Minneapolis girls’ hockey team has one of its best seasons ever
For an audio slideshow on the Novas, click here.
In the minutes before the Minneapolis Novas took the ice at Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Coach John Wareham tried to prepare a room full of high school girls’ hockey players for their toughest game of the season.
“Did you see the pace of that out there? They’re flying,” Wareham said.
They had just watched Hill-Murray shut out North St. Paul 6-0.
“When you get out for the game, Stillwater is going to be all of that,” Wareham warned them. “We’re going to have to be ready to go.”
“Be sharp,” he said. “Be sharp, sharp, sharp.”
The Novas varsity squad, a cooperative team made up of girls mostly from South, Washburn and Southwest high schools, wrapped up one of their best regular seasons ever just three nights earlier, going 15-7-3. Their regional match Friday, Feb. 8, against the Stillwater Ponies, last year’s state champions, would prove to be the greatest challenge of a memorable season.
The Novas expected nothing less. Still, they were confident.
Something clicked with the team this season, and a group of young women from different high schools — many of whom might not have met outside of the Novas — were playing great hockey together.
Terrific individual performances by a pair of South High School seniors were fueling the entire team. Goalie Katie Weise shutout the opposing team nine times, and center Casey McMullen had 59 points leading into the Stillwater match.
Throughout the season, Wareham rallied his maturing team around the one thing they all shared:
“We don’t have a school that we represent,” he said. “We represent all of the city.”
Building a reputation
Two days before the Stillwater match, Chuck Gabrielson sat at the top of the stands in Parade Ice Garden, out of the glare of arena lights. Down on the ice, South junior Kinga Gabrielson skated drills with the rest of the Novas.
“I enjoy watching my daughter skate, as I’m sure a lot of parents do,” Gabrielson said.
Like many of the Novas’ parents, he expressed admiration for the grace and finesse of girls’ hockey. Some said the ban on checking put a greater emphasis on passing and teamwork.
“I’m sure boys’ hockey is great, too,” he said, “but I like girls’ hockey because they’re not out there necessarily to take each other’s heads off, figuratively speaking.”
For this year’s players and parents, 2007–2008 was the best Novas season they’d ever experienced, by a long shot. The previous year, for example, the team went 9-15-2.
Parents, coaches and players don’t lean on it as an excuse, but they all acknowledge it can seem the deck is stacked against a Minneapolis team. They said there’s no denying Minneapolis teams struggle against their suburban and private school rivals for a number of reasons that have to do with differences in school and community resources and demographics.
“It’s discouraging, but also an incentive to work hard sometimes,” said Mary Ulseth, a defensive player and South junior. This year, success and a growing reputation inspired the team.
“It was really encouraging when we heard Blake and Breck” — two conference rivals — “were … threatened by us in a way because we were competition this year,” Ulseth said.
When evening practice at Parade wrapped up, several of the senior Novas discussed their chances in the upcoming regional match-up.
“I hope [Stillwater] just underestimates us,” McMullen said. “[If] they’re just thinking about the next game, we’ll come up and surprise them.”
Purses and letter jackets dangled from coat hooks in the small, white-walled locker room where the girls crowded onto benches, waiting to take the ice against Stillwater. The cement cube reeked of stale sweat.
“Guys,” interjected Kevin McMullen, the assistant coach, raising his voice to be heard over the young voices, “you’ve got nothing to lose. No fear today.”
A few of the girls were still pulling green and white uniforms over their bulky pads when a player called for quiet.
“This is new,” remarked Kevin McMullen, Casey McMullen’s father. He looked around the room as teammates joined hands.
“We’re not praying,” one of the Novas insisted, urging her teammates to simply think about making one good play. For a second, the nervous giggles stopped, and the room fell silent.
Then, it was back to business.
“What wins a game, ladies?” Kevin McMullen asked.
“Defense!” they shouted in unison.
“And who’s going to play defense today?”
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go kick some butt.”
A season to remember
From the first minutes of the game, things did not go well for the Novas.
Just over three minutes into the first period, the Ponies snuck the puck past Weise. Seconds after the first score, the Minneapolis parents gasped in unison when another shot ricocheted off the Novas’ goal post.
Goals two and three came in quick succession for the Ponies, who dominated the first period and successfully kept the puck near the Novas’ goal. With less than two minutes to go, Weise snagged a line-drive shot out of the air, but the Ponies still ended the period with a comfortable 5-0 lead.
Tom Anderson, a parent, said the Novas were aggressive on offense all season, but it seemed they couldn’t build any momentum against the Ponies.
“It’s a different game for us tonight,”
Anderson said. “We haven’t played a team like this for a while.”
In the second period, like the first, every Novas breakaway was smothered by the Ponies defense. The Ponies padded their lead with two more goals.
Mike Kelly, like the other parents, said a tough loss wouldn’t diminish the Novas’ excellent season.
“They got as tough a draw as they could get, so they just have to take it for what it is and celebrate a great run,” Kelly said.
Still, the Novas wouldn’t accept a shutout. With 7:22 left in the third period, Casey McMullen skated past the Ponies to score her 60th point of the season, achieving a goal she set for herself at the beginning of the school year.
After the 8-1 loss, the Novas returned to the locker room. Tears flowed, as they do at the end of every season.
This year, though, everyone was crying — and not because of the loss, but because of the great season they shared, said Casey McMullen.
Bonnie Morris, a parent, said she hoped the Novas carry that feeling with them.
“I’m just so happy they get to play this game, and they get to be this fierce and this big,” Morris said. “What an incredible thing for a young woman. Just think: Whatever these women are going to be in their lives, they’re going to remember how they had been on the ice.”
Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected]