Hockey's Historic Highlights

A Woman's On the Ice (Part 2)

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

A Woman's On the Ice (Part 2)

Posted March 08, 2017

Viewed 2683 times

Hayley Wickenheiser (Photo credit: Dave Holland)
Hayley Wickenheiser (Photo credit: Dave Holland)

   “A woman’s place is in the kitchen (nursery)”, was held as sacred philosophy for at least the first 40 years of the 20th Century (plus ad infinitum through most of previously recorded history). With the birth of the Women’s Liberation Movement this slogan gained some alterations: “A woman’s place is in the kitchen, sitting in a comfortable chair with her feet up, watching her husband cook dinner.”

    As was obvious from part one of this missive, going back even as far as the late 1800’s, while the “entrance to a man’s heart (still is) through his stomach”, common sense dictates that the fair sex can be at home doing more than standing by a cook stove, or changing diapers near the baby’s crib.

    Recognition of a woman’s right to enjoy Canada’s National Sport on the ice, as well as in the stands cheering for her significant other, has not come easily or quickly. Perhaps the climax of that progress was demonstrated by 8,000 spectators filling a significant portion of the Air Canada Centre on February 11, watching the Canadian Women’s Hockey League All Star game. Repetition of a slogan, which was applied to a far less worthy progression decades ago, is worthwhile. “You’ve come a long way, Baby” has been demonstrated in the evolution of female hockey, from those early days of “long skirts and short sticks” to the merry maiden’s intrusion into every avenue of what once was a man’s domain.

  Our former treatise acknowledged evidence of these rapidly opening doors in 1980’s. But that success was only amplified during the next two decades.

     The blockbuster breakthrough came in 1992, when, for the first time, a lady played in a men’s pro hockey league regular season contest. Manon Rhéaume cracked the ice initially in an exhibition game with Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL, when she stood between the uprights for one period on Sept. 23, 1992.  She allowed two goals on eight shots. She followed up by joining the Atlanta Knights of the IHL, where she became the “talk of the town.” The fact that she had competed in Junior hockey the year before with Trois-Rivières did lessen the amazement; but it was still a memorable milestone not to be sneezed at.

   In that debut for the Atlanta Knights, she played two regular-season games, where she earned the distinction of being the first woman to compete in a pay-for-play stage. For the 1993-94 season she moved to Nashville and Knoxville for four games each. Tallahassee of the ECHL, and Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL came next. In ’96-’97 she switched to the Western Pro loop with Reno for 11 contests; and rounded out her career with Flint of the IHL in 1908-09.

   Her first win in these circles came on Nov. 6, 1993. But that same season two other gals, both from the USA, busted the gender barriers. One was Erin Whitten from Glens Falls, New York. It fell to her take the honours of the first win for the belles of the shinny ball. That went into the record books one week before Rhéaume’s milestone, when she backstopped the ECHL’s Toledo Storm to a 6-5 victory over the Dayton Bombers. Her career was somewhat shorter than Manon’s. Following four contests in the Ohio net, she moved briefly to Dallas Freeze of the CHL. Over two campaigns she competed in the Colonial circuit, with Utica, Muskegon, and Flint, participating in nine games all tolled.  

   Shinny scribe deluxe. Stan Fischler, acknowledged the accomplishment of the aforementioned pair, but contends that “the real goods among lady netminders in male leagues is red-headed Kelly Dyer”. Certainly, her ascent to this level of the ice game is impressive. Amazingly, she made the boys hockey squad in high school, with none other than NHL’ers Bob Sweeney and Jeff Norton as teammates. But what is even more impressive is her competition for cage cop on that team with Tom Barrasso, also a goalie who went on to gain impressive stats in the world’s best hockey league. Not surprisingly, along with others, he personally didn’t want her on the team because she was a girl—but also because she vied with him to guard the hemp for the school’s sextet.

   She participated in 16 games in the Sunshine League with Jacksonville and West Palm Beach from 1993-94 through 1994-95. Her swan song was one contest when West Palm Beach was part of the Southern Pro League ’95-’96.

   Women invaded other venues of what continued to be considered male sports territory during the last decade of the 20th Century as well.  For instance, Sherry Ross became the first female in NHL history to do play by play of an NHL contest. On March 27th, she was pressed into service for period number one of the match between the Devils and Washington Capitals. She regularly did the colour commentary for New Jersey’s games, but when Gary Thorne missed a connecting flight he was late for the game.

   Debbie Wright had been a scout for Drummondville of the QMJHL in 1991. The following season she was promoted to part-time scout for the San Jose Sharks of the NHL, with her territory being designated especially in Quebec Province. 

   When Florida entered the NHL in 1993, Mary Rasenberg was appointed ice-maker for the fledgling squad. She was called the “head ice technician”, who boasted that “if I can make ice in Florida, I can make it anywhere!” The mother of four from Brockville, Ontario takes her job seriously—and enjoys it. She is comfortable driving the Zamboni—and playing in a Miami men’s league—the only female to do so. She was even penalized for being the “third man in” in an altercation.

   1000 miles north (1600 klm), Judy MacIntyre started as custodian of the Memorial Arena in Chatham, Ontario. By 1981 she was manager, with a staff of five working under her. While a veteran in that position, it wasn’t until 1994 that she entered the public eye. She didn’t share the love for hockey that Mrs. Rosenberg had. In fact, she alienated herself from pucksters in at least two ways. When the Chatham Wheels were part of the Colonial League, she bumped them in favour of a dog show, forcing them to play in the 1500-seat Thames College rink. Further, even when the arena was available to them, she didn’t turn on the compressor because figure skaters liked soft ice.

   Heather McDaniel penetrated another sacred ground by donning a striped jersey and sporting a whistle. Her debut was on Oct. 21, 1995 when she worked a contest in the Central League, between the Tulsa Oilers and Oklahoma City. She also officiated games in the West Coast Pro loop. During her years officiating in those minor leagues, the strangest experience took place when she was trying to break up a fight. One of the combatants kissed her. She was shocked, but admitted she had a hard time not to laugh. How long she may have continued is not known; but when she became pregnant in 1999 she hung her whistle for good, concentrating instead on life at home. She had worked her way to that level by overseeing Junior and Semi-pro matches, and even some exhibition tilts in Europe. It would be 16 years before another fem fatale would follow in her skate marks.

    The final year of the 20th Century saw a lady enter a new executive role. Deborah Lackey, who had been part of the office staff of the Central Texas Stampede was appointed General Manager at the WPHL’s All Star break on Jan. 9. Not since Marguerite Norris took over as Red Wings President in 1952 had a member of the so-called weaker sex held such a lofty office.

    Eight years later Maribel Castillo followed suit.  Near the end of 2006, she happily accepted the mantel of General Manager of the Corpus Christi Rayz of the Central League. Once more she made history in that she was the first female to reach that level of supervision in that loop. Previously she had apprenticed as Box Office Manager, Corporate Business Manager, and Assistant GM.

    While it may not have made headlines in the mainstream at the time, the obituary of Jane Petit as it appeared in the press on Oct. 5, 2001, certainly did. She had passed away almost a month earlier on Sept. 9th, and the breaking news revealed that she had been the owner of the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL since 1977. She had caught the hockey bug after her marriage to Lloyd Petit, voice of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1960’s. She had built the Bradley Center, home of the Admirals, as well as the NBA’s Bucks.

   On December 11, 2002 Danielle Dube joined Manon Rheaume, Erin Whitten, and Kelly Dyer in the select group of ladies who have played in a men’s pay-for-play circuit. That night she stopped 22 shots in net for the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the West Coast League, while losing to the San Diego Gulls. Seven years earlier she had served as back up for the league’s Bakersfield Fog and Texas Stampeders.

     Exactly one month later the coup de grace for feminality in shinny became history. Haley Wickenheiser raised the ante for women’s hockey by skating at a new post for the fair sex—at forward—for the Kirkkonummi Lightning (Salamat) in the second division men’s semi-pro loop in Finland. She had 12 minutes ice time and assisted on one tally in the team’s 7-3 triumph. Obviously, it was another first—both playing that position on a male league, and garnering a point in a pro loop.

    She did so amidst abundant publicity—not all of it positive. In the previous November, she had been denied a tryout with the Merano Eagles in Italy. She was rebuffed by the country’s Ice Federation, when they affirmed there was already a women’s semi-pro league in Italy.

   And, even though she had broken the ice with that appearance in the Finnish League, International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel opined that she “might want to give up her venture into men’s pro hockey”—for her own safety sake. The precaution was sounded over the possibility of a 220-pound defenseman clashing with her 173-pound frail frame.

   While Mr. Fasel’s “concern” probably represented at least some anti-female bias, but even the aforementioned Danielle Dube agreed partially about gals bumping against bigger men in on-ice action. While she admired Haley’s efforts, she argued that “Nature itself is any female’s nemesis. I don’t care how strong a female gets….our physiques are so much different!”

   But play she did. When the season concluded, the amazing amazon had played 23 games, scoring two goals and 13 points. And when August rolled around, with a new season on the horizon, she was all set to commence season number two, this time with the team promoted to the next division up. In a pre-season exhibition tilt, she had won five of eight face-offs, and was praised for her efforts. The sextet’s owner, Teemu Selanne, said, “If the players didn’t have names and numbers of their jerseys you wouldn’t be able to tell that one was a woman.”

   But her satisfaction in reaching that coveted milestone had lost its lustre by the middle of November. She was homesick for family, and her role had been diminished with Salamat. After 10 games she returned to Canada.

  She was back in action by 2008, signing a one-year contract with Eskilstuna Linden of the Swedish men’s league. She skated in 21 games, scoring one goal and adding three assists. She even spent 10 minutes in the sin bin.  But that was tout finis for her mercenary career.

   Meanwhile, back in North America……..

   Kim St.-Pierre holds several records in Woman’s International play—including copping the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She even filled in for Carey Price at a Montreal Canadien’s practice on one occasion when he had the flu. But she first came to light as another noteworthy lady puckster, when she backstopped MGill University’s men’s squad to a 5-2 win over Ryerson in 2003.

    Still the most unique intrusion by a woman into shinny’s male domination took place in 2005. The feat was celebrated with a photo—of Angela Ruggiero, side by side with her brother Bill, both sporting the colours of the Central League’s Tulsa Oilers.

   But it wasn’t a mere gimmick. When the Oklahoma sextet was short a defenseman that year, Bill Ruggiero suggested that they give his sister a try.  They agreed, and she became the first female to participate in a North American men’s league for a full complement of time. On Feb. 15, she competed for 13 minutes, took 13 shifts, and was plus-2.  When she assisted on a marker players from both teams rushed to congratulate her. She is one of four of her gender to gain entry to the Hall of Fame.

   Back in 2005-06, when the United League boasted 14 teams, Molly McMaster was involved in a publicity stunt—for a great cause. That season she played one 30-second shift for each of those clubs, seeking to raise awareness of colon cancer.

   In 2013-14, Shannon Szabados stepped into the crease to guard the twine for the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Pro League. The press release emphasized the fact that she was “fresh off a practice with the Edmonton Oilers”. She competed with Columbus for two full campaigns, then moved to the Peoria Rivermen for two games in 2016-17.

   Mention was made above that it would be 16 years following Heather McDaniel’s tenure as female whistle tooter in a men’s league before the feat was repeated. It was Erin Blair and Katie Guay who made that happen. In Nov. 2014, they made the officiating debuts calling a SPHL contest between Columbus and the Fayette Fire Antz. With Szabados tending goal for the Cottonmouth’s there were three of the fair sex on the ice that game.

   It would be remiss to fail to acknowledge another venue into which women have gained entrance. Space does not permit naming them all, but two ladies have held a prominent place in shinny journalism in the ilk of Shirley Fischler. Cynthia Lambert was lead hockey writer for the Detroit Red Wings in the 1990’s; and Helene Elliott, who covered the NHL path with Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles was given the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in recognition of “distinguished hockey writing” in 2005.

   We cap this essay with mention of Susan Darrington, once a teenage usher at Northlands Coliseum, who now holds the official title of “Vice President and General Manager” of the Oiler’s new facility, the Rogers Place. She is head honcho, overseeing the total operation of that $480 million arena.

   A woman’s place? There seems to be no venue in the world’s fastest sport where our fair ladies aren’t, or have not been, making an indelible mark. As the old song so aptly puts it: “Three Cheers for the Ladies!”


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