Power Play

Putting Minnesota on the map with a national title was the easy part. For the Gopher women's hockey team, sustaining that reputation is the challenge.

The oldest of five children who grew up in Plymouth, Halldorson was in the fifth grade when she began begging her parents to take her to hockey games. But it was 1974, and she was forced to learn the game on boys' town and club teams in the western suburbs of Minneapolis. She recalls being embarrassed at a neighborhood rink one day when other kids noticed that she wasn't wearing figure skates, but hockey skates. In her first practice--"myself, three girls, two boys, and three Great Danes"--Halldorson wore magazines tucked in wool socks for shin guards. Eventually she played for the Minnesota Checkers, a female club squad, graduated from Wayzata High School, and joined what was then the top women's hockey program in the country, at Princeton University. She graduated in 1985 and went on to spend seven seasons as head coach at tiny Colby College in Maine.

"While I was away, there was this explosion of high school girls' hockey in Minnesota, and I thought it would be great to come home and be a coach," Halldorson says. "Then the U of M job appeared, without me thinking I would get it. When it came down to me, I realized there was no other program in the country that would give me this opportunity."

It was a chance anyone would leap at. Women's athletic director Voelz had been laying the groundwork since 1994. First she convinced the NCAA that women's hockey was ready to explode nationally. Then she convinced university officials. Eventually Voelz got commitments from other Midwestern schools to start women's programs. Minnesota focused on creating a woman's hockey program on a big budget of some $700,000 the first year--still small compared with the men's $1.2 million (both come from the same fund fed by gate receipts, corporate sponsors, and private donations). The idea, Voelz says, was to try to compete with Eastern schools right away. "It was a plan for accelerated success," she says. "We thought it was important to the fabric of the culture of Minnesota."

Girls' high school hockey programs were multiplying throughout Minnesota at a dizzying pace, thanks in part to the Mighty Ducks program, a 1995 state initiative that supplies grants to communities for girls' hockey rinks. "The timing of that kind of went hand in hand with the university's desire to have a women's team," recalls Doug Woog, who was the men's hockey coach at the time. "Christ, girls' teams are all over now. There are 120 high school girls' teams in the state, whereas in the Sixties, there were 60 to 70 men's teams. The university had to come up with a program."

The startup generated plenty of controversy. Some argued that creating other programs, such as rowing, would fulfill the letter--if not the spirit--of Title IX by serving more female athletes at a lower cost. But Voelz, with the support of longtime men's hockey boosters, overcame much of that thinking by insisting that women's hockey was the next natural step for the university. "This is part of the commitment the university and I both have to gender equity," she explains, saying a soccer program came first, and a rowing program is soon to follow. "Hockey was part of the blueprint, and it was the right sport at the right time."

 

Two weeks after the St. Cloud series, the team members are huddled near the Mariucci loading dock, waiting for a couple of vans to arrive. It's a snowy Saturday morning, and after a slow, icy ride, the players pile out into the driveway of a home in northeast Minneapolis. "Where are we?" asks Courtney Kennedy in a thick Massachusetts accent. Joel Johnson, Halldorson's first assistant coach, tells her. "This ain't Minneapolis to me," Kennedy fires back. "This ain't even the city. I don't know where we are, but this ain't Minneapolis."

Inside, Becky Johnson, mother of freshman backup goaltender Stephanie Johnson, has made an enormous pre-game spread of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, bagels, juice, and "coffee for the grownups." The house is improbably cozy.

Muzzy sits in a chair off in the corner, chomping loudly on some gum. All of the players are in "travel clothes." Halldorson insists players not wear jeans of any sort for any team function, and today most of them are wearing short black skirts and high-heeled black boots. Muzzy, dressed in a white blouse and short gray skirt, claims to be the "funkiest dresser" on the team. Her boots are the biggest.

Someone mentions the recent engagement of one of the other players, and it sets Muzzy, who seems to be having a hard time with all of this gentility, off. "I don't think you marry anyone without living with them first," she blurts out. "I had a boyfriend, and he lived with me for five days, and after that I was like, 'I don't even want to see you anymore.'"

She chews her gum quicker. "I tried to tell you," she says to the rest of the women--most of whom turn to her first for support both on and off the ice. Then she turns to the coach: "I tried to tell them that they shouldn't even have boyfriends in their freshman year, but they didn't listen to me," she complains. "You're all young, you're away from home, it's your first year at college. Why don't you just get used to being you?"

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