Posted March 23, 2022 at 12:23 p.m
Photo credit above: Members of the Kansas City Women’s Hockey League practice at Line Creek Ice Arena. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)
Megan Cairns stands by the rink and admits she misses being part of a team environment.
On a Saturday at Line Creek Community Center and Ice Arena, she found just that.
“Never played hockey. Really, I’m very new to skating too,” said Cairns, who wore full hockey gear and was well over 6ft tall with borrowed skates.
Although she was new to the sport, Cairns decided to watch a Kansas City Women’s Hockey League (KCWHL) open practice. The former collegiate athlete came to the rink looking for a challenge and a sense of community.
At 1:45 p.m. sharp, the Zamboni machine left the ice rink. Cairns, along with more than a dozen women, took the smooth ice cream.
The KCWHL is a grassroots organization founded by women who love sports and want to provide a safe and convenient entry point into the sport for women and girls in Kansas City.
League members range from former NCAA Division I hockey players to hockey moms and wives-turned-athletes who have decided to give the sport its own chance. There’s also a “Token Canadien,” a few members of the Kansas City Glory women’s soccer team, and a regular trickle of rookies like Cairns.
KCWHL members aim for ice time at least once a week, although limited ice areas around town pose a challenge. As for the games, the league organizers are working to finalize the schedule for this season. The game usually takes the form of 20 to 25 players divided into four teams for a “round robin” competition.
Neatha Snyder, who watched her now-adult son growing up with the sport from cool bleachers before unlacing himself, says the league is looking at ways to get its name out there and attract as many new players to the sport as possible .
Before the formation of the league, which is open to all female athletes, many local women played together in a men’s league. While some veteran players had no trouble holding their own, the full review of the rules in the men’s league upped the intimidation factor for newcomers.
Instead, the KCWHL offers beginners like Cairns a less daunting opportunity to learn to skate, carry and pass the puck, shoot, and learn the rules.
Snyder says there’s no reason to fear hockey’s rough and tough reputation.
“If the ladies want to try it, I think they’ll be surprised,” she said. “You feel pretty powerful and invincible once you put on all that gear.”
The KCWHL’s hour-long session at Line Creek began with a few warm-up laps on the ice rink and overtaking.
Seasoned skaters like former University of Michigan goaltender Maggie Wagner zip across the ice with ease and flair. Some of the brave beginners feel it slowly, others inevitably fall.
“Pop up!” shouts one of the team leaders across the ice.
The warm-up is followed by a series of skating drills that focus on stopping and changing direction – even running backwards. From there, the women work on passing and shooting.
Experienced players quiz group leader Kari Walberg about technique, making sure novices get the basics no matter how trivial the points might be for experienced athletes.
Support for the less experienced “Group 2” was palpable throughout the afternoon. Small words of encouragement here, a hint there.
As scrimmage began at the end of practice, Cairns came to the bench to watch and learn. At least three teammates invited her to fill in for her on day one.
Cairns insisted she prefers to watch the action from the bench to capture the flow of the actual gameplay.
“I fell a few times and they didn’t laugh at me,” Cairns said, adjusting her helmet, which she borrowed from the KCWHL’s growing library of gear.
The expensive protective gear is an obvious financial hurdle for beginners. The library was a focus for the group working on breaking down barriers.
In 2019, newtohockey.com estimated the cost of head-to-toe equipment to play hockey between $500 and $1,000.
Along with its growing equipment library, KCWHL strives to reduce the cost of trying out the sport for beginners by waiving the $21 “drop-in” fee.
With hockey sticks, league members have the option of paying fees to cover multiple weeks of training sessions, starting at $104 for four weeks.
The uniqueness of the league and the special attention the group devotes to creating this opportunity for women and girls in hockey is not lost on Cairns, who works professionally for Women Leaders in College Sports.
“It’s just a really nice niche and a safe place for people like me who have no experience and wouldn’t feel comfortable joining a random league,” Cairns said.
Long before her time in Michigan, Wagner recalls watching women’s hockey for the first time at the 1998 Winter Olympics. She was about 10 years old and had only recently discovered the sport for herself.
On Saturday, Wagner passed the puck back and forth with her wife Erin, a newcomer to the game who decided to try the sport herself after watching Maggie through the glass.
“It makes a difference for young girls just to see women play. That’s the most important thing,” said Wagner. “The more mainstream it becomes and the more visibility it gets, the faster it will grow.”
Hockey brings women of the KCWHL together, but the greater sense of community leads to off-ice gathering places.
The group recently gathered to watch the US Women’s Gold Medal match at the Winter Olympics. Post-game drinks are common, not to mention the occasional trip to see the Missouri Mavericks.
“We only have to get women out of here,” said Wagner. “I think they will fall in love with the sport as much as we have.”
Interested in visiting a KCWHL practice? Learn more at kcwhl.com or email email@example.com.
Flatland contributor Clarence Dennis is also the social media manager for 90.9 The Bridge.