teams down.”
She adds with a grin, “I think they’re a little nervous out East.”
Judging from Minnesota’s first day of practice, they should be.