Published March 23rd, 2022 at 12:23 PM
Standing rinkside, Megan Cairns admits she misses being a part of a team environment.
On a Saturday at Line Creek Community Center and Ice Arena, she found just that.
“Never played hockey. Really, I’m very new to skating as well,” Cairns said, wearing full ice hockey garb and standing well over 6 feet tall in borrowed skates.
Despite no previous experience with the sport, Cairns decided to check out a Kansas City Women’s Hockey League (KCWHL) open practice. The former college athlete came to the rink in search of a challenge and sense of community.
At 1:45 p.m. sharp, the Zamboni machine exited the rink. Cairns, along with more than a dozen women took the smoothly polished ice.
The KCWHL is a grassroots organization created by women who love the game and want to provide a safe, comfortable introduction to the sport for women and girls around Kansas City.
League members range from former NCAA Division I women’s hockey players to hockey moms and wives-turned-athletes who decided to give the sport a shot of their own. There’s also a “token Canadien,” a few members of the Kansas City Glory women’s football team and a regular trickle of first timers like Cairns.
KCWHL members aim for ice time at least once a week, though limited sheets of ice in town present a challenge. As for games, league organizers are working to set this season’s schedule. Play typically takes the form of 20 to 25 players split into four teams for a “round robin” competition.
Neatha Snyder, who watched her now-adult son grow up playing the sport from chilly bleachers before lacing up herself, says the league is looking for ways to get its name out there and bring as many new players to the sport as possible.
Before the formation of the league, which is open to all women-identifying athletes, a lot of local women played co-ed in a men’s league. While a number of experienced players had no issues holding their own, full-checking rules in the men’s league upped the intimidation factor for newcomers.
Instead, the KCWHL provides a less daunting opportunity for beginners like Cairns to learn to skate, carry and pass the puck, shoot and learn the rules.
Snyder says there’s no reason to be afraid of hockey’s rough and tough reputation.
“If the ladies want to try it out, I think they’ll be surprised,” she said. “You feel pretty powerful and invincible once you put all that gear on.”
The KCWHL’s hour-long session at Line Creek started with a few warmup laps around the rink and passing.
Experienced skaters like former University of Michigan goalie Maggie Wagner zip around the ice with ease and flair. A few of the brave first-timers feel it out slowly, others inevitably fall.
“Pop up!” one of the team leaders shouts from across the ice.
The warmup is followed by a series of skating drills focused on stopping and changing direction — even skating backwards. From there, the women work on passing and shooting.
Veteran players shout questions to the group’s leader Kari Walberg about technique, ensuring newcomers catch the basics, no matter how trivial the points might be to experienced athletes.
Support for members of the less-experienced “Group 2” was palpable all afternoon. Small words of encouragement here, a pointer there.
When the end-of-practice scrimmage started, Cairns came over to the bench to watch and learn. At least three teammates invited her to sub in for them on day one.
Cairns insisted that she preferred to watch the action from the bench to pick up the flow of actual gameplay.
“I fell a couple times and they didn’t laugh at me,” Cairns said, adjusting her helmet borrowed from the KCWHL’s growing gear library.
The pricey protective equipment is an obvious financial barrier for first timers. The library has been a focus for the group that’s in the business of lowering barriers.
In 2019, newtohockey.com estimated head-to-toe equipment to play hockey costs anywhere from $500 to $1,000.
Along with its growing equipment library, KCWHL makes an effort to lower the cost of trying the sport for first timers by waiving the $21 “drop in” fee.
If hockey sticks, league members have the option to pay dues to cover multiple weeks of practice sessions, starting at $104 for four weeks.
The uniqueness of the league and special attention the group puts toward creating this opportunity for women and girls in hockey is not lost on Cairns, who works professionally for Women Leaders in College Sports.
“It’s just a really nice niche space and it’s a safe space for people like me who don’t have any experience and wouldn’t feel comfortable joining a random league,” Cairns said.
Well before her time at Michigan, Wagner recalls watching women’s hockey for the first time in the 1998 Winter Olympics. She was about 10 years old and had just recently picked up the sport herself.
On Saturday, Wagner passed the puck back and forth with her wife Erin, a newbie to the game, who decided to try the sport herself after watching Maggie through the glass.
“It makes a difference for young girls to be able to just see women playing. That’s the most important thing,” Wagner said. “Just the more mainstream it gets, and the more visibility it gets, the quicker it’ll grow.”
Hockey brings women of KCWHL together, but the greater sense of community leads to off-the-ice hangouts.
The group recently came together to watch the U.S. Women’s Gold Medal game in the Winter Olympics. Postgame drinks are common, not to mention occasional outings to watch the Missouri Mavericks.
“We just got to get women out here,” Wagner said. “I think they’ll fall in love with the sport just like we did.”
Interested in checking out a KCWHL practice? Learn more at kcwhl.com or email email@example.com.
Flatland contributor Clarence Dennis also is a social media manager for 90.9 The Bridge.