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Prep girls hockey: Cementing their place in the State of Hockey over the past 25 years

Annika Lindgren (15) and Rian Braun (3) of the Duluth Northern Stars celebrate after scoring a goal against Roseville during a recent game at Heritage Center. (Clint Austin / 1 / 2
Mya Kunst (25) of the Duluth Northern Stars controls the puck near Zoe Zarembinski (9) of Roseville during a recent game at Heritage Center. (Clint Austin / 2 / 2

Duluth Northern Stars senior forward Cassie McClure grew up tagging along with her older brother, Cameron, toting their hockey equipment in a duffel bag to the rink a block away in Duluth’s Piedmont neighborhood.

They would play a pickup game with anyone who would show up, and sometimes moms would come work the concessions to make sure they would have hot cocoa when they were done.

“It was a great place to fall in love with hockey,” Cassie McClure said.

But for those girls who did fall in love with hockey, there weren’t a lot of options once they grew up.

That changed 25 years ago.

Last month, the Minnesota State High School League launched celebratory seasons of its 25th girls hockey state tournament and 75th boys hockey state tournament.

“It’s awesome,” International Falls coach Michele McDonald said. “We’ve been talking a lot lately about the girls program, and we’ve got an adult women’s team that plays, and we finally got our U-12 team back and running this year. It’s just exciting to see it keep growing, and everyone loving the sport. We’re showing everyone that we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere. We’re here to stay.”

Humble beginnings

Hibbing-Chisholm and Duluth got a jump on girls hockey in the Northland, and it coincided with the rise of women’s hockey at Minnesota Duluth, which quickly became a power under coach Shannon Miller.

Hibbing-Chisholm won the single-class state title in 1997 and finished as runners-up in 1998, while Duluth made a state tournament appearance in 1999.

Now in his 21st season, Proctor-Hermantown coach Glen Gilderman is like a living history of the sport in the Northland. Duluth Marshall was part of the co-op at that time. The Mirage played as a club team in 1997-98 before fielding a varsity team the following winter.

Gilderman said the threat of a Title IX gender-equity lawsuit at Hermantown helped spur the formation of the Mirage.

“There was a parent who wanted girls hockey to start, but they didn’t think they were equipped to do that, or whatever,” Gilderman recalled.

Proctor and Hermantown already had a youth team, so there was a base of girls to work with. Gilderman, who had experience coaching girls runners, read in the school board minutes the schools were looking for a girls hockey coach, so he approached Proctor athletic director Jeff Caywood.

“I said, ‘I’d really like to help out with that. I’d like to be an assistant coach,’ ” Gilderman said.

Knowing the boys game, and how pressurized it can be, especially in Minnesota, Gilderman had no interest in being the head coach.

“I don’t know if he put his feelers out and nothing turned up, but a few days later, Jeff came back to me and said, ‘You’re going to be the head coach,’ ” Gilderman said.

And that was that.

According to USA Hockey, Minnesota produces more girls and women’s hockey players than any other state, and it’s not even close. Minnesota had 240 teams and 3,723 girls hockey players in a participation survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations for 2017-18. Massachusetts was second with 168 and 2,320. No other state had more than 50 teams.

With boys hockey having a long, established tradition in Minnesota, the interest and infrastructure was already for the girls to quickly follow suit.

Northern Stars coach Jamie Kenyon-Plesha, a former Minnesota Duluth hockey captain, hails from Sparta, Wis. In high school, she played the Madison Capitols AAA team.

“Minnesota was always a leader in that,” Kenyon-Plesha said. “My high school didn’t have hockey, so I drove to Madison which was two hours away. That was the nearest best hockey to play.”

Future is bright

With the exception of Grand Rapids-Greenway’s Brad Hyduke, Gilderman has more head coaching experience than the rest of the Northland coaches combined. Five are in their first year, including McDonald.

With younger coaches such as Kenyon-Plesha and McDonald energizing their support base, numbers appear solid. While programs like the Falls are on an island, making it not as easy to co-op, the 24-year-old McDonald says they make do.

For likely the first time, there are as many women (six) as men (six) head coaches among Northland teams.

McDonald’s father, George McDonald, coaches the Broncos’ boys team.

“Growing up I always watched him and wanted to be a coach, just like he was,” Michele McDonald said. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with having male coaches. We’ve got two male coaches, and they’re great with the girls, but it’s nice to see more females get into coaching, to show them that they can do this. It’s not just about the hockey that we’re trying to teach them, but life experiences, too.”

Duluth didn’t even have a junior varsity in Kenyon-Plesha’s first season in 2015-16. This year they have a JV, a U-15 and three U-12 teams.

“Coach has taken this program a long way since she’s gotten here, and I can’t wait to see where she takes it from here,” McClure said.

The same could be said of the sport.

In the early days, a player or two often dominated games. Stars were born such as the Curtin sisters, Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz, and closer to home, Hibbing-Chisholm products Amber Fryklund and Andrea Nichols. That’s not as much the case anymore.

“Girls hockey has come so far, just the skill level and the competitiveness that comes with that,” McClure said. “It’s been amazing to watch it grow.”

Seven Minnesotans were on the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team that won gold at the Winter Games earlier this year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, including Minnesota Duluth goalie Maddie Rooney of Andover.

That victory should inspire future generations, while past generations ask, “What if?”

“It’s really interesting, but I have so many moms now, of girls who are playing, say, ‘If I could have played hockey, I would have loved to have played hockey,’” Gilderman said. “I have a sister who ended up cheerleading who could skate as well as any guy could.”

McClure, who began skating when she was 5, plays the sport year-round. Her parents, Jason and Jodi, met in ninth grade at Duluth Central and have been together ever since. Jason was a hockey player but Jodi didn’t have that option.

“They didn’t even have a team when my mom was growing up,” McClure said. “She was a cheerleader. She remembers other girls in her grade wanting to play. They were athletic but didn’t have the opportunity. I’m surprised it didn’t start earlier, especially in Minnesota.”

But fortunately for McClure, it started early enough.

“I’ve been going to the rink as long as I remember,” McClure said. “I don’t know what I’d do if there was no girls hockey. If I had to choose another sport, I’d probably choose soccer, but hockey’s my love, for sure.”