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Minnesota Girls/Womens Hockey

In the State of Hockey, hockey is stronger than ever with not only men’s and new youth hockey teams increasing in numbers throughout the land of 10,000 lakes but also women and girls teams increasing in numbers at a much more rapid pace.  Leading this increase in the strength of the game, however, is without question the explosive growth of girls’ and women’s hockey.  While the Boys’ tourney continues to be a fixture in Minnesota some 65 years after the first puck was dropped at the old St. Paul Auditorium back in 1945, the girls’ high school tourney has been somewhat quietly building a tremendous tradition of its own.  First officially started back in 1995, girl’s high school hockey has been a work in progress that has paid big dividends for countless lady pucksters in the State-of-Hockey.  Young women today have many more opportunities after high school than were ever thought possible just over 10 years ago.  The bottom line is that Title IX legislation that has proven to be a major influence on the development of girls’ and women’s sports in the U.S., and Minnesota girls’ hockey is living proof that it has worked.  Today there are upwards of 60,000 girls and women playing some forms of organized ice hockey throughout the United States.  Minnesota is leading the way with some 300 amateur girls’ hockey teams.  Add to that nearly 130 girls’ varsity high school teams, not to mention another 50 or so junior varsity programs, and it becomes readily apparent why Minnesota kids are filling up the rosters of women’s college and university teams across the country.  Minnesota’s youth feeder-programs have paid big dividends as well, with more and more young girls graduating into higher levels each year.  While the high school game took off in the 1990’s, many people aren’t aware of the fact that women have been playing competitive hockey for nearly a century in Minnesota.  The first women’s hockey games ever recorded took place in 1891, in Barrie, Ontario, and also in Ottawa.  In fact, one the games first pioneers was Isobel Stanley, daughter of Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada’s sixth governor and namesake of the NHL’s coveted Stanley Cup.  The women’s game soon spread south-of-the-border after the turn of the century to both the East Coast and also into Minnesota.  

In 1918, according to University of Minnesota “Gopher” yearbooks, some 30 women tried out for the first-ever Gopher Women’s hockey team.  Oftentimes playing to large crowds, the women played through the 1920’s at the skating rink on Northrop Field (near the Armory on the UofM campus).  These were the heydays for women’s hockey, as the Gophers played teams from Duluth and the Iron Range, as well as from nearby Carleton College.  In addition, the Gopher women played against other women’s club teams, coed fraternity and sorority teams, and even some local men’s teams.  This came at an empowering time for women, who were now in the midst of the women’s suffrage movement, which challenged society for equality in education work and play.  In addition to fighting for equal rights women had to prove to the world that they could do anything men could do.  It serves both young people and adults to remember that women were not allowed to vote until 1926.  During the war years women’s hockey continued to blossom.  With most of the men overseas, women began working, supporting their families, and enjoying a new independence they had not known before.  While women’s baseball flourished during this time – a pro league was started in the Midwest that included the Minneapolis Millerettes that was featured in the movie “A League of Their Own” – other women’s team sports, including hockey, were often the only game in town.  Similar to baseball, women’s industrial hockey leagues popped up and fueled the growth of the game.  In the mid 1970’s, in addition to community-based grass-roots programs, girls ice hockey was starting to be included in the athletic programs of several Minnesota school districts.  Inspired by Billie Jean king, who defeated professional male tennis champion Bobbie Riggs in a “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match broadcast around the country, little girls everywhere saw that they were capable of achieving anything.  In 1974, the first girls’ Pee Wee and Bantam tournaments were held with White Bear Lake winning the Pee Wee title and Mounds View taking the Bantam crown.  While many of these early women’s league programs folded within only a few years, a few did stay together and continued to play into the early 1980s.  Many of those same girls who got their start at the youth level went onto star on women’s Midget, senior and club teams around the state.

December 25, 1977 Women's Hockey Gaining Popularity

In 1979 the Minnesota Checkers Womens Open B Team won the B Division National Championship, becoming the first girls' or women's hockey team in Minnesota to claim such a National title. They would go on to win three more National Championships following their historic first in 1979.  By 1982 there were 116 teams registered in the women’s division of USA Hockey, covering the spectrum from Squirts through seniors.  In 1986 Lynn Olson, the “Godmother of Minnesota Hockey,” formed the Minnesota Women’s Hockey Association that later became a part of the Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) and USA Hockey.  This really opened the door for women everywhere to get involved.  By 1987 there were 150 girls’ team registered nationwide with USA Hockey.  With the growth and success of women’s hockey in the state, Minnesota hosted the USA/Girls National tournament in 1998 and 1992.  That same year of 1992 there were 39 girls’ and women’s teams registered with MAHA and USA Hockey in Minnesota, and a record 25 teams took part in the five divisions of the MAHA State Girls’ Hockey Tournament.

Augsburg Womens Hockey Inaugural Season 1995-1996

As part of gender equality requirements set forth by state and federal laws, schools must give equal athletic opportunities for boys and girls.  In 1991, 65 percent of Minnesota high schools were not in compliance with this gender equity law, according to a Minnesota Department of Education Survey.  In order to correct this problem, five schools introduced ringette, a game similar to hockey, in 1991.  While ringette was fairly well received by those schools playing it, girls at other schools wanted to play hockey.  In 1992 the Minnesota State High School League surveyed its member school to gain a more accurate assessment of which sports high school girls were most interested in playing.  Nearly 8,000 girls indicated that they would love to play high school hockey if it were only offered.  Soon there wishes would be granted.  In March 1994, after witnessing the growth of participation and potential for its future, the Minnesota State High School League’s Representative Assembly took a giant leap of faith by voting to become the first state high school association in the country to sanction girls’ ice hockey as a varsity sport.  The month and year of February, 1994 could be considered the single largest history making month for Girl's/Women's hockey in the State of Minnesota, with the States first Collegiate team being announced, and the first State Girls High School Hockey Tournament starting within Minnesota - and the Nation.  Augsburg College President Charles Anderson announced on February 17, 1995 that the school would "Add Women's ice hockey to its intercollegiate athletic program for the 1995-1996 season", and with it Augsburg became the first Minnesota College or University - public or private - to officially add Women's ice hockey as a varsity intercollegiate sport. One month later, on March 17, 1995 Augsburg hired Women's hockey pioneer, and a former Checkers Women's National Championship player Jill Pohtilla as it's first Women's Hockey Coach -a position she held from 1995-2014.  In the history making month and year of February, 1994, South St. Paul and the Academy of Holy Angels played for the States first high school girl’s hockey game on November 19, 1994.  Later that same year, in response to the overwhelming outcry for more organization in the sport, eight teams representing 11 schools hit the ice for an inaugural state tournament for high school girls, although not yet sponsored by the Minnesota State High School League; Blaine/Coon Rapids beat Anoka/Champlin Park 3-0 for the “unofficial” 1994 State Title.  That same year, there were 78 amateur girls’ youth teams registered in the state, up from 29 only four years earlier.  Twenty-four varsity teams took to the ice that inaugural 1994-1995 season, while an additional 12 schools featured junior varsity teams, giving more than 1,000 girls in Minnesota the chance to play hockey at various high school levels.  On February 24, 1995, with the eyes of the nation upon them, the puck was dropped in the first-ever State High School Girl’s Hockey Tournament in the country, held at the 3,500-seat Aldrich Arena in Maplewood.  Aldrich Arena was chosen to host the tournament instead of a larger arena, such as the St. Paul Civic Center, as organizers decided it would be best to fill a smaller arena instead of playing in a larger building that would be only half-full (history has proven that this has changed as we will discuss).  The inaugural tournament field had teams from Stillwater Area, Apple Valley, South St. Paul, and Henry Sibley of Mendota Heights.  While Apple Valley defeated South St. Paul 2-0 to become the first state girl’s high school hockey champion, it was just the beginning of bigger things to come.  Since then, girls’ hockey, as well as the tournament has grown exponentially.  Roseville Area, led by the fabulous Curtin sisters, Ronda and Renee, defeated Burnsville for the 1996 title.  In 1997 the tournament moved to the bigger State Fair Coliseum.  In addition, due to the explosive growth of teams, the state tournament field also expanded from four to eight teams.  Hibbing, behind Amber Frykland’s four goals, went on to beat the Natalie Darwitz- led Eagan Wildcats 6-3 for the 1997 State Title.  In 1998, perhaps inspired by the U.S. Women’s Olympic team’s amazing gold medal run in Nagano, Japan, KMSP-TV contracted to broadcast the Girl’s Championship game live throughout the state.  That year Apple Valley beat Hibbing in one of the most exciting finals ever as then sophomore winger Leslie Stoen got the game-winner at 1:25 of overtime.  In 1999, Krissy Wendell, the first-ever prep player, boy or girl, in the nation to score 100 goals during the regular season, led her undefeated Park Center Pirates into the first round of the tournament only to get upset by South St. Paul.  In the title game, Ronda Curtin – Minnesota’s all-time leading-scoring hockey player, boys or girls, with more than 400 points – exploded with four goals and led her Roseville Area Raiders in a crushing defeat to the Jefferson Jaguars 8-2.

Though not widely looked at as a “bright spot” in the history of Minnesota women’s hockey history, it is one that needs to be talked about as it too led to growth in the women’s game and history of Minnesota hockey. In November 2003, the Minnesota State High School League was sued under Title IX for placing the girls’ state ice hockey tournament in the University of Minnesota’s 3,200-seat Ridder Arena, while the boys’ tournament is played in the Minnesota Wild’s Xcel Energy Center, which has seating for 18,000. In addition to the extra seating, the plaintiffs (girls’ ice hockey players and their parents) claimed that Ridder’s inferior locker rooms, concessions, and publicity opportunities further disadvantaged the girls. They asked District Court Judge Paul Magnuson for a preliminary injunction that would have moved the February 2004 girls’ tournament to the Xcel Energy Center, and for a permanent ruling to keep it there.

UofM Womens Inaugural Program Nov. 2, 1997

Representing the MSHSL, attorney Mark Whitmore argued that the girls’ venue, while not identical to the boys’, provides an equitable place for the girls to play. "Ridder Arena was built in 2002 solely for girls’ and women’s ice hockey and it’s the first facility in the country specifically designed for that purpose, and the University of Minnesota traditionally has the top-ranked team in the country."  In addition, Whitmore argued that the number of seats in Ridder Arena is appropriate for the girls’ tournament, which has a smaller following than the boys’ tournament. "The attendance numbers are such that Ridder creates a perfect tournament atmosphere," he said. "What the League didn’t want was a situation where the girls played in front of 1,800 people in an 18,000-seat arena." 

Magnuson ruled against the preliminary injunction. He invited the plaintiffs to present more evidence to prove that Ridder Arena’s size is stunting the tournament’s growth, but in terms of their claims about the arena’s inferiority, his answer was definitive: Equal treatment of boys’ and girls’ sports teams does not mean identical treatment, and therefore, the fact that the boys’ tournament is held at the Xcel Center doesn’t obligate the MSHSL to place the girls’ tournament there. The distinction between equal and identical is a critical one. "Title IX requires that a school’s overall treatment of the girls’ and boys’ athletic programs be equal, not that it be exactly the same," explains Jocelyn Samuels, Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women’s Law Center. "Dollar for dollar, an organization or school does not have to spend the same amount on the girls’ programs as the boys’ programs or provide exactly the same experiences, as long as the result is substantially the same for both genders." 

It’s also important to remember that the law applies to the equality of the overall athletics program, and that individual teams do not have to be treated identically. "Title IX is not about comparing softball to baseball or boys’ basketball to girls’ basketball," says Larry Boucher, Assistant Commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, who monitors Title IX compliance in his state. "It’s about comparing the entire athletic environment. If every time you do something for the girls, you drop a pebble in one bucket, and every time you do something for the boys, you drop a pebble in another bucket, and at the end of the day, the buckets are comparably full, it doesn’t matter which of the sports got what." The cost of equipping players provides one example. "Let’s say you spend $500 per player to outfit your football team, and you get them the finest equipment you can find," Boucher says. "Now let’s say you buy your volleyball players the finest uniform on the market and that only costs $150. Even though the dollar figures aren’t identical, both genders received the best possible uniforms, so under Title IX, that is equitable." Ultimately following the mentioned lawsuit brought forth to the MSHSL the girl’s tournament was moved to the Xcel Energy Center starting in 2006 - where it is now held today - drawing  up to 3,500 fans for the AA Championship game in the 18,000+ seat arena.

When one is covering the history of women’s hockey history the Ridder family cannot be overlooked.  Bob and Kathleen Ridder have been a household name in Minnesota hockey circles since the late 1960’s when Bob was partial owner of the now defunct Minnesota North Stars . The Ridders were extremely instrumental in starting Division I women’s hockey in the Midwest.  Their tireless work, amazing financial contributions, and ability to build support led to the University of Minnesota’s decision to add the sport in 1995—at a time when the future was unknown.  Looking back, this risk certainly paid off.  Kathleen is known as a woman of strong conviction who holds a deep sense of civic responsibility, and her passion has been women’s equality.  She has been a true pioneer and leader within athletics, as evidenced by the fact that she established the first-ever endowed scholarship for women student-athletes at Minnesota in 1983 and was also a founding member of the Women’s Athletics Advisory Council.  She has been a strong, passionate voice for excellence and equality for women student-athletes for many years.  Judy Kirk, from the University of Minnesota Foundation has said about Kathleen Ridder, “She stands up for the rights of women athletes and empowers them through her support, leadership, and vision.” 

Robert “Bob" passed away in the summer of 2000.  He was alive to enjoy the Gophers’ first Women's National Championship, but not to see the completion of Ridder Arena.  Bob was a hockey guy.  He, along with two others, founded the Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) in 1947.  He was the manager of two silver-winning U.S. Men’s Olympic Teams in 1952 and 1956.  When professional hockey came to Minnesota in 1966, Bob became one of the North Star owners.  He later served as a U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame director—the same organization in which he was inducted in 1976 for his contributions to the sport of hockey.  In addition, he was awarded the NHL’s Lester Patrick Award in 1994 for his outstanding service to the sport.  As the chair of the Women’s Hockey Advisory Task Force here at Minnesota, he was a real leader and very instrumental in fundraising for the new arena (which would later bear the Ridder name).  What was more important than all of these accolades, was Bob’s uniquely passionate view toward women’s college hockey.  He loved the sport.  It reminded him of how the men’s game was played ‘back in the day.’ And he supported women’s hockey when many in this area of the country did not.”  Bob was additionally extremely supportive of women’s hockey at his alma mater, Harvard University

Today, Minnesota continues to lead the nation in the number of females playing hockey on amateur, high school and college teams and continues to produce highly skilled players who earn the opportunity to participate on USA Hockey National Teams.  Minnesotans are fortunate to be able to view every level of girls’ and women’s hockey that is offered in the United States. Get out and watch some of the best women’s hockey player’s today right in our own backyard in the State of Hockey!

Thanks to the overwhelming support of countless men and women throughout the world of Minnesota hockey, the girls’ and women’s game has truly come a long way - undoubtedly it will continue to grow.

Source in Part: 2000/2010 Minnesota Girls Hockey State Tournament Yearbooks/