A League of Their Own - In Hockey

OUTSIDE the Glacial Garden Ice Arena, the silhouettes of palm trees sway in 80-degree heat. Inside, mammoth air condensers produce the look and feel of a stand-up freezer.

Besides the incongruity of an ice rink in forever-sunny Los Angeles, the casual observer is jarred by long hair cascading out the back of hockey helmets.

"They could all be rock stars, but I don't think so," says a spectator in scarf and fur-lined gloves.

Welcome to the first amateur hockey league in southern California formed for women. Reflecting an explosion of interest in hockey nationwide since 1990, the new, female-only cartel is also the latest, post-feminist statement on gender equity in American sports.

"It's been an uphill battle for women in this sport, but they've finally made it," says Chris Plyman, spokeswoman for USA Hockey, the governing body for teams nationwide. Noting the door that just got shoved open when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) accepted women's hockey as a medal event at the 1998 Olympics, Ms. Plyman says women's teams are multiplying, puck, stick, and bleacher.

"Before, women could only rent a rink at off hours like 5 a.m. or midnight," she says. "Now they are demanding, and getting, prime time."

In 1990, 5,573 women were signed onto women or coed teams nationwide. Last year the figure hit 17,537. All-women teams have multiplied from about 100 a decade ago to 498 today. What happened?

Besides the IOC declaration, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recently recommended hockey as one of four sports that colleges could offer to meet Title IX requirements. The so-called 1972 Education Act mandates that colleges offer the same varsity sports for women and men, but scores of schools are still not in compliance. Many are adding hockey to their programs.

At the high-school level, Minnesota became the first state to sanction women's hockey as a high school varsity sport last year.

In Los Angeles, the new, six-team league is evidence of soaring interest in hockey as an offshoot of the sport's on-street cousin, in-line skating. Ice hockey has taken off with the advent of roller hockey.

But the taste for ice hockey here can also be attributed to the acquisition of Wayne Gretsky by the Los Angeles Kings five years ago. Since Mr. Gretsky, the all-time National Hockey League scoring champion, came to town the once-basement-level Kings are making it to Stanley Cup finals.

"The fact that a hot climate like Los Angeles is expanding with the addition of women's hockey is firm evidence that women's hockey is not just a craze but is here to stay," says Maria Dennis, member of the first all-women's national team in 1990.

Several leagues exist in the colder climes of the East and Midwest. And there are women's leagues in northern California. But Kathy McGarrigle, the young teacher credited with starting the new league here, says southern California will trounce them all.

"Women skaters here are quick, coordinated, and aggressive," she says. Some 80 women from Santa Clarita to San Diego pay $475 each for a season of rink time and $400 to $800 each for skates, pads, and helmets.

"I love the speed and the excitement," says Stephanie May, right wing for the Herricanes. Ms. May took up hockey last March. "I thought that if I liked it as a fan, I would love it as a player," she says. "I was right."

Rink owner Ron White, who has been involved with hockey leagues for 25 years, says the women's game is not as fast or rough as the men's. But tactically and strategically, the games are just as compelling. Women's league rules prohibit "checking," the slamming of one player by another into the perimeter wall prevalent in men's hockey.

But Maria Dennis, a former hockey instructor, says a major misconception about the sport is that it is rough or dangerous for women. "You are wearing so many pads that it's safer than figure skating. I'd rather do this than practice triple axels without any protection at all."

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