The members of the Boise Women's Hockey Association keep their sticks—and their skates—on the ice, taking ownership of a rough and tumble sport. But for these women, it's not about hard checks and blood loss, but rather a love for the sport and the camaraderie that comes with it.
While some team members are accomplished players, others are still mastering the skill of stopping while on skates.
"For the first year I didn't know how to stop. [I just] crashed into the boards every time," said team member Jessi Speck with a laugh. For her, it's more about the team. "It's just such an eclectic, unique group of women, and everyone is so supportive," she said. "Yes, we're competitive, but at the end of the day, we've all made such good friends."
Then, there's the feeling that comes with being on the ice.
"It's just a feeling of freedom when you're skating," said Holly Foster, in her ninth season with BWHA. "It's a dynamic game; difficult and exciting. The possibility of getting that little tiny puck into that great big net doesn't seem like it would be hard, but it is.
"You live for those few moments of glory," she said.
In the Treasure Valley, female hockey players have several options. BWHA has two traveling teams that compete against teams from around the region, while Idaho Ice World hosts a women's recreational hockey league every Thursday night. Players can also take advantage of a co-ed league.
BWHA is divided into two teams based on skill level. Wildfire, the B team, is home to the league's intermediate and advanced players, while the Black Widows are the beginning players.
The traveling teams are based on a tournament schedule, which has them traveling once every few weekends to compete in several day's worth of games either in Boise or in one of their competitors' home cities: Park City, Utah; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Missoula, Mont.; Wenatchee, Wash.; as well as McCall and Sun Valley.
Team members find their ways to hockey from a wide array of backgrounds. Melanie Morgan has been hitting the ice for four seasons in Boise after making the switch from roller hockey to ice hockey roughly 10 years ago. After growing up roller skating in California, all it took was one trip to the beach with friends for a game of roller hockey to make her a lifer.
Of course, the transition from asphalt to ice wasn't necessarily a graceful one. "It was a little bit touchy," Morgan said with a laugh. "I looked like a deer on the ice."
A move to the East Coast and league play with her husband was enough to solidify her skills. When the couple pondered a move to Idaho, they had to check on the hockey situation first.
"We probably wouldn't have moved here if they didn't have hockey," Morgan said.
Foster began playing hockey after spending years watching her college boyfriend play. An athlete who had already played field hockey and rugby, she found a rink that had a women's team and never looked back. She moved to Boise on a Monday and was playing in her first hockey game by the following Friday.
"It's instant friends, just add ice," Foster said.
Her dedication to the sport has even prompted her husband to start playing, and the two play together on the area's co-ed team.
It's a family affair for Speck, a fourth-season player who got talked into joining by her mother-in-law.
While she had never been on skates before, it was the challenge that kept Speck coming back week after week. "What a great thing to be able to say I tried this," she said.
Speck and others are used to shocked reactions when people find out they play hockey. Not only are they busting gender stereotypes, but not everyone on the team is a physically imposing figure.
"I don't look like what a hockey player would look like," Speck said, alluding to her petite frame. Of course, the lucky pink hockey socks she sports get her teased even by her own team.
BWHA is always on the lookout for new recruits, hosting two Hockey 101 sessions each year to give would-be players the chance to test the ice. Participants use team members' gear and get a one-day hockey primer. Undoubtably, there are at least a couple of converts at the end of each session.
One of those who got hooked by the one-day event was Stasia Buffenbarger, now playing in her third season.
"It was hilarious," she said of her first time on the ice. "I usually pick things up very quickly, but once you put hockey gear on and you have a stick in your hand, it was very awkward for me. Then they threw the puck out there ..."
Buffenbarger now sees that same thrill in the first-timers who show up for Hockey 101 and understands their frustrations.
"You see that look in their eye," she said. "It's such a thrill if you can skate up to the puck and catch it on your blade and you feel like you're going so fast—then you see it on video and realize you're going so slow."
Occasionally, members of the Idaho Steelheads hockey team will help out the women's teams, but they soon realize it isn't the same out-for-blood hockey they are used to playing.
"They just crack up," Buffenbarger said of the pros' reaction to the amount of time the female players spend apologizing to each other after a collision.
The intimidation factor is often what stops many interested players who think they are either too old or not athletic enough to join. But those are just minor details in BWHA. Many team members didn't start playing until they were in their 30s, and that age group makes up the largest percentage of the league.
"Anybody who can walk can play hockey," Speck said.
Others are concerned about injuries, and players are realistic that injuries do occasionally happen, but they are rarely serious. Even though the league doesn't allow intentional checking or fighting, hockey is still a competitive and physical game, and incidental contact does happen.
"You just have to be in really good shape or you don't do so well out there," Morgan said.
"That's what all those pads are for," Speck said.
Team members have to pay for their own gear, although a few fundraisers help pay for the organization's community work.
BWHA's largest fundraiser of the year, Wine, Women and Hockey is slated for Sunday, Dec. 7, from 4 to 8 p.m. at Legends Sports Pub and Grill. The event will feature wine tasting, food, raffle prizes and a silent auction with items ranging from Idaho Steelhead tickets and artwork to a certificate for a vasectomy—donated annually by a team member who happens to be a doctor. It's the item which Buffenbarger said usually ends up in a bidding war. Tickets for the event are $10 and auction items can be previewed at boisewomenshockey.org.
The next Hockey 101 is scheduled for spring, and returning players know the event will bring some new recruits to their ranks.
"It just takes one moment of glory," Foster said.