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Adult ice hockey

Midcoast women put icy cool in popular stick sport

Winter league at Midcoast Receration Center provides fun refuge for female rink athletes
By Holly Vanorse Spicer | Mar 22, 2020
Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer Scene from the Midcoast Women's Ice Hockey League in Rockport. Liz Gioia, left, and Kristen Smith.

Rockport — Around the world, ice hockey organizations call the women’s game the fastest growing sport.

For good reason, USA Hockey shows participation growth in the sport has risen 34-percent in a decade. Registrations for women’s ice hockey are six-and-a-half times greater than men's.

Zsuzanna Kolbenhayer, committee chairwoman for the International Ice Hockey Federation, shared at a recent conference there are nearly 200,000 women worldwide who participate in the sport. In 2010, there were about 170,000 women in the sport.

Locally, for the Midcoast Women’s Ice Hockey League out of the Midcoast Recreation Center, it has taken a little longer for those numbers to grow. However, they are growing.

For 15 years, Cheryl Levin of Warren has undertaken the task as director, as she has worked to secure time on the ice, recruit players, and keep the long season going smoothly.

From 2001 to 2003, the program was run by the rink at MRC However, as Chris Bigelow, who ran the program at the time, needed to concentrate more on the youth program, he asked for captains to take over a more organizational role.

At one point, Bigelow needed a point person to sign off on the contracts, and to be responsible for taking care of funding.

“It was a progression to the role as director,” Levin said.

In 2004, Levin became the director, and also at that time the program moved from rink run, to private.

The years between then, and now, the program has seen hurdles alongside its progress

“I remember years where there were just 23 or 27 women,” Levin said.

For two hours of skating, those numbers were a struggle. Sometimes, Levin said the numbers were so small, they had to recruit spouses, and partners to play.

Levin did not want to keep that trend going, as there were already coed ice hockey opportunities, and her goal was to keep the program as something specifically for women.

Other times, they were without enough goalies, so other players would take turns in the net.

“It was a challenge, but one we took on with the best of attitudes,” she said.

Levin said having everyone take a turn in net gave the players a greater appreciation for the goalies, and what they do, how they are able to see the puck move through all of the gear they wear.

She said 40 active players in the league was the perfect number. Getting their numbers up was important, but Levin said it was not without stress.

When she began playing in the ice hockey league, Levin also was running an indoor and outdoor soccer program, trying to create a year-round program for the sport. She said that she would try to recruit her soccer players to come and play ice hockey, and also try to get ice hockey players to come to soccer.

“Soccer players thought hockey would be too aggressive, intense, and the hockey players thought soccer was going to be way too much running,” she said.

“I would tell the soccer players that there can be a lot of gliding in hockey, very little resistance, very freeing. I can’t say the same thing about soccer," she said.

Over the years, the program has grown, continuously connecting women of various sporting and non-sporting backgrounds to the ice for the 23-week season.

Some have young families, some older families with the children grown and out of the nest. There are various day jobs, an array of ice skating histories, or lack of.

However, when they hit the ice, the community the league has built, brings them together.

Cheryl Levin

Levin came into the sport of ice hockey when she wanted to be able to better help her customers at Maine Sport Outfitters when it came to selling gear.

Until then, Levin's primary sport had been soccer.

“A friend that was working with me, she pretty much roped me into it. She also was a beginner so we did it together,” she said.

After her first season, Levin said that she ended up sticking with it because it was a team sport, and it had a long season.

She added the women who have been involved have been inspiring and supportive.

“There’s so many different women doing it for similar reasons, but coming at it from a different background. It’s exciting to be a part of that,” she said.

“I would miss it if I wasn’t doing it. I would miss the women, I would miss the sport,” she said.

Anne Williams

Anne Williams of West Rockport is one of the players who has been with the program the longest. She joined the league 19 years ago, when it was still in its earliest, formative stages.

Williams played pond hockey as a child; however, later, in her teen years, focused more on the sports of field hockey, softball and lacrosse.

It was at the age of 50 she came to ice hockey.

“It’s fun, it’s good-hearted fun,” she said.

In 2010, Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She said that it was a few years before her diagnosis that she had developed a tremor on her left side.

Struggled with her left side while skating, she couldn’t push out on the ice, she said.

“I was a one-legged skater,” Williams said.

That was when she said she realized that she was not going to be skating anymore because of her diagnosis.

“I didn’t want to give the word Parkinson’s power over me,” she said.

Her outlook became that she was not in a battle with Parkinson’s, she was living with Parkinson’s.

Through neurology, homeopathy, massage, Tai chi, walking and other forms of movement, and treatment, Williams found her way back to the ice.

“It’s not just one thing,” she said.

Williams said she told her homeopathic doctor that they would be finished working together when she was back on the ice.

On Dec. 31, 2018, Williams found herself lacing up freshly sharpened skates, and getting out on the ice with her family on a small pond near their home.

"What it's been like, getting back on the ice again, is like a miracle coming true," she said.

“It’s such an amazing feeling to skate,” she said. "It's the closest thing to flying."

Brooke Holland

Holland, a teacher in Regional School Unit 40, joined when her twin daughters were four years old.

“I wanted them to see me go for something out of my comfort zone,” she said.

Holland said she feels proud of taking that step to join four years ago. The community the league has created was welcoming, and she said she was mentored by many of the more seasoned players.

“It’s a wonderful community that appreciates women coming out to make a change, be vulnerable, and teach you something new,” she said.

It also puts into action the motto of leading by example. Holland remembers a moment when one of her students saw her at the rink, and asked Holland if she played ice hockey.

“I said I learned four years ago, and the look on her face of admiration, and respect just left me feeling proud of myself for taking the risk four years ago, and maybe empowering another girl to consider it in her future,” she said.

Holland also feels it has given her a better appreciation and understanding for what is asked of children day in and day out.

“Take risks, be vulnerable, and empower yourself,” she said.

Lindsey Clement

Lindsey Clement of Union is well-known in the area's sports community for her role on the sidelines as the varsity field hockey coach for Camden Hills Regional High School, and previously the coach for the Camden-Rockport Middle School team.

“I lost a bet, that’s how I ended up here [at the rink],” she said.

The deal Clement made was, that if the friend showed up to the adult field hockey league at the PITCH in Warren, Clement would go to ice hockey. That was three seasons ago.

“I never left,” she said.

Clement sees her time in the ice rink as when she doesn't have to organize, or coach. She can enjoy the sport, and the time without the background stress that she faces with field hockey.

"I can't do that with anything field hockey-related. This is my time," she said.

While her background is strong in field hockey, Clement also has played lacrosse and basketball.

In ice hockey, unlike any other sport, she said that you can have a bad, or a tough 90-second shift, but after resetting, the next 90 seconds can be the exact opposite.

"Sports, I feel, are just a huge part of my life," she said.

Phoebe Jekielek

Phoebe Jekielek of Rockland has a passion for basketball, but also admits she is athletic, and will give any sport a try to see how it goes for her.

Jekielek learned to skate on a flooded concrete square in her backyard. Her father would make the small skating space by putting up 2x4-pieces of wood, and fill the space with just enough water for skating when it would freeze over.

It was in the early 2000s that Jekielek learned to play ice hockey in Pemaquid.

In 2016, she made her way to the women's league at MRC.

"It was a hard year for me, and I really needed a distraction from things that were going on. I needed lots of physical exercise, and needed a 'team,' " she said.

Jekielek said the league has wonderful women who like to teach, help others, and were supportive during the learning process.

"That's what I needed, and I found it in hockey," she said.

Jekielek, along with Clement, are some of the players from the league who annually make the trek to Rangeley to play in the Rangeley Pond Hockey tournament.

Andrea Garver

Andrea Garver of Owls Head is a rarity to the league. While some players have ice hockey experience, or even figure-skating experience, Levin said that players such as Garver, with a significant ice hockey background is uncommon.

Garver said she grew up as a rink rat in Massachusetts, either as a spectator for her brother, and sister, or as a player herself when she was older. At one point, her father, and her sister created a girls team, as she later joined a more established girls team.

"I loved it from the first moment I was on the ice," she said.

At the age of 10, Garver began playing ice hockey until she was 18.

After a 20-year hiatus from the sport, she made her return after hearing about the league.

"My kids were little. I used to do the seven-in-the-morning practice for the Nor'Easters, and I would make them come," she said.

"They would sit by the fire place while we practiced," she said.

The aid of a special treat of hot cocoa and donuts helped, she added.

Garver, whose sporting background also includes field hockey, which she still plays, as well as coaches, says that ice hockey is a mindful sport.

"When you're out there, you can't think about other things. You have to think about what you're doing," she said.

"It's not the same in field hockey, I can easily be thinking of other things," she said.

Garver also said playing ice hockey has been a stress reliever for her.

"My family really appreciates me playing hockey. I might have been a little grumpier before I started," she said.

Garver also echoed similar sentiments about the group of players that many others feel as well. She said it was not just her love of being out on the ice, but it was also the camaraderie, and the connection.

Levin said players have moved away, after having played in the league, and tried other teams in their new home locations.

"I'm sure some succeed, but some try to do it, and they really miss what we have here. That connection," she said.

Levin added that is partly the reason she stays involved, and organizes the league.

"I want to make sure this is available in this way," she said.

"No two people are the same out there, but everyone comes together," Clement said.

"Some of my closest friends have come from hockey," Garver said.

At the end of the season, the players gather for a potluck to celebrate the season. It's a way for the players to reminisce about moments on the ice that year, and see one another out of their gear.

It also starts the countdown to the start of the next season.

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