When it comes to women's hockey, it's not whether you win or lose. It's that you play the game.
A New Ice Age
The hum of a Zamboni machine announces the coming of a new ice age. As the monster emerges from its cave to slowly slurp up shavings and lick the ice clean like a humongous mechanical squeegee, the all-ages skate session at SkateNation stops. When the resurfacing job is done all blade marks are gone. Play time is over: For the next hour and a half the Richmond Raptors, the area's only women's ice hockey team, will spend its time on the ice. Shortly before 7 p.m. each Sunday from September to March, more than a dozen women clutching their hockey sticks and their bulging, yard-long duffel bags scurry into SkateNation. One by one, the players prop their sticks up against the wall and disappear into a smelly, stifling locker room. In minutes, their heavy pads and jerseys transform them from computer analysts, business owners, teachers, graphics artists and moms into a formidable-looking team. In minutes, a vulcanized solid rubber missile 3 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick will fly across the rink at speeds that make you marvel a puck can be stopped at all. Every one of those 6-ounce pucks carries the weight of adolescent dreams. The kid skaters, kicked off the ice for women's sake, wobble heel-to-toe toward benches outside the rink. They exchange their skates for sneakers and head out. If the Renegades were up it might be different. Some might stick around to watch. The Raptors don't appear deflated by the lack of fanfare. They're used to it. When the coast is clear, they glide almost effortlessly to strike the puck repeatedly into its place in the net. "Women's ice hockey?" asks one Richmonder, surprised to see that the game exists in the same city where quasi-professional sports teams struggle to win spectators. "What's next?" Players for the Raptors say it could be a championship. Fledgling teams in any sport are usually content with moral victories if they can't win actual ones. But in its second year in the East Coast Women's Hockey League, a Division B league made up of six teams from Maryland to North Carolina, the Raptors earn their stripes with bona-fide wins. They've won five games out of six this season. Some people say women's hockey can't be as serious as men's, as if the swift and easily incited brutality of men's hockey is the only quality that counts. The bone-crushing check in the corner, the 100 mph slap shot from the blue line and the elbow-jabbing chaos in the goal crease are not prized parts of the women's game. In 1992, a player named Manon Rheume played an exhibition game with the National Hockey League's Tampa Bay Lightning against St. Louis. Seemingly overnight, Rheume became the poster girl, the player cited as proof that a combination of estrogen-charged guts and glamour can rule the rink. The next year, ice hockey became a varsity sport for girls in some Northern schools. And in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, women's ice hockey made its international debut. The U.S. Olympic team brought home the gold. For all that, women's ice hockey is almost a secret in the South. There aren't many deeply frozen backyard ponds to skate on instead, hockey is usually relegated to fields or playgrounds. But year-round ice rinks like SkateNation make the sport more accessible than in the past. The Raptors, most of whom are transplants from the North, say that's a start. They gladly shell out the $600 apiece to SkateNation for the chance to play the sport they grew up watching but couldn't play. The Richmond Raptors are out to prove that, even in the South, women are headed, slowly, into another kind of ice age. And then a new generation of stick-wielding female skaters will break the ice. [image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Gayle Hicks Gayle Hicks, 30 No. 1, goalie "Even though you're on a team, there is an individual component. That's why I like playing goalie. I started out playing with guys and came up here [from Tappahannock] to play pickup, and one day I was asked to join the team. The Raptors is the first women's team I've played on. I bought my equipment second-hand for a thousand bucks. If it were new it would have been about two thousand. I've had my finger broken, my miniscus torn and a hairline fracture. "I watch all the NHL goalies. Olaf Kolzig with the [Washington] Capitals is my favorite. He covers a whole lot of net, but it's not just that; he's also acrobatic. If it's going kind of slow, I start singing to myself, la da da da. Still, it's always exciting. You've got the people outside watching and tapping on the boards and that's great and it's a good feeling, but the game isn't over. If I make 20 good saves in the first half, the game's not over. I'm not happy until the game is over." [image-2](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Julie DolanJulie Dolan, 32 No. 7, assistant captain, center "There were some rumblings of a team when I moved here in 1998, but it wasn't very organized. I had played with the Chesapeake Bay Lightning in Maryland. I grew up in Minnesota and wanted to play ever since I was 7. My parents wouldn't let me play hockey on a boy's team. Back then, there were no girl's teams so I played ringette. Most girls who played ringette really wanted to be hockey players. It's similar to ice hockey, but you use a stick with no blade and you use it to spear an open ring. In '87, we went to a national tournament in Finland. We got our clocks cleaned. When I was in graduate school in D.C., I read an ad in one of those free papers about a women's ice hockey team calling for players. I was so excited. I thought, I've only waited 20 years to do this. "Ice hockey is absolutely the most fun sport I can ever imagine playing. What you get out there on the ice that complete mind freeze you can't simulate any other way. Hockey's had a bum rap as a rough sport, but there's nothing more graceful. Speed is definitely a part of it. It's so fun to skate on these tiny little blades that seem to barely touch the ice with the wind whipping through your hair. It's exhilarating. "People seem surprised and interested when they hear there's a women's ice hockey team in Richmond. Up North, going to a championship game is an excused absence from school. That's how much hockey is a part of the fabric of life. Here, women are either scared stiff or they don't know it exists. One of the biggest fears I hear is: 'I'm a Southerner and I don't know how to skate.' But you can always learn to skate." [image-3](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Chris LorenzChris Lorenz, 31 No. 18, wing "I've been skating forever. I grew up in northwest Indiana. We had a pond out back that we could skate on six months out of the year. It's a lot of fun. After I moved to Richmond I met my husband, Kevin, [at SkateNation], because I was working [there] and he plays on a men's team. He and Mike [Varner] are our assistant coaches, and they help coach Fred [McGregor] by working with us to improve our skills on the ice. Kevin motivates me, and it's cool that we can do this together. I'm working on getting my stamina back. I hadn't been on the ice in the months before practices started up. I had my daughter, Katerina, 10 months ago. She's walking now and people already want to know when we'll get her on skates. I laugh and tell them: 'Just as soon as we can find a pair small enough to fit her.'" [image-4](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Nicole Reynolds Nicole Reynolds, 32 No. 9, wing "I've skated since I was a little girl. I grew up in New York. I've always liked watching NHL games. My favorite team is the Buffalo Sabres. You hit your 30-year mark and it's like, 'I am not old!' "I'm pretty competitive, I guess, and I like that aspect of the game. I like that it's physical; it's a great stress reliever. I've had a couple of bruises. I play with the guys sometimes, and that's usually when you get hurt, and that's just 'cause they hit a lot harder. My family was really surprised when I told them I was playing hockey, especially the guys. They're like, 'Ooh, you play field hockey,' and I say: 'No, ice hockey!' "My daughters [Jessica, 5 and, Haley, 7] see me play, and at home they play hockey in the kitchen. I want them to grow up feeling like they can play any sport, even if it's aggressive, without feeling intimidated. It's been really slow to develop but women's hockey is growing. It goes to show women are becoming a lot more independent when it comes to sports. The boundaries that used to exist are disintegrating." [image-5](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Shawn Smith Shawn Smith, 41 No. 13, defense "I always thought it'd be a real neat thing to do, to play ice hockey. Like how cool is that? I took a clinic that was offered here in March of '98, so I've been skating for 2ø years. I never skated before that. I love a challenge. I've played all kinds of sports, but this is one of the most fun. I always smile when I play hockey. It's hard for women once they reach their mid-20s to find a team sport they can compete in. We have like 600,000 people around. You'd think we wouldn't have a problem fielding 12 [women's] teams." [image-6](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Lindsay Hancock Lindsay Hancock, 17 No. 21, defense "Ohio State keeps sending me stuff and they want to see my game. They've got my transcripts. I just don't know if I want to go that far away. I had surgery for the third time on my right ankle Dec. 20. I was helping to teach hockey at a camp for kids and I was going to cut a sharp corner and it just tore. I have to stay off it for six weeks and I've got four more to go. I tried to talk the doctor into letting me play sooner, but he wouldn't go for it. It's been hard. I'd play hockey every day if I could. "I started out figure skating because my mom wouldn't let me play ice hockey. It's more aggressive than most sports. But we don't allow checking. I also play on a guy's team, the Generals, and we're undefeated. At first they were like, 'You're a girl, you can't play hockey.' But when they saw that I could play for real they started treating me just like one of the guys. They even look out for me because I'm smaller. But it's been an interesting experience bonding with the women on the Raptors. The guys get really mad if they mess up, but the women are out there for the fun of it. They kind of act like mothers around me and that's pretty
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