A League of Their Own

Budding Women’s Sled Hockey Program Slowly Building A Solid Foundation

 

At the ripe young age of 14, Kelsey DiClaudio is already considered a hockey veteran. In her six years on the ice, the Pittsburgh native has clocked countless miles on her fiberglass sled, propelling herself around the ice using a pair of modified hockey sticks with jagged metal tips attached to the butt ends.
    
As a member of the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins, a competitive men’s sled club, DiClaudio has more than held up her end of the bargain against male-dominated competition.
    
But as she glided into the face-off circle at the Bladerunners Ice Complex, DiClaudio was staring across at a somewhat unusual sight – another female sled hockey player. In fact, there was an entire team of them, decked out in red, white and blue jerseys with a USA crest across the front.
    
Just a week before Christmas, this small but dedicated group of athletes unwrapped an early present, a three-day camp and the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new national women’s sled hockey program.
    
Much like the path of their male counterparts, they know it will be a slow process gaining acceptance both at home and abroad. But like those who came before them, there is no denying the passion and dedication that these women have for the game.
    
At the helm is Shawna Davidson, a former U.S. National Team player with years of coaching experience under her belt.


“It’s an amazing group of athletes to be a part of. It’s a great thing we’re doing that we are providing these women with an opportunity to play the game.”­

—Shawna Davidson, Head Coach, U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Program

“It’s great for me as a woman to give back to the game and inspire other players,” says Davidson, who helped guide the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s team to three national titles.
    
“It’s an amazing group of athletes to be a part of. It’s a great thing we’re doing that we are providing these women with an opportunity to play the game.”
    
Don’t let Davidson’s infectious smile fool you. She can be a taskmaster on the ice when she needs to. She treats these women just as she would any hockey player. She has drawn up a series of carefully designed practice plans and blows her whistle to stop a drill when it’s not being executed to her standards.
    
“We may have to tweak a few drills but it’s the same game with the same expectations and the same demands,” she says.
“They are hockey players. That’s how I treat them, and that’s how they want to be treated.”
    
On the ice, one player seems to stand out, in part because of the trademark bright pink Crocs she wears but also by the way she is able to skillfully maneuver her sled while deftly controlling the puck. She’s 24-year-old Chicago native Erica Mitchell. Mitchell, a 16-year veteran of sled hockey, has assumed a leadership role on this young team.

 

 

Erica Mitchell, left, brings veteran leadership to the new women’s sled hockey program.Erica Mitchell, left, brings veteran leadership to the new women’s sled hockey program.
    

From her perch in the crease, goaltender Karen Smith can see the benefit of having a veteran like Mitchell around the team.
    
“She comes from a very tough team with a lot of experience,” Smith says of her teammate, who was named USA Hockey’s Disabled Athlete of the Year in 2007. “She knows positional play and a lot about the game itself. She talks to us a lot about what to remember and how to play the game.
    
“Where I see her benefit us the most is during games. She’s always letting the other players know what’s going on during play.”
    
Although the women’s program is in its infancy, Tom Koester and his friend and counterpart Tom Brake have seen the sport garner a real interest in every city they visit.
    
“We’re trying to introduce the game of sled hockey to more people, and at the same time, show that it’s not gender-specific,” says Koester, a long-time USA Hockey volunteer who is turning his attention to creating a women’s sled hockey program after more than a decade of working with the U.S. Under-20 men’s sled team.
    
“It’s not just for men, we’re showing that women can play the sport as well. Our main focus is exposing the sport and showing that anyone can play this game.”
    
One of Koester’s first calls was to Davidson, who serves on USA Hockey’s board of directors. To become familiar with what her athletes deal with, she decided to put herself in the sled to gain some perspective.
    
“I could skate, I could maneuver it, but as soon as I got the puck on my stick, I had no idea how to go,” she recalls. “You really gain another level of respect for these athletes when you see how well they handle the puck, how they skate, and how they move.”
    
With a full team established, Koester’s hope is that the United States can spearhead the addition of women’s sled hockey to the Paralympic Games, but he knows that his squad has a long road ahead of them.

  
The U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Program is still in its infancy, but there is no questioning the desire and determination these hockey players have for their sport.The U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Program is still in its infancy, but there is no questioning the desire and determination these hockey players have for their sport.

“Our goal has always been to spread the word about women’s sled hockey, not only in the U.S., but in Canada and overseas,” Koester says.
    
“At this point, the possibility of having women’s sled added to the Paralympic Games is very remote. There simply aren’t enough international women playing the game at this time. It is expanding. It’d be ideal to see it happen down the road, and I certainly hope it will.”
    
First things first as far as Davidson is concerned. As both a player and a coach, she knows that it takes more than desire to become an elite athlete, especially one fitting of wearing the USA crest across her chest.
    
So while it’s nice to have these on-ice camps, Davidson stresses that these women must continue to push themselves when they return home to their respective co-ed clubs.
    
“This is about more than just showing up at the rink. It means working out on their own and making the sacrifices to become a student of the game,” Davidson says.
    
“To be a USA Hockey athlete and wear the red, white and blue, they need to realize that there are great pressures and great expectations that go with that.”

 

 

Photos By Greg Shamus

 

Issue: 
2012-02

Poll

Which Division I college hockey conference are you going to be rooting for this year?: