Despite our proximity to Canada, sometimes it still feels like we know relatively little about our neighbors to the north (or east, depending on where you live). We, for instance, only recently learned of a Quebecois creation known as poutine: a dish consisting of french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds that, culturally and calorically speaking, is the French-Canadian equivalent of a coney dog. And then there’s the constant mystery of why Canadian pop music and television always seems to be about 10 years behind (except for you, Bieber. We love you, Bieber). But our latest who-knew-they-did-that-in-Canada moment comes from the world of sports: namely, a girls’ ice game known as ringette. Simply put, ringette is a lot like hockey—no matter how hard ringette enthusiasts try to convince you otherwise. The main difference is that ringette is played with a rubber ring instead of a puck, and a stick without a blade. There’s more to it than that, of course, but if you’re reading this sentence, you already know more about ringette than nearly every American. See, while we Americans adopted hockey without reservation, ringette is one Canadian creation which remains about as mysterious to us as gravy-soaked “pommes frites.”
But now—and we mean now as in just a couple weeks ago—ringette is officially an American sport, if only in the smallest of ways. Recently, a man from Ann Arbor named Shawn Gates and his 13-year-old, hockey-playing daughter, Chloe, organized what is possibly the lone girls’ ringette team in America. What comes next, however, might be an uphill skate.
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here are times when Coach Shawn doesn’t really know what’s going on. Right now is one of those times. He’s standing along the boards on one of the rinks at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube during Thursday night practice, looking on as one of his players suddenly foists the ring onto the end of her stick. Lifting the ring shoulder-high, she whips it through the air to a teammate just outside the blue line. The ring flies about 20 feet and crashes to the ice, where a couple players battle for it before play continues. But no one’s really sure if that’s how things are supposed to go in this sport.
“I don’t actually know if that’s allowed, that whole ‘alley-oop’ thing” Shawn says, laughing, temporarily biting down on the whistle he uses to stop play. For now, he decides to let it go. “I guess I’ll have to check the rules when I get home.”
Not that anyone could blame Coach Shawn, father of two hockey-playing teenage girls, for not knowing all the nuances of ringette. It is, after all, almost exclusively a Canadian thing. The way curling is a Canadian thing. And to be completely accurate, ringette is a Canadian girls thing. It was invented as a girls’ alternative to hockey in the 1960s, when girls weren’t allowed to play the national sport in any organized way. The game is big in Canada now: Girls typically start playing organized ringette at age 5, and Canada even has a National Ringette League for elite players. But even in cold-weather border states like Michigan, almost no one has heard of ringette, let alone knows how to play it. In fact, by all educated guesses, Shawn’s U16 team—that’s “under 16 years old” in hockey/ringette lingo—may be the only homegrown girls’ ringette team anywhere in the U.S.
Even the team’s existence is sort of an accident. The idea was inadvertently hatched at the hockey practice of Shawn’s 13-year-old daughter, Chloe, when Shawn had the girls flip their hockey sticks upside down and do a practice drill with a rubber ring and the bladeless end of the stick. Chloe wanted to know if what they were doing was a real sport; Shawn didn’t know. But a quick internet search that evening revealed that, yes, Canada did in fact invent a girls’ hockey alternative around 1963. Shawn and Chloe soon set to work organizing a ringette team, starting with recruits from Chloe’s group of hockey friends. They even had someone from Ringette Canada—the sport’s governing body—come over to host a free “Come Try Ringette” event at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. To Shawn and Chloe’s surprise, 30 potentials showed up—more than enough to field a team.
“Some of our girls are here because they’re interested in ringette; some because they couldn’t find a hockey team,” Shawn says. That might seem surprising, given the explosion of interest in girls’ hockey in the past decade—but girls’ programs are still a shadow of what’s open to boys. The older girls get, the fewer organized leagues there are, and few high schools have girls’ hockey teams. For many young women in the Ann Arbor area, ringette could be their way back onto the ice.
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It’s less than a week before Shawn’s girls’ first official game—what could be one of the first-ever ringette games on American soil—and the team is still working out some kinks. Many of the girls on the team have been playing hockey since they were little kids, but ringette and hockey are more like cousins than twins. Some of the rules are significantly different: For one, there’s no checking in ringette, which makes the game faster. You can’t carry the ring in over the blue line, like you can the puck in hockey; you can’t jump over the boards (a relic of the days when girls played in skirts); and there’s a shot clock, like in basketball. For athletes who are used to playing hockey, it can feel a little like trying to write with your non-dominant hand. At practice, Shawn’s whistle is a frequent interruption. And his nice-guy nature means that a lot of the girls don’t take him all that seriously when he stops to teach them about the finer points of “cycling” in the offensive zone or ringette’s zone-style defense.
Shawn expects they might take him a little more seriously once their first game is behind them. He’s arranged for the Chatham Thunder—a U14 team from Ontario—to come over for a scrimmage, and despite the fact that some of his girls are older, and bigger, he doesn’t like their chances.
“To be honest, we’re probably going to get destroyed,” he says. “Most of their girls have probably been playing for seven or eight years. Our girls haven’t even been playing for six months.”
Fortunately, Shawn’s not alone in leading this accelerated course in ringette. There’s also Gavin: a good-looking, 20-something Canadian transplant who refereed ringette professionally in Canada, and who sought out Shawn’s team when he started experiencing ringette withdrawal. He’s just young enough for the older girls to have crushes on—a bit of a distraction, but one that’s far outweighed by his knowledge of the game and willingness to be Coach Shawn’s wingman. When Gavin is there, there are more whistles, and the explanations last a little longer. But the girls listen with more attention.
“Even if you’re not very good, if you understand the rules—understand the game—you can beat teams that are better than you,” Gavin says. But he doesn’t expect that’s a Cinderella story that will necessarily play out come Saturday’s game. “It’s going to be a learning experience for them, for sure. For the other team, it’ll be practice.”
For now their own practice is over, and the girls are finishing off their four-dollar-a minute ice time by taking Slip ‘N Slide-style dives from the blue line. There’s a lot of a laughing and a few snow angels. Then a Zamboni whips by and shoos the girls off to the locker room before a bunch of older game-faced men from an adult recreational hockey league replace them on the ice.
* * *
A narwhal is a whale with a giant spear-like tusk sticking straight out of its nose. It’s an oddball in the whale family, and not such a bad choice for a team nickname for this rag-tag crew of ice queens who now wield sticks without blades.
“It was between that and unicorns,” Shawn says. “I don’t think Chloe would have played for a team called ‘The Unicorns.’”
But today—game day—the team will be, to the few spectators here to watch, semi-nameless. Shawn didn’t place the order for the team’s uniforms on time, so the only girls with Narwhals jerseys today are his daughter, Chloe, and the daughter of an assistant coach. The Narwhal logo, which Shawn designed, is hand-screenprinted across the chest, and the numbers on the back of the jerseys are made of hockey tape. The rest of girls wear jerseys from their various Ann Arbor hockey teams. “At least they’re all blue,” Shawn jokes. Inside the locker room, he uses a small hockey-rink-shaped dry-erase board to give a last-minute crash course on rules, while several girls dig through their bags for neckroll padding, which they didn’t realize was required until just now.
For the Chatham Thunder, matching jerseys and neckrolls are a given. Hell, the coaches even have jackets with the team name embroidered on the chest. Their girls have done this hundreds of times before, and once on the ice, the Narwhals get their first reminder that this is not hockey when the Chatham skaters have to politely correct them as to which end of the ice to take their warm up: In hockey, your team starts by defending the goal nearest your bench; in ringette it’s the opposite.
Once the game starts, it’s obvious that Gavin’s assessment of how things would go here today is going to be accurate. When the Narwhals practice, ringette appears to be a fun, laid-back game—kind of like kickball. In the hands of the Thunder, it’s fast and artful. When the game starts, the Thunder pin the Narwhals in their own zone for the first two and a half minutes. There are three shots on goal in the first 10 seconds alone. Finally, they score—a godsend for the Narwhals’ exhausted first shift. Four fresh players skate out onto the ice, in relief. One player has to stay on: the Narwhals don’t have enough players today for two full shifts.
Just short of midway into the game, though, the girls from Ann Arbor start to figure things out. That whole “zone defense” thing that Coach Shawn was trying to impress on them suddenly seems to have an application, and Gavin, who’s refereeing today’s game, stops by the boards—sometimes during play—to give pointers to Shawn and the rest of the Narwhals. They’re still getting creamed, but the ice suddenly seems less tilted in Chatham’s favor. Alona, one of the Narwhals players who’s clearly not enjoying getting her ass handed to her, starts double shifting herself, dragging Chloe out on the ice every time she goes out. It results in a goal—almost. As the Narwhals celebrate at the bench, Gavin yells back that the ring didn’t fully cross the goal line. “Bullshit!” Alona yells, and then heads out for another shift, Chloe not far behind.
When the buzzer sounds, the final score is 8-0 in favor of Chatham. The girls shake hands and the coaches ask them, since they still have ice time, if they want to keep playing. Both teams, exhausted, say no, opting for a just-for-kicks shoot out. It gets increasingly silly as it goes on: spinaramas, backwards skate-ins, then, again, the Slip ‘N Slide routine. And more snow angels. The competition part of the afternoon is clearly over. And Shawn’s got celebratory pizza waiting for both teams upstairs.
* * *
Had the last half of the game been as frustrating as the first half, there might not have been as many Narwhals at practice tonight—their first time back on the ice since the game against Chatham four days ago. But a lot got sorted out in those final 20 minutes, and now the Narwhals seem ready to get down to the business of figuring this ringette thing out.
“Since a lot of us have played hockey before, we’re used to practicing like you’re going to play a hockey team,” says Rhiannon, one of the Narwhals’ wingers. “Now that we’ve played a ringette game, I think we know more about what we need to do to be a ringette team—not just a bunch of hockey skaters playing ringette.”
Practice does look a lot different this time. There’s no Gavin today, but the team seems to be paying better attention anyway. Practice starts with skating drills, which the girls grudgingly do before switching to taking passes on the fly. They’ll have two weeks to make some improvements before they see Chatham again—this time when the Ann Arbor girls head to Ontario to return the favor. The gesture will be appreciated: Even in Canada, teams from smaller cities like Chatham often have to travel several hours for competition. And the explosion of interest in girls’ hockey there has meant that ringette has taken a little bit of a hit. Hockey is still the national sport, after all. And a lot of girls are choosing hockey over ringette now. “The two sports are constantly fighting for the same girls,” Gavin says.
Not having to compete with girls’ hockey could theoretically make Shawn’s own ringette fight a little easier. But he still has to come up with creative ways to keep the girls engaged and get them to take ringette as seriously as some of them do hockey. Between now and their next scrimmage against Chatham, he’s planned a “movie night” where they’ll watch film of Canadian teams that play in the elite National Ringette League. “These women play really fast. I think it will inspire them,” Shawn says. “But I don’t know how much they’ll be able to handle before they get bored. Honestly, we’re sort of thinking of it as a holiday party.”
Hopefully, their jerseys will be in by then too. Despite the fact that he only had 10 players take the ice at their first game, Shawn ordered 20 sweaters. The other 10 he hopes to have filled by the time the Narwhals play their first tournament in mid-February. An embroidered coach’s jacket can’t be far off.
UPDATE: The Narwhals lost their second game to Chatham, 5-0. They’ll look for their first goal at the The Golden Ring Tournament in Kitchener, Ontario, February 8-10. For more, connect with the Narwhals on Facebook.
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