Women’s club hockey defies stereotypes en route to successful season

Pads, helmets, jerseys and sticks are what the average viewer would expect to see when watching a hockey game. However, one thing that doesn’t quite fit into this picture is a ponytail. Seeing the long hair sticking out from behind a helmet can immediately cause a double take. But upon further review, it can be understood that the ponytail symbolizes an unusual occurrence: proof that a woman has decided to enter the cold arena and cast her stick into what is usually known as man’s territory — the sport of ice hockey.

For women’s club hockey team member Hillary Rowley-Weiss, a senior in FAA, hockey has been second nature since she began at the age of 10.

“All my friends were guys and played hockey, that’s what was cool,” Rowley-Weiss said. “I just thought it was completely normal.”

As Rowley-Weiss got older, she realized that not many women played hockey, but she had a talent.

Upon coming to the University, she found 20 women defying the stereotype, just like herself.

Two nights a week, these women travel to the Ice Arena at 9:45 to spend two hours practicing shooting, working on game situations, doing drills and “hours of tortuous skating,” graduate student Kendra Grant said.

Grant acknowledges that hockey is a boys’ sport but says that she likes being able to fit in.

“Most of our coaches are just students that are into hockey,” Grant said. “It is pretty much a boys’ sport, but we’ve grown up playing with boys, and we like playing pick-up games with them.”

“We can hold our own against them,” Grant added.

The women realize that even though they can compete against the men, their sport is little known at the University, and most of the attention is focused on the men’s team.

“We don’t nearly get as many fans as the men’s team,” Grant said. “We’ve had a lot of big crowds this season because most of our friends come, and a big crowd is like 30 people,” Grant laughed.

The women try to focus on their love of the sport — and not what people think.

Captain and president, Whitney Gervelis, said that a lot of people don’t even know women play hockey.

“People think it’s weird. You definitely get looks if you’re like, ‘I play hockey.’ People just go ‘What?’ and it can be a little awkward,” Gervelis said.

She plays the sport for the thrill of the competition.

“I like the physicality of it and how rough it is. It’s more intense than any other sport,” Gervelis said. “I feel hockey is a challenge because everything is harder on ice. Compared to lacrosse or field hockey, you have to have more skills than other sports.”

Gervelis, now a senior, has been on the team since her sophomore year and works to lead the athletes on and off the ice.

This season, the team has expanded, bringing in nine new freshman and sophomore members. All nine had previous hockey experience, some on high school boys’ teams and some on AAA club teams.

“All these new girls, (it’s) just ridiculous,” Gervelis said. “And experience is not really a requirement. If you don’t know what ice hockey is, you can just come and see what it’s all about.”

“A lot of people were new to hockey last year, so this year they are really starting to get the hang of it, and we are just coming together,” Grant added.

Other than the few women new to the sport, almost two-thirds of the athletes have played hockey in high school or before.

This experience contributes to the Illini’s success, as they are undefeated nine games into this season.

They now play at the highest competition level the Women’s Central Hockey League offers.

“We want to win the league championship then go on to the USA Hockey National Tournament and play teams from all over the country,” Gervelis said. “This would be our first year we have a shot at going and getting it all.”

The Illini’s next competition will be 10 p.m. on Friday night at the Ice Arena against the Hoffman Estates Flash, who the Illini defeated earlier this season 8-1.