Ann Arbor — Monica Korzon and Kali Hengsteler do a lot of the hard work that encourages optimism in women’s and girls’ hockey.
In a state with no NCAA Division I programs for women, and where participation levels among females lag behind traditional hockey-playing states like Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York, Korzon and Hengsteler are officers and players in the women’s club team at the University of Michigan.
Along with the club team at Michigan State and Division III teams at Adrian and Finlandia, the club team at U-M is the pinnacle for females hoping to play the sport in Michigan.
In the clubs, the women mostly run their own affairs: they schedule games and travel, market the teams and raise the lion’s share of the funds.
“I probably spend at least three or four hours a week just handling finances, collecting players dues,” said Hengsteler, the club treasurer and defensive player of the year in 2012.
Korzon is essentially a chief executive officer, as well as a sniper on skates, with 47 points in 24 games last season.
“I’ll spend up to six hours a week just in meetings, dealing with other teams, dealing with schedules, making sure everyone else is doing their jobs, making sure travel is booked,” she said.
So far, neither the club team at Michigan or Michigan State is on the verge of repeating the transformation of women’s club teams in New England and New York in the 1970s by joining the intercollegiate level.
With no NCAA Division I team in Michigan, a small number of high school programs and large number of travel teams — which provide considerable opportunity to play, but do not sustain the broad, deep development of high school teams in Minnesota and the Northeast — the very architecture of the game in Michigan is not supporting dynamic growth, administrators, coaches and players say.
“A Division I team is important, because in other states girls grow up and see the end of the rainbow and they say, ‘I want to be like that,’ ” said Matt Berger, a girls coach for Little Caesars.
“We don’t have the community-based part that they do in some of the states, and we don’t have the end of the rainbow.”
And it shows.
No women from Michigan qualified for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Only Angela Ruggiero, the former Harvard defenseman, originally from Huntington Woods, made it in 2006 and 2010. And in Vancouver in 2010, Ruggiero listed California as her home state.
Only two other Michigan women have skated for Team USA since the team won gold in 1998: Shelley Looney of Trenton and Lisa Brown of Union Lake.
Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York routinely place three women on each Olympic roster, and New Hampshire and Wisconsin also regularly provide more Olympians than Michigan.
USA Hockey, the organizing body for the sport, registered 4,648 females playing hockey in Michigan last season.
Minnesota registered 12,358, Massachusetts 9,462 and New York, 5,409.
In the age groups for 16-year-old players and younger, registrations in Minnesota are generally 400- 500-percent higher than in Michigan.
In Massachusetts, they are generally 300 percent higher and about 50 percent higher in New York.
Meanwhile, registrations of males from Michigan generally exceed those in the other traditional, hockey-playing states in the upper age groups. At 16 and below, the registration of boys also trails in Michigan, but the proportions ranging from only 10-50 percent lower the other hockey-playing states.
“Has this been an issue in the state for a long time? Yes, it has,” said Karen Lundgren, director emeritus of USA Hockey, and former girls and women’s director for the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association.
“But has it come a long way? Absolutely. Compared to what it was 30 years ago and what it is now, there is absolutely, no question, for certain more hockey for women and girls in Michigan.
“Does it have a long way to go? Absolutely.”
A sport run like a hobby
Those involved in the sport say travel teams and other local leagues have provided most of the growth in Michigan during the 40 years since the women’s movement and Title IX helped establish participatory athletics as a priority for women.
But despite the considerable success, a structure in which players move frequently from team to team, coaches raid each others’ rosters and a players’ participation is intentionally nomadic, does not provide for the generation-to-generation, in-the-same-neighborhood growth that is a hallmark of the development in Minnesota and the Northeast, coaches and players say.
Sue McDowell, coach of the women’s club team at Michigan, grew up on Cape Cod, attended college in Maine, moved to Michigan for a graduate degree and later returned.
“When I moved back here in the early 1990s, from the Massachusetts and Maine perspective and knowing what I knew about this state and hockey, I thought there was team on every corner in Michigan,” McDowell said. “What struck me instead is that it was sort of very much like a hobby here.
“Most of it was centered around a charismatic leader or parent, someone who decided that the girls were going to play, regardless, and they would organize the team and get the ice time.”
In the Northeast, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, female club teams organized at colleges and private prep schools, where males had played the game to considerable popular effect for more than a half century.
Pembroke, the women’s college once associated with a then all-male Brown University, had the first club team at a university in 1963, 38 years before the club team organized at Michigan.
As the women’s movement advanced and Title IX took effect, many of the schools moved the clubs to intercollegiate status.
It was a simple, economically sensible segue.
In Minnesota in the 1970s, the state sought to vastly improve athletics in the public schools. Among other initiatives, it began doling out $250,000 to high schools willing to build rinks, while insisting girls be given the same opportunity as the boys.
It is around those two systems, observers say, that perpetual, in-the-same-geography opportunities exist for the development of the sport for females.
No such structure has evolved in Michigan, despite the vitality of corporate sponsorship and the travel teams.
In 2012, 255 girls played hockey at 17 high schools, while 3,804 boys played at 252.
In Minnesota, 3,658 girls played at 240 high schools; in Massachusetts, 2,053 girls played at 116 high schools; and in New York 439 girls played at 24 high schools.
“Obviously, Minnesota is ‘The State of Hockey,’ ” said Brad Frost, coach of the top-ranked intercollegiate team at Minnesota, referring to the ad agency phrase that grew to practically eclipse the state motto.
“There is no doubt that with so many younger girls playing with town high school teams, and such interest and participation by youngsters at ages 6, 7, 8 and 9 wanting to make those high school teams and hoping to play in the state tournament, it really is the dream for every young Minnesota person, whether a boy or a girl.”
It also drives strong interest in Frost’s program, the two-time defending national champions that have won four of the 13 national championships awarded by the NCAA in women’s hockey.
Minnesota-Duluth has won five.
When highly-touted Maryanne Menifee, of Lansing, stopped playing in the Little Caesars program two years ago, she had to leave Michigan to play Division I hockey.
So she went to Minnesota to play for Frost. Menifee tallied 38 points in 35 games her freshman season, and she has 14 points in 18 games this season.
Not in the Title IX mix
Michigan and Michigan State have among the most prestigious athletic programs in the country, offering among the most sports for men and women of any schools in the nation.
Both also are continuously in compliance with Title IX.
But women’s hockey is not in the mix, and it is deemed unlikely to be included anytime soon.
In part, the athletic directors at both schools say, it almost certainly would require new construction, not simply financing a women’s team in the current facilities.
“It’s not impossible,” Michigan athletic director David Brandon said of moving a women’s team in with the men’s at Yost Ice Arena. “But, if you were to do it the right way, which is the Michigan way, you’d build a facility with two sheets of ice.”
Beyond that, Brandon said, is the considerable cost of equipping and maintaining a competitive hockey team and the travel.
“It would certainly draw some fan attraction, as all of our teams do,” he said. “But I’m sure the fan interest in it would be far below than the cost of the program.
Like Brandon, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said a women’s team would be costly.
Both men said no significant donor has ever stepped forward to endow the program, as occurred in recent years at Penn State, with a donation of $88 million.
“A lot of times, you’ll get a donor who will in essence pay for the first year and then you are on your own,” Hollis said, of many offers, whether for women’s hockey or to establish other sports.
“If you’re really looking at supporting a program, the need is for something similar to Penn State where a donor came in and endowed the program so it does not become a liability on men’s basketball, football, women’s basketball, baseball and so forth; it basically can stand on its own.”
Those are not encouraging words for the women of club hockey at Michigan and Michigan State.
Amid concerns from their parents about a long van ride to a tournament in Rhode Island, the players hoped to raise the money to rent a bus. But it cost $8,000, double the annual stipend of $4,000 from the university, to help run the club spot.
Instead, they were likely to drive a van provided by the university.
Despite doing all their own organizing, the club teams at Michigan and Michigan State sent three players to the World University Games last month.
Korzon was one.
When she arrived in Ann Arbor, she said she wrote Brandon a letter advocating the establishment of the women’s sport at Michigan.
“We don’t have a Division I program in the state,” Korzon said. “And being a Big Ten school and not having a Division I program is actually embarrassing.”