Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rumblings of the Giant

Ohhh there are rumblings of discontent from Giant fans and followers alike. The season has barely started and they have not done well, if I'm reading the statics correctly they got their first power play goals this weekend. Yesterday they lost in a heart breaker to the Coventry Blaze and today in a 2:0 shut out to the Newcastle Vipers. Possibly the one man feeling the pressure the most in Belfast City is Canadian Sean McMorrow. A classic old school enforcer McMorrow has not only had a blank dance card this season but there have been reports of players refusing enter into banter with him. This has to place the man brought over to protect skill players and fulfill a role on the team, all be it partially entertainment, difficult. There were reports of him leaving the box in the second period for a shift, falling forward and leaving the ice promptly, hopefully unhurt. The new sheriff in town must be one frustrated guy by now. However it is early days, if there are chemistry problems disrupting the locker room Coach Thornton needs to get on the stick. As for the PP and the dodgy penalty kill- time for more than a few long captain's practices.

I found a bit of history while researching another matter, the story of Hockey's first professional woman goalie. I'm not going to retell it the story is his and most importantly hers.

The story was simple but it was best told form Leonard "Oakie" Brumm her coaches eyes. The material is from The Marquette Iron Rangers Site:

'How pro hockey's first woman goalie took the world by storm-right here in Marquette-as told by her coach.

With the tremendous growth of girl's hockey, especially here in the far north, I think it would be interesting to the sport's fans and female players to where when and where the first woman hockey player made her debut and how she fared. It happened in October 1969 at the old Palestra Ice Arena in Marquette. It came at opening tryouts for the Marquette Iron Rangers when all comers war invited to show their skills. I was the coach for the Iron Rangers, a very strong senior United States Hockey League team, and the woman player was Karen Koch (pronounced "Cook") from Gibraltar, Michigan.

In those days the first night of Iron Ranger practice was a combination of a happening, a civic event, and a circus with some serious hockey mixed in. Several players from the previous season were signed to contracts and two or three good players were signed or about to sign. Then, there were the usual ten to fifteen guys who either felt they were good enough to make the team, had been goaded into trying out by their friends, or had bragged about their hockey skills all summer. Now it was time to "put up or shut up!"

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula it was every young hockey player’s dream back then to someday get paid for playing hockey. The Iron Rangers, or some other USHL team was usually their only practical chance to get paid for playing. Salaries ranged from $25 per game for marginal rookies to $100 or more per game for top-notch players with a Division I college, minor league experience or occasionally a former NHL player on the way to retirement. The USHL was a good deal for many excellent hockey players because they could hold down full-time jobs and still get some decent money for playing a game they probably would have played for fun.

Besides, in those days there were only eight or nine NHL teams (the first expansion took place the previous Year, 1968). At that time, the USHL had ninety-five percent of the best American hockey players, many Canadian Junior "A" graduates who had recently graduated from U.S. Division I universities and were not quite good enough for the NHL but wanted to continue playing while they started their chosen careers.

The league was strong and the Iron Rangers were the defending champions. Interest in the team for the coming year was extremely high, so fan attendance at the first practice was high as well. By 1969 I had coached for eighteen seasons, so I was used to all kinds of hype and confusion. I had a pretty good idea which players I could count on, which new players should make the team and how to let down gently those who simply were not good enough to play. Consequently the Iron Rangers always had one or two guys coming out of nowhere to become solid team members. The best example was the Carlson/Hanson Brothers, later famous for the movie Slap Shot.

I got a big surprise. Our regular goalie was Brian Lunney, who had been sent to us by the Toronto Maple Leafs via the Canadian Olympic Team. Outnumber One backup was Lonnie Lytaikainen, a local kid who showed great promise. Both were on the ice along with two goalies I had never seen before and hadn't expected. After a brief talk to the entire group (four goalies and about twenty-five players), we did some preliminary skating drills and easy shooting drills so everyone had a chance to show what they had. Of course, our best goalie looked good, our backup looked pretty good, but one of the two newcomers couldn't stop a basketball with a snowshoe. The other one looked surprisingly quick and made some nice saves in spite of being small.

We'd been working for twenty minutes when Barry Cook, our captain, skated up to me and said, "Coach, did you know that little squirt of a goalie is a girl?"

"What!" I said. "How do you know?"

"One of the kids from Northern (Michigan University) told me," he said.

I quickly asked him to take the practice so I could talk to her myself. She had given no indication that she was a woman. All players were required to wear helmets, so with the helmets and goalie pads it was impossible to tell she was a female. I motioned her off to the side where we could talk without being run into or hit by a puck. She was extremely apprehensive and wouldn’t look at me. (I found out later that she had expected me to kick her off the ice).

Finally she told me her name was Karen Koch, she was eighteen years old and she had enrolled at Northern Michigan University specifically to try out for the Iron Rangers. She had been playing hockey and lacrosse with the boys in Gibraltar ever since she could remember. She went on to say that none of the senior teams in the Detroit area would give her a tryout. She said she had heard nothing but good things about the Iron Rangers and felt she could make the team. She desperately didn't want to be cut without a fair tryout.

I thought to myself, A girl goalie...what if she gets hurt? Where is she going to change clothes? Just how good is she? For one of the few times in my life I didn't know what to do. She had done nothing to justify cutting her. So I told her we should see how well she did and that she'd be given a fair tryout.

In subsequent practices she showed remarkable ability. Her only drawback was her size. Both of our goalies were big guys. They stopped more pucks by accident than she did on purpose.

Hockey's First Female Pro, Karen Koch

Koch's presence on the squad brought complaints from the veteran players, but even they admitted she was surprisingly good and probably equal to our regular backup goalie. Their griping was far overshadowed by the national publicity she generated after her photo was run in the daily and weekly newspapers. We got calls from the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters and newspapers, radio and TV stations from all over the U.S. and Canada. It was a major news story. And, all the while Karen Koch was stopping pucks and earning her place on the squad. When it came time to cut the team down to eighteen players and two goalies; I changed the number and kept seventeen players and three goalies, including Lunney, Lytaikainen and Koch. Koch signed a contract for $40 per game. As far as I know she was the first female player ever to do so in the world.

She played as well as any of our previous backup goalies when I was able to use her. She wasn't solid enough to start and play regularly because the league simply was too good. Word of her being on the squad preceded our first game of the season in the Canadian Soo. She caused so much interest that Soo officials called and insisted that she be announced as the starting goalie to swell attendance. City staff arranged for the Mayor of Sault St. Marie, Ontario, who had been a pretty good hockey player in years past, to take a pre-game penalty shot at Karen-the Mayor going in all-alone against the world's only female goalie. Her presence, along with the highly anticipated "shootout”, filled the arena and she received a standing ovation when she stopped the Mayor's shot. He received taunting boos as he returned to the stands. She played the first period, giving up tow goals on twelve shots as the Iron Rangers left the ice trailing 2-0. Lunney finished the game with the Iron Rangers winning 5-3.

Later on Koch again filled the Green Bay Arena when the rumor spread that she was going to start against the Bobcats. I hadn't planned to start her, but the sight of more than 5,000 fans in the arena changed my mind. I decided it would be good for hockey and for the Green Bay coffers. She played half of the first period but had to come out when she took one of Paul Coppo's slap shots on the knee above her leg pad and below her thigh pad. The score was 1-1 at the time.

As the season wore on Koch reached a plateau in her ability, partially caused by her small size. She never missed a practice and finally was accepted by all but the most chauvinist guys on the team. Unfortunately, she seemed to have a "death wish" for a facial scar caused by a hockey puck in a USHL game. She simply and consistently defied my orders to wear a mask while playing. After flagrantly removing her mask during all of the games after Christmas, I was forced to let her go with about ten games remaining in the schedule.

Koch left NMU the next semester and went to Canada to play in the Toronto area. She again made headlines throughout North America when she was barred by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association from playing on men's teams.

Today Karen is a legal secretary in Minneapolis. After her hockey days, she earned bachelors degree at Wayne State University and a Master's degree at the University of Dayton, both in the Liberal Arts. She holds a black belt in judo and is training in jujitsu. She also is writing and is illustrating her first children's book."

What I found most interesting is she thought of herself as just someone who wanted to play hockey, to simply be taken for her skills in a mans world. Isn't what we fought for as feminists in the 70's? I also found it curious that ultimately what may ended her career was her refusal to wear protective equipment, to this nurse very hard to understand. Someday I'd like to talk to her about this and other things.

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