Chicks With Sticks

With the USA Hockey development program at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, University of Michigan hockey, a robust youth hockey associaton and a healthy density of ice rinks, Ann Arbor has settled snugly into its niche as a hockey town. (Its proximity to the Hockeytown doesn't hurt.)

Lots of kids play hockey. Lots of guys play hockey. And not all women here wear figure skates. More adult women play ice hockey in Michigan than in any other state. Southeastern Michigan is home to the biggest women's league in the country, and eight of the 37 teams in the Michigan Senior Women's Hockey League are based in Ann Arbor. According to USA Hockey registrations, there are more women playing hockey in Washtenaw County (131) than in 25 states. Factor is the whole of Metro Detroit and we are truly Hockey town, U.S.A. for the fairer sex.

Ann Arbor, in this case, is where stereotypes go to die.

"You don't hear anyone saying, "Aw, women can't play hockey," said Mich Rasulis, who plays on and manages a co-ed team at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube and a women's team that plays in Michelle and Camille's Recreational Hockey League (MACRHL). "The women don't feel that way; the men don't feel that way. I've got a lot of husband-and-wife teams, where I play with the husband at The Cube and I play with the wife at MACRHL. It's the liberal water in Ann Arbor, I think, that makes women and men think it's all fair game."

 Doctors, university professors, technicians and electricians happily lace 'em up for house leagues and travel teams with names like the Iron Maidens and the Frozen Assets. Some of their members played club hockey in college, some grew up skating with boys, but many came to the sport as adults – much to their own surprise.

"I got started just by skating with a friend I worked with, " said Rasulis, 41. "Neither of us had hockey experience. I brought it up; I was practically joking, like, "Yeah, if we get good enough we could play hockey."

"She called me out on it, and all of a sudden there was this league we could sign up for that was starting in two weeks..."

MACRHL ( pronounced "mackerel") has been the gateway to hockey for many of the women who play in Ann Arbor. The league plays at Veterans Park Ice Arena on Friday nights, October-May, and it welcomes beginners – in a friendly, supportive way rather than a "Heh heh, fresh meat." kind of way.

It's still hockey, of course. Checking is illegal, but there's plenty of contact. Players want to win, but more than that they want to play the game and have fun. Typical bench chatter veers from the game to kids and pets and home improvement projects and back again. 

 "After that last frost all my daffodils were all drooped over on the ground... HEY! SHE WAS OFF-SIDE!... Yeah, but I cut some and brought them in the house and they perked right up."

Tammy McCullough is half of one of those aforementioned husband-and-wife teams. A transplant from Seattle with no previous hockey experience, she joined a never-ever (no experience necessary) league at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube with her husband, Ron Van Diepen, and a group of roller-hockey-playing friends about nine years ago. Halfway into the season, McCullough found out she was pregnant. She figured she could play a while longer, but a solid hit in the next game convinced her to ice the rest of the season.

McCullough joined MACRHL the following fall, and has played in the the league ever since. A triathlete in the off-season, it's not uncommon for her to hang around the rink on Friday night and pick up two or three extra games as a substitute.

"I love MACRHL; I love playing with women. It's just much more relaxed. If someone runs into you, they always say "I'm sorry,"  she said.

Van Diepen, who also took up hockey as an adult, plays 2-3 nights a week. Their 9-year-old son, Ryan, plays on a travel team and their 7-year old son, Reid, recently "retired" from hockey. ("He's swimming now," McCullough said. "We told him he couldn't just sit around and play his DS.") And for two years the family shared their home with Danny Kristo, a high school-age player from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

Kristo has since moved on, drafted by the Montreal Canadiens last summer. Possibly sensing a hockey void in her life, McCullough, 43,  signed on as a sub with one of the MSWHL teams this year.

The league has teams that travel all over southeastern Michigan and divisions that range from recreational to "Holy crap, how did she do that?"

Marcia Bolliard  has played in the MSWHL for six years, no less immersed in the sport than someone who's been playing it for a lifetime.

Boliard's daughter, Tara, started playing ice hockey when she was about 11.  Marcia had always been an athlete – though not a hockey player – and on the drives home from games she couldn't help but offer her um, motherly observations.

"You know, it's not that easy," Tara shot back one day. "Why don't you do it?"

"You know, maybe I will," Marcia said.

"I went out, stepped on the ice and fell on my butt, but I was hooked," Boliard said. "I did some learn-to-skate, did some lessons. I went to some clinics with Tara and accelerated pretty fast...

"At first it was the physical aspect of the sport (that I found challengeing)  -  having to be strong enough to skate and get get knocked around," she said. "Then there was the challenge of the technical parts of skating and stickhandling. As I progressed, that was rewarding and I kept wanting to get better at those skills. It's addicting."

She joined MACRHL, joined a team in the travel league, and was almost immediately on the ice 3-5 days a week. This year, with some of her old teammates and other hockey friends, she started a new travel team. Tara Boliard, now 20 and a veteran of a Little Caesars national championship team, is one of their coaches.

"She's kicking our butts," Marcia said. "If we miss the net she makes us do pushups."
Now "well over 45," Boliard has earned a coaching certification – anticipating that day when she actually stops playing Maybe. Someday. But maybe not soon.

"A lot of the women I talk to are in their 40s - and not early 40s," Boliard said. "It's kind of nice to be encouraged at my age to go out and skate in a beginning women's league. I wish I'd started when I was in my 20s."

Amy Whitesall can high stick with the best of tyhem. She is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to metromode and Concentrate. Her previous Concentrate article was Mastermind: Amanda Edmonds.

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