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Monday, November 24, 2014

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Yost After Hours: Michigan women's hockey

By David Malinowski, Daily Sports Writer
Published July 13, 2014

Entering Yost Ice Arena with the women’s hockey team on the ice is like walking into an office after hours. It’s one of the most historic college rinks in the country, but the lights are half-dimmed and the building is cold. The muffled sounds of skates and pucks fill the air.

Signs colored in with crosshatched sharpie and the names and numbers of players don one half of the boards. A banner hangs by two ropes from the boards, proudly displaying that the Wolverines are on the ice. The large, four-faced scoreboard remains dark. Winged helmets move about the ice, but the wings are in yellow tape on store-bought navy helmets.

This is not the perennial championship-contending men’s team coached by Red Berenson. This is Michigan women’s hockey. This is a team where reality hits its players square in the face with every drop of sweat.

Still, it’s life for players who have passed up bigger opportunities to play here.

“You need something to kind of keep you going, and that for me is hockey,” said sophomore alternate captain Jenna Trubiano.

Offered a roster spot on a varsity squad elsewhere, she instead chose to play closer to her New Baltimore, Michigan home. The desire that brought her here started when she was 10 with a Detroit Red Wings game on TV.

“My family wasn’t hockey-oriented — nobody else (in my family) played it,” she said. “I saw Henrik Zetterberg make this one move on TV and I told my dad I wanted to do that.”

Like many hockey players in the state, Trubiano worked her way up the ranks, eventually winning a state championship with Little Caesars’ AAA team before enrolling at the University.

By contrast, the team’s captain and president had a more intense path. A rising fifth-year senior, Monica Korzon of Ann Arbor, captained AAA Detroit Honeybaked to a state championship and played several seasons at SUNY Plattsburgh in upstate New York, winning two D-III national championships.

“My dad really wanted a son, and he never got one,” Korzon said. “His equivalent was turning his four daughters into hockey players. For me, it’s a family sport. When it’s cold enough on Christmas morning, we’ll play pond hockey.

“I love hockey. It’s who I am.”

These girls grew up with plenty of hockey idols to choose from, though there weren’t many female options. Korzon, for instance, grew up modeling her game after current Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, who lived only a few bedrooms down from Korzon as a child. The Korzon family served as his billet family during his time as a member of the United States National Team Development Program.

Her other source of inspiration was the Michigan men’s ice hockey team, which at the time had stars like current NHL players Max Pacioretty and Carl Hagelin. While most young players would have affectionately watched the team, Korzon watched through a lens of resentment.

“I grew up wanting to play Michigan women’s (varsity) hockey,” she said. “My dad had told me that by the time I was 18, there would be a women’s team here. That was 12 years ago, and you would have figured that there was going to be one.”

There are almost no opportunities for girls to play hockey in the state of Michigan after high school. While there was a Division I team at Wayne State in Detroit, it folded after succumbing to financial pressure. There are now just two programs in the state — Finlandia University and Adrian College — both Division III.

The result is a mass exodus of all female hockey talent from the state of Michigan after high-school graduation. Girls disperse from Minnesota to Massachusetts where they can succeed on and off the ice. Some of them would love to stay and play in their home state, but it’s just not an attractive option.

“As a female hockey player, the number one thing you have to look at is academics, but I think it’s kind of ridiculous that there’s not a women’s D-I team to pursue in the state of Michigan,” Trubiano said. “It’s embarrassing, actually.”

Trubiano and Korzon took drastically different paths to get to Michigan. But they converge to tell a story about the picture of athletics at the University and in the state.

* * *

Susan McDowell is officially an assistant coach for the women’s hockey team, but her experience with the sport goes back decades. She co-founded the team in 1994 and played at the college level.

It has been 17 years since women’s hockey was up for varsity appointment at Michigan. In 1997, the Athletic Department put three women’s sports up for varsity appointment — soccer, water polo and hockey — to choose two.

“(Women’s hockey was) in top priority,” she said. “The board of control recommended that we go to the Board of Regents.”

Soccer was selected, leaving water polo and hockey as the remaining two sports for promotion.

“They ended up taking water polo,” McDowell said. “The anecdotal information was that water polo was going to be a $350,000 a year investment (all-inclusive), whereas ice hockey would have been a $750,000-800,000 deal.”

The justification for the appointment ranges from travel costs to facility maintenance. At the time, Canham Natatorium was entering just its seventh year of operation, having enough capacity to support an extra team.

Soccer already had practice fields and game fields in place, leaving the question of how to divide ice time at Yost Arena. The process never got that far, and ice hockey was tabled for females due to facility and fiscal constraints.

At other schools, however, this was not the case. Varsity female programs cropped up at both the D-I and D-III levels around the same time as the Michigan vote, with schools like Wisconsin and Ohio State both founding teams in the late 1990s and sharing facilities with the men’s squads.

The women at Michigan feel like they’ve been short-changed.

The current team, which prides itself on being fiscally self-sustainable, relies heavily on donations and dues alike as a result. With varsity sports, a team has its own office administration, funding, equipment contracts and sponsors. Women’s hockey is currently at club status, which means it receives none of those. Everything is out-of-pocket.

With winter dues totaling at $15,000, the team then pays an ice bill just shy of $9,000 before fronting an additional $16,410 in trip expenses. Add in conference dues, various gifts to coaches and seniors as well as referee salaries, and that rounds out to about $7,000 that the team owes. Only through limited donations and extensive fundraising does the team make up the difference.

Promoting the longtime club sport to varsity status would present a couple of issues. First is Title IX, which could require the school to add another men’s sport to accompany the addition of women’s varsity hockey.

Furthermore, in order for Michigan to maintain two varsity hockey programs in the eyes of the Athletic Department, it needs two rinks, as opposed to moving the women into Yost with the men.

“It’s not impossible,” Athletic Director Dave Brandon told The Detroit News in January. “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.”

Building another facility would add a hefty startup fee to travel and maintenance costs for the new varsity sport.

“It would certainly draw some fan attraction, as all of our teams do,” Brandon told the News. “But I’m sure the fan interest in it would be far below the cost of the program.”

***

In the late 1990s, one of Michigan’s chief rivals, Ohio State, forged onward with creating women’s teams. Using a selective process, a group of athletic officials decided to create women’s programs that would parallel existing men’s sports.

Among additions such as women’s lacrosse and rowing, Ohio State added a women’s ice hockey program to the varsity fold.

“We had a men’s program that was doing fairly well,” said Miechelle Willis, the school’s Executive Associate Director of Athletics. “We had an ice rink, so the decision was to add women’s hockey at that time.”

The program faced a litany of uphill battles in all departments. Like the state of Michigan, Ohio lacks a large population of women’s hockey players. The recruiting pool is very thin, leading to extra costs on recruiting trips to the east coast, Canada, Minnesota and even Europe, costs that other sports don’t have to deal with to field a complete roster.

“Decisions are made on the possibilities of the recruiting pool,” Willis said. “We knew what we were getting into, but it wasn’t a significant enough hurdle to preclude the sport.”

Other obstacles Ohio State faced were competition and facilities.

At the varsity level, the only competitive teams are well beyond the boundaries of Ohio. The Buckeyes hold the distinction of being the only Division I varsity women’s program in their state, but for now, it’s not a pristine pedestal. For one thing, it means that the team has to fly out to all road games, hardly a cheap expense.

Ohio State, unlike Michigan, has the benefit of having two rinks on campus. OSU Ice Rink, which runs for upwards of 18 hours a day, is home to the women’s team in addition to the men’s practice facility and the home of intramural sports, figure skating and club teams. The ice is also rented out regularly and serves as a major hub for ice hockey in Central Ohio.

“Having another varsity team in there takes out a lot of potential revenue, but it’s no different than any other facility that houses a team,” Willis said. “Any time you have multiple teams in a facility you have to juggle schedules, but ice time can be a significant money maker.”

With all of the extra events that take place at Yost Ice Arena, including public skates, peewee tournaments, men’s leagues and club team rentals, Red Berenson’s team still practices, plays and works out at the venue. Adding another team to the campus’ only ice rink would significantly cut back on potential revenue in addition to becoming a logistical nightmare. This is where the second rink argument is validated.

There’s also no guarantee that the program will be successful. Ohio State, for instance, has cracked the 20-win plateau only once in its history. To be nationally competitive, it has to grow to the levels of programs like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Minnesota State and Minnesota-Duluth.

Ohio State wanted to have the program live up to their athletics mantra: The travel, equipment, academics, student services and competition all had to be exceptional.

But there isn’t a blanket formula towards starting a program.

“Adding sports are tough decisions, dropping sports are tough decisions, but every campus looks at their environments, their opportunities for national competitiveness,” Willis said. “What may work here might not work there.”

McDowell circled back to finding money for the program through benefactors.

“Do I target the alumni and ask them ‘Hey, have you loved this sport? Has it given something to you?’ ” she said. “Do you give something at a bigger level to more people at a more formal-level commitment?”

For now, there’s not much she can do. Players have come and gone, games have been won and lost, but for the players’ longtime dream of playing Michigan varsity hockey, time is running out.

“I think there’s a sense of inevitability with the participants of the current program, because it’s not going to happen while they’re here,” McDowell said. “They are looking around and seeing are where their peers are playing, wondering where their younger sisters are going, and it’s not getting the support it needs across the state. That’s the struggle.”