The slap shot, fired from just over the blue line by college hockey's leading scorer, illuminated the red light in a nearly empty arena. The bewildered goaltender reached back to retrieve the puck. And Kathy Lawler put another notch on her stick.
In three seasons at Potsdam College, in upstate New York, Lawler has racked up 240 goals and 105 assists while her team has won 61 of 73 games. In the sixth game of Potsdam's recently completed season, the 5'2", 135-pound center with size 2 skates broke the women's career scoring record of 255 points set by Kathy Bryant of the University of New Hampshire from 1977-81. She is one point shy of the men's alltime career scoring record of 346 points set by Phil Latreille at Middlebury College from 1957-61. And she has a year to get those two points. As a freshman, she surpassed the men's single-season scoring mark of 108 points (also set by Latreille, in 1960-61 and later matched by Clarkson College's Dave Taylor, now a forward for the NHL Los Angeles Kings) with 74 goals and 45 assists for 119 points. In 21 games this season, she broke her own record with 93 goals and 30 assists for 123 points. For her career, she has averaged slightly more than a hat trick per game.
"Kathy is on a level that is about four or five stories above 95% of the women playing hockey right now," says Lady Bears Head Coach Brian Doran. "She knows where and when to go after the puck, she uses the boards like no one else and she has great feet. She could be a forward on a men's team."
Which is exactly what Kathy Lawler once was in her earlier years on ice. After whacking sticks with her brother Kevin and his friends on Putz Pond in Fitchburg, Mass., she tucked her hair under her helmet, filled out an application under the name "K. Lawler" and tried out for the previously all-boys youth team (ages 10 to 12) in the area.
"At first, they thought I was just another guy," says Lawler. "Some people at Webber Lumber [the sponsor] knew me but didn't say anything. I didn't want to do anything against the rules, so my mother and I told them the truth."
And so the mystery guest was uncovered. Lawler, known as "The Flying Braid" to her teammates, led the league in scoring midway through her first season and finished third.
"I heard comments all the time," she says. "People asked, 'Is she a girl? Is she a hippie?' The macho players said I didn't belong there and they took extra runs at me. I just gave it back with a good check. You've got to be able to dish it out and take it in this game."
Her parents, although concerned about her safety, never tried to dissuade her from playing with the guys. "When she started, she was a better skater than a lot of the boys," says her mother, Jane. And they knew she could take care of herself. Bill Lawler, Kathy's father, recalls, "One guy [in the peewee league] told her after a game that he had been after her and had tried to run her three times. Twice he hit the boards and then finally hurt himself enough that he had to leave the game."
After three years with the traveling squad in bantams (ages 12 to 15) and three more with the midgets and a junior high school team, Lawler was still the only girl competing with the boys in the Fitchburg area. Some parents complained, perhaps after Lawler shamed their sons, and wondered aloud, "What's she doing playing here?"
The inevitable tryout with the previously all-boys high school team paid off; Lawler landed a spot as a defenseman. The Fitchburg High School coach, Bill Putnam, a former resident of Potsdam who would later play a key role in Kathy's decision to attend Potsdam, had followed her progress and welcomed her to his team.
In her three years on defense, Kathy absorbed aspects of the game that had eluded her during the scoring sprees of the peewee era.
"I became a heady hockey player—I could recognize plays before they happened," she says. "I developed my stick-handling and my slap shot. I became more aggressive as well as confident on the ice."
A separate locker room and private shower awaited Lawler at each stop and she barely heard a peep from opposing coaches. Treated as one of the guys on her own team, she is hesitant now to consider herself a forger of women's rights. Although many girls have since benefited from Lawler's accomplishment, her goal wasn't to advocate women's rights.
"I'm not a Women's Libber," she says. "I play because I enjoy it. I did what I did for the love of the sport."
After graduating from Fitchburg in 1979, Lawler faced two problems: where to attend college and how to adjust to the non-checking, non-violent world of women's hockey.
Russ McCurdy, the coach at New Hampshire, whose women's team was undefeated from 1977 to 1981, had followed Kathy's progress through high school but felt she wasn't academically suited to UNH. Kathy spoke to Butler Sullivan, the admissions director and hockey coach at Potsdam, and with the blessing of Putnam, she settled on the small state school, a snowball's toss from the Canadian border.
For Lawler, getting used to the soft touch of women's hockey remains a sticky subject. "It's a different game," Lawler, a psychology major, says. "I miss getting bounced around. I like contact. It's easier to skate now, since checking is not allowed. But I liked playing more in high school where the guys are more aggressive."
Thanks to Lawler, many of Potsdam's victories are wild routs. Against Oswego this season, she got nine goals and four assists in an 18-1 romp. A week later she had seven goals and an assist in a 9-1 defeat of a women's team from Quebec.
Lawler has entertained the idea of playing in a men's semipro league but hasn't received an invitation yet. The notion, though, is indicative of her disgruntlement with the lack of good competition on the Potsdam schedule.
"I can understand her frustration," says McCurdy. "She's head and shoulders above the rest of her team. But she'd just be one of the good players on our team. If she thinks she needs the guys to give her some competition, well, I think that playing against some more teams of the caliber of UNH is what she needs."
McCurdy may have a point. When UNH played at Potsdam in mid-January, Lawler scored only one goal and Potsdam lost 4-1. "We wanted to show her that this was the big leagues," says McCurdy. Most Potsdam opponents have assigned two and three women to shadow Lawler during a game, a strategy that has inspired her to sharpen her passing skills, but also contributed to her first serious injury. Last spring, while playing in a women's recreational league in Canada, where checking was allowed, she was slammed into the boards and her right knee twisted and buckled. An arthrogram and an arthroscope revealed a small tear in the cartilage at the back of the knee. She now wears a heavy brace, but has no plans for surgery.
Women's hockey is still a developing game and will be even after Lawler finishes her collegiate career next season. By then, the electrical bills in the Potsdam rink may be out of sight, along with her scoring records.