Hot Stuff Girls' ice hockey is all the rage in Minnesota, where participation at the high school level is booming

December 02, 2002

In 1994 the Minnesota State High School League sent out letters to
more than 500 member schools asking if they were interested in
starting girls' ice hockey teams. Twenty-four replied yes. "That
was good enough for us," says John Bartz, an MSHSL associate
director at the time. "We were looking for a new sport for Title
IX purposes. Given that and hockey's wild popularity in the
state, we thought, It's worth a shot." When the MSHSL sanctioned
girls' hockey as a varsity sport beginning in '94--95, the Land
of 10,000 Lakes became the first state to do so.

Eight years later, with Minnesota leading the way, girls' ice
hockey is the fastest growing high school sport in the country.
In 1995--96 there were 1,471 girls participating nationwide, many
on their schools' boys' teams. Last season there were 6,442
competitors on girls' teams alone. "Minnesota's been the leader
in the development of girls' hockey," says Chuck Menke, spokesman
for USA Hockey. "We're seeing popularity increase throughout the
country because of them."

The number of varsity girls' teams in Minnesota has ballooned
from 24 in 1994--95 to 125 (in two classifications, AA and A)
this year, a figure that rivals the boys' (167). Last year the
three-day girls' state tournament attracted 15,551 spectators, up
from combined crowds of 6,155 in its first year. In February the
event moves from a state-fairgrounds venue to the University of
Minnesota's new Ridder Arena.

"Communities everywhere are embracing their teams," says Dave
Palmquist, coach of the Packers of South St. Paul, last year's
Class AA champion and, at week's end, the state's No. 1--ranked
girls' team.

Early on, one of the biggest knocks against girls' hockey--which,
other than a no-checking rule, has the same regulations as the
boys' game--was the poor quality of play. That's no longer the
case. "The improvement in the [high school] skill level has been
amazing; there was a huge difference even between my junior and
senior years," says Minnesota freshman forward Krissy Wendell, a
2000 graduate of Brooklyn Park's Park Center High and a 2002
Olympian. The state's alltime leading girls' high school scorer,
Wendell competed on boys' teams growing up. "To have a girls'
team was a gift. Physically, I wouldn't have been able to keep up
on a boys' team at the high school level and progress as much as
I did."

The sport's boom may be far from over. In 1994 there were 1,863
Minnesota girls participating in organized hockey outside of a
varsity high school program. Today that number is 6,856, the vast
majority of whom are playing on increasingly popular girls-only
youth teams. "It's still growing," says Palmquist. "We all knew
that hockey's in the blood here, but no one could ever have
imagined how quickly things would change." --Albert Chen

B/W PHOTO: STEVE WEWERKA ICE QUEENS The Packers are a top draw in South St. Paul.