For players in Bay City’s only women’s hockey league, there’s more to the game than showing up every Wednesday night and testing their skills against others.
Instead, it’s like a band of sisters bonded by a shared experience, camaraderie, and the thought that they’re upholding a tradition that was seemingly on life support not long ago.
“It’s not just about physical wellness,” said league founder Renee Hoppe, “it’s also about social wellness.”
Increasing numbers of women are playing ice hockey, traditionally a men-only sport. Amy Guzman, Becca Turner and Tiffany Muylle are three of the women involved in a hockey league playing Wednesdays at the Bay County Civic Arena.The league meets every Wednesday night at Bay County Civic Arena, 4231 Shrestha Drive in Bangor Township, and has around 15 regular attendees, give and take a few depending on the night. While there aren’t specific teams, players are divided up evenly – most often by skill level – and they have time to play three 12-minute periods each night with rest breaks in between.
Players of all skill levels are welcome, too. Hoppe, along with league co-founder and “recruiter” Ashley Brown, encourages women who’ve never played hockey before to show up on Wednesday nights.
Women, such as Renee Hoppe, say ice hockey offers physical and social benefits.
“I hear from a lot of women who say they’re hesitant to try it because they’ve never played before, or that they don’t have the equipment,” said Brown. “We encourage those women to try it. We can show them how to play, and the arena is great about providing equipment if we need it.
“We have a couple of girls playing now who are just learning how to skate.”
On a recent Wednesday night, about 15 women including Tiffany Muylle showed up to play ice hockey.
The league is new to Bay City this year and is the continuation of a league that played in Saginaw for several years. But the Saginaw Bay Ice Arena decided to discontinue the league after last season, leaving Brown, Hoppe, and several others looking for a place to play.
“They got a new manager there (in Saginaw), and they cut the women’s league, even though we were paying the same amount as the men for our league,” said Brown. “We weren’t sure what we were going to do.”
Hoppe decided to approach the Bay County Civic Arena, however, and the league soon had a new home.
Ashley Brown is the unofficial recruiter for the women’s hockey league.
“I thought, ‘I can’t just let this go,’” said Hoppe.
Bay County Arena management gave the league an 8:30 p.m. time slot every Wednesday during the winter. Ice time usually comes at a premium for many local hockey teams, and members of the women’s league have no complaints.
“They gave us a great time that works for everyone’s schedule,” Brown said. “We have a lot of players who are mothers and who work. They need time to feed their kids, put them to bed; things they have to work around during a normal day.”
Renee Hoppe and Mary Frank play on the women’s league nights at 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays.Hockey is proving to be an excellent competitive and fitness outlet for women across the United States as well. It’s a fast-growing youth sport – the USA Hockey organization says that 83,000 girls played hockey in the U.S. in 2018-19, with those numbers expected to rise in the future.
Those numbers could climb in mid-Michigan, as well, as Hoppe – who coaches youth hockey teams with her husband – said more girls compete in boy’s youth leagues than ever before. The area has one competitive all-girls team, the Saginaw Junior Spirit, which plays in a 12-and-under travel league.
“(Hockey) isn’t as popular with women around here as in some other places,” Hoppe said. “There are 11 of us who play in men’s leagues in Midland, and some of us who play in men’s league in Bay City, too. But I think it can grow.”
Growing numbers of girls and women, including Paige Churchfield, are discovering the fitness and fun of ice hockey.Hoppe and Brown honed their skills by playing in men’s leagues in Bay City and Midland. Both played sports while growing up but didn’t start playing hockey until they were young adults.
“My dad has played hockey his entire life,” said Brown. “Soccer was my main sport, and I played on a club team at SVSU.
“But when I got out of college, I missed that organized team kind of feeling of competing with and against others. I’d also played in all kinds of intramural teams in college, so I started to think about what I could do after I graduated.”
Players, including Renee Hoppe, divide into teams each week to play games on three 12-minute periods during the 12-game women’s hockey season.The Bay City league features a mix of players, some who’ve played hockey for several years (including in college) and others who may still be a bit shaky on skates. But skill level isn’t a prerequisite for joining the league.
“If you show up, we’ll get you on the ice, even if you’re brand new to skating,” Brown said. “The skill level of the women evens out, and we pick teams to make sure that players of a certain level aren’t all on the same team.
“What’s nice is that we can help the new players along. We’ll stop to have a teaching moment because we’d hate to have a player who struggles because no one is helping her out.”
The Bay City women’s league is registered with USA hockey, which serves, in part, as an insurance policy, and also has referees. The Bay City women’s league is registered with USA hockey, which serves, in part, as an insurance policy, and also has referees.
Players pay $120 each for the full 12-game winter schedule, while drop-ins pay $15 per night. Based on the success and popularity of the league’s first season so far, Hoppe said there’s a good chance they’ll have spring and fall leagues, as well.
“Based on our numbers, I think that’s a real possibility,” she said. “A lot of us don’t want to stop playing when the winter season ends.”
The women help each other become familiar with the equipment and rules.There’s also the social aspect of the league, which both Brown and Hoppe say is an integral part of the league’s success and survival.
“We had one lady show up the other night who hadn’t played in a year, and she told us how much she missed playing and hanging out with us,” said Hoppe.
“We have a lot of fun. And I’d rather get on the ice than a treadmill any day.”
Women can contact the league via its Facebook page.