By Jennifer L.W. Fink
Twelve-year-old Alyssa Heim moves up and down the ice with ease. Her skates swoosh across the ice; she holds her hockey stick confidently, watching the puck, waiting for her chance.
“I never pictured my little girl playing hockey,” says Kathy Heim, Alyssa’s mother. “But I’m glad I let her do it. She loves the sport.”
Alyssa started playing hockey at the age of nine, after years of watching her brother play. She was active in gymnastics at the time, but told her mom, “I don’t want to do gymnastics anymore. I want to play hockey,” Kathy says.
The idea caught Kathy off guard. (“I’d be lying if I said I was thrilled about the idea,” she says.) When Kathy was growing up, girls simply didn’t play hockey. Then girls started playing, but on boys’ teams. Most dropped out around the age of 12 or 13, because that’s when checking becomes a big part of the game, and the physical differences between boys and girls become a big deal.
Fortunately for Alyssa (and Kathy), the Beaver Dam Hockey Association has a strong girls’ hockey program that gives area girls of all ages the opportunity to hone their skills.
The girls’ hockey program was the brainchild of Paul Uttech, current president of the Beaver Dam Hockey Association. Around the year 2000, Uttech decided to offer a girls-only hockey practice once per week. He’d coached hockey for years, but his kids were in high school so Uttech was “looking for something to do.”
“Some other youth organizations had started girls’ programs, so I thought, well, let’s just see what kind of interest there is,” Uttech recalls. “That first year, I had seven girls who came regularly. We didn’t play any games, but we scrimmaged a bit against a couple of younger boys’ teams.”
Because he had a core group of interested girls, Uttech expanded the program in year two. The girls played games against other girls’ teams, and interest in the program continued to grow. Uttech continued on with the girls, coaching them at the U12 (under age 12) level and the U14 (under age 14) level.
The girls’ dedication and success – they nearly made it to the state tournament in their first year as a U14 team, and were invited to participate in the U16 state tourney the following year, despite the fact that they were younger and more inexperienced than most teams – inspired Uttech to think bigger.
“About the third or fourth year in, my goal became to get a high school team,” Uttech says. He wanted the girls to have the opportunity to continue to play, and he made it happen. Beaver Dam High School cooperated with Randolph High School to form a girls’ hockey team. (Beaver Dam, Wayland Academy and Columbus now co-op to form a girls’ hockey team.)
“Our first season, we ended up going to state,” Uttech says. “It was an unbelievable experience for our group.”
The success was fantastic, but Uttech knew that the girls’ hockey program required a constant infusion of new interest and talent in order to survive. Fortunately, girls tend to bring their friends into the sport.
“One thing about girls’ hockey is that you bring in more kids through their friends than you do in boys’ hockey,” Uttech says. “Girls tend to be a little bit more forgiving and accepting of a friend who doesn’t skate much, who’s just learning. They’re more tolerant than boys tend to be about a boy coming in who doesn’t skate much. It’s not that the girls don’t want to be competitive – they play hard and want to win – but they respect somebody trying to do something that’s frankly not very easy to do.”
That willingness to embrace and support others who would like to learn the sport makes hockey a great sport for girls. “We always have a few girls who come out at the middle school and high school level who haven’t really skated before,” Uttech says. And while not all of them stick with it, some go on to great success.
“One of our high school team captains didn’t start playing hockey until she was a freshman in high school,” Uttech says. “She had skated a little bit before that, but had never played hockey. Last year, she was an all-conference honorable mention pick.”
Uttech and the girls he coaches have no plans of slowing down. The girls’ hockey program has come full-circle: a girl Uttech coached as a youth and high school player, Erica Ballweg-Larsen, is now his assistant coach. The next generation – girls like Alyssa Heim – is active on the ice. And Uttech is looking forward to coaching his granddaughters.
“I’ve got two granddaughters already lined up,” he says. “Earlier this year, my wife and I went to a rink with our three-year-old granddaughter and put skates on her for the first time.”
It’s Never Too Late!
Know a girl who might be interested in playing hockey? “They shouldn’t be afraid to come out and try it,” says Paul Uttech, president of the Beaver Dam Hockey Association. “It doesn’t matter if they’re four or five or 12 or 13 or 16 or 17.”
The hockey association has equipment available for anyone who wants to give the sport a try. To learn more about girls’ hockey programs:
Visit the Beaver Dam Family Center. The ice rink has a facility manager who can give you information about girls’ hockey programs.
Visit http://bdfamilycenter.org/hockey/. The website has info on teams, camps and sign-ups.