Amy Kellogg was a high school sophomore in Rye, N.Y., when she first thought about playing ice hockey. “My younger brother played, and my dad coached him,” says Kellogg, now 58. “I’d sit on the bench and think: ‘This looks fun. Why can’t I do it?’”
That was in 1970, two years before Title IX. Kellogg remembers gathering a group of female friends and approaching the school principal about forming a girls’ hockey club, recalling the principal's reply as "How about a figure skating club?”
Heartbroken, the girls did what little they could to advance their goal. “We put ourselves in the yearbook as the Girls’ Ice Hockey Club — we even had our picture taken — but the idea never went anywhere.”
Forty-two years later, Kellogg is finally living her dream. Several mornings a week, and the occasional Sunday evening, she can be found suited up (athletic cup included) as a defensive wing for the Mother Puckers, an all-women’s ice hockey team based in Elmsford, N.Y. Here, on a regulation-size rink, she bonds with like-minded moms. And, for the record, she can back-check (skate backward to block attacking opponents) with the best of 'em.
“We’re exercising and putting ourselves in a game that none of us played as kids,” Kellogg says. “It sure beats anything in the gym. We’re learning and growing together and also sharing life experiences.”
If you think hockey is solely the domain of 20-something male professionals with missing teeth, think again. The “fairer sex” is the sport’s fastest-growing sector, with nearly 67,000 girls and women registered with USA Hockey, a governing body for amateur players. That’s up tenfold from 1990, the first year girls and women could join. Today, more than 25 percent of all female players are adults.
Angela Trzepkowski, 48, loves the sport so much she's been willing to drive up to four hours each way to get to games. A fellow Mother Pucker, she and her husband, an Army doctor, were transfered from West Point Military Academy — not far from the team's Elmsford rink — to Pennsylvania then New Hampshire.
“The rink is a place where you’re not anybody’s mom and you’re not anybody’s wife,” Trzepkowski says. “For that moment in time you’re defined as a hockey player.”
A Eureka Moment
In 2000 Kellogg’s sister (and then-neighbor) tipped her off to a group of local hockey moms in Mamaroneck, N.Y., who were looking to do more than sip hot chocolate from the stands: They wanted to get in the game. Like many of them, Kellogg had given up her career — in her case, as an assistant district attorney in White Plains — in exchange for full-time motherhood.
“Then a friend said, ‘Just because you have kids doesn’t mean your life ends — it can still be about you,’” says Kellogg, who has two daughters and a son, now in their 20s. “It was one of those a-ha moments when I thought, ‘You’re right — why can’t I do this?’”
Kellogg’s husband, Michael, a hockey player himself, was supportive, but he did suggest she wear gear they owned before investing in new equipment. It was a good idea — in theory. “My daughter said, ‘You can use my chest protector,’” Kellogg recalls, “but she was in middle school … and I was not! I couldn’t even fasten the Velcro. Then I put on my husband’s hockey pants, which were so big that the pads hung underneath my crotch.”
Initially, her game wasn’t much better. Her first time on hockey skates, she fell over backward. “I didn’t realize the blades weren’t straight in the back like figure skates,” she says. Still, she and her newly formed Mother Puckers took their challenges and pressed on. “The first year we didn’t even have any games,” she says. “We were just trying to figure out what the sport was all about. We had a nurse, and a young woman who played in college and her mother. And a couple of others who would just stay close to the rail.”
To sharpen her skills, Kellogg joined her husband in a co-ed league. “Playing against men was very dangerous,” she says. “They’re very competitive. Stopping was not a priority for them. They’d say, ‘There’s women on the team — let’s go get ’em!’ And my husband would say, ‘That’s my wife!’ When women fall on you, you laugh. But when men fall on you, it’s like, “Oh my God!”
After a puck to the inner thigh left her entire leg black and blue — “a place my pad wasn’t,” she notes — Kellogg abandoned co-ed play. “My skills weren’t getting better,” she says. “The only thing that rose was the conviction to win.”
The Internal Scoreboard
Meanwhile, the Mother Puckers had morphed into a solid team, as stronger players (ex-pat Canadians even!) joined and less-committed ones drifted away. Their head coach, a local guy who had coached Kellogg’s son, ran some perfunctory drills but the team fired him for failing to learn the women’s names after several seasons.
In 2006 the team switched locations from Mamaroneck to Elmsford and secured a new coach, Laura Pecchia, 35, a former star college hockey player. With intensive speed and puck-handling drills, plus the ability to draw game strategies on a white-board and connect with her players, Pecchia brought the team to the next level.
Now in their 12th season, the Mother Puckers play no fewer than nine women’s teams in the New York tri-state area, including the Brooklyn Blades, Westchester Wildcats and Stamford Stampede. Kellogg is the lone holdover from the original crew and the oldest member of a 20-member team made up of mostly of players in their 30s and 40s, with a handful of others in their 50s. (Most of the teams share those demographics.) Last year was the Mother Puckers' first winning season: 7 wins, 3 loses, 7 ties.
“We get competitive, but in a different way” than men, Kellogg says. “We want everybody to succeed. I play against myself. I try to think about what it is that I need to improve and not compare myself to someone younger.”
Trzepkowski also looks inward for motivation. She remembers a high school teacher who “talked about the difference between an ‘internal scoreboard’ and an ‘external’ one, and that’s always the question for me: What is my internal scoreboard?”
Not that the Mother Puckers are in danger of ever taking themselves too seriously. Case in point: Each game’s most valuable player is awarded the dubious honor of wearing “the red panties” — a giant pair of frilly crimson bloomers — under her uniform during the following game. “That’s as much recognition as anyone gets,” Kellogg says.
Skating on Thin Ice
Thanks to the universal women’s no-checking rule, injuries are few, yet the physical intensity of the sport nevertheless has some female players wondering if or when they’ll hang up their skates in exchange for less slippery pursuits. “I can tell you there’s no logical reason I do this,” says Trzepkowski, the Army wife whose cross-state treks to games begin with a 4 a.m. wake-up call. “I love to be challenged by someone who knows how to push me to what’s next. Even if at my age, I don’t always know what’s next.”
Kellogg adds: “There have been times when I think: “Should I be stopping? Am I holding the team back? And how will I know when it’s time to go?’ In a couple years I’ll be 60 — holy crap! At some point I guess I’ll decide I can’t keep up. But right now, I feel like I’m in there.”
Lisa Bernhard is an on-air anchor for Reuters.com whose articles have appeared in The New York Times and Self, among others.