If someone were to ask the average USC student to rank the university’s top-five fastest growing club sports teams, the chances that USC women’s ice hockey would make the cut are astronomically small. Most students do not know that USC has a men’s hockey team, let alone a women’s squad.
But the USC women’s ice hockey club is alive and well, shattering the old stereotype that hockey is exclusively a male sport.
Founded in 2001, the club began as a fledgling organization consisting of eight to 10 students who occasionally played pick-up games at a nearby rink. Now, the organization boasts a roster of 26 students. The club, a member of USA Hockey, went undefeated last season before taking third place in its division in a tournament in Vancouver.
The main challenge is finding enough teams to beat. The USC women’s ice hockey club is the only college women’s ice hockey club in California and one of the only college women’s hockey clubs west of the Mississippi River.
“Our biggest issue is exposing these girls to enough competition so they can play more games under pressure,” said Jerry Toy, the club’s head coach since 2008.
“We do our best with what’s within our means and we’ve grown tremendously,” he said.
The club had 12 players on the roster in 2008 with many of them considering practices optional, only attending those that were most convenient, according to Toy.
“Now we’ve got 26 extremely dedicated girls who fully participate,” Toy said. “I love to coach them because they listen, are willing to take risks and they push themselves.”
Women’s ice hockey is slightly different than men’s in that there is no “checking” or full body contact. As a result, women’s hockey games feature fundamentals, skills and fewer injuries.
Liz Bitzer, the team’s president, said one of the main obstacles that keeps girls off the ice is a fear of getting injured. According to Bitzer, however, injuries on the ice are rare.
“We usually don’t have any issues with injuries on the ice,” said Bitzer, a sophomore majoring in Spanish. “When we do have any injuries, it’s usually because the person is not paying attention or gets injured doing something completely unrelated to hockey.”
The team’s captain, Cayley Tullman, tore her anterior cruciate ligament while snowboarding.
“Most injuries occur when girls don’t know the fundamentals of falling,” Tullman said, a senior majoring in Spanish and international relations.
Tullman said the most common injuries are collarbone breaks and concussions, but according to Toy, the club recently purchased stronger helmets to better protect players.
“There is no [such] thing as a concussion-proof helmet,” Toy said. “But this keeps girls safer on the ice.”
Though the team is competitive and faces the premier women’s hockey teams in California, the club welcomes all members, regardless of skill level.
Chandler Baker, a sophomore majoring in computer science, said she joined the club with no hockey experience.
Her first challenge was learning to skate.
“I was super involved with sports back in high school, but when I got to college, I cut back and I needed to fill the void,” Baker said, now a forward on the hockey team.
Baker said exercise is key to relieving her stress, but it’s one thing to work out and another to play an organized sport.
“There is no comparison between running on a treadmill at the Lyon Center and practicing every week on the ice with your best friends,” she said.
The club practices three days a week at the Paramount Iceland, but only one hour at a time because of budget constraints.
Bitzer said an hour of ice time costs $300, but the team only charges each player $300 per semester.
“Playing hockey is very expensive, but we don’t want financial issues to discourage anyone from joining the club,” Bitzer said.
The club receives most of its funding from private donations, the USC Recreational Club Council and from several fundraisers featuring T-shirts, letter-writing campaigns and an invite on ice.
As a result, club membership is much more affordable, allowing for greater diversity.
“We have girls from the East Coast, West Coast, girls of different ages, majors and different personalities,” Tullman said. “This club opened doors for me and allowed me to make meaningful friendships with many different kinds of girls.”
Bitzer and Tullman said the team has become more competitive through the years, but wins and losses are only a small component of what USC women’s ice hockey is all about.
“This club provides a small group of girls the enormous resource of a cohesive Trojan Family,” Bitzer said. “Everyone genuinely cares about each other, and we’re all here for one another, on and off the ice.”