THE future is brightening for women's ice hockey, as more girls don skates and join girls' teams, says Laura Halldorson, president of the American Women's Hockey Coaches Association.
"Girls have been playing [ice] hockey for a long time, and a lot have played on boys' teams," Ms. Halldorson says. "But now they're coming together."
Halldorson attributes some of this grass-roots growth to USA Hockey in Colorado Springs, Colo., a group that promotes amateur hockey nationwide through development camps and lobbying. It led the way in making women's hockey an Olympic sport, she says - it's slated for the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.
At the college level, women's ice hockey has made much progress in the last 10 years, says Halldorson, who coaches the women's team at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "Back when I played, the level of play was lower," she says. "Now the teams have a lot more depth and more women who have played for a long time."
While only 15 colleges have women's varsity hockey teams, Halldorson and Margaret Degidio-Murphy, who coaches women's hockey at Brown University in Rhode Island, hope that a new league scheduled to start next fall will change that.
The 15 teams play under the banner of the Eastern College Athletic Conference. At present, not every team plays all the others during the season, and the three colleges that have awarded hockey scholarships - Northeastern, the University of New Hampshire, and Providence College - have dominated. As of this year, scholarships have been dropped, to foster parity.
The 12 teams in the new league (three colleges have opted out for budgetary reasons) will play one another once during the season, with an eight-team tournament at the end.
Twenty-four other colleges nationwide have women's ice hockey at the club level. More of these clubs could turn varsity soon: In September, a federal judge ruled that Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., which supports a men's varsity ice hockey team, must present an equal opportunity for women, who have had a club team for years. (Colgate has appealed.)
While she hopes the ruling will set a precedent for women's hockey, Halldorson says, "Realistically, women's hockey is never going to be treated exactly as equal to men's, but there could be a lot smaller gap than there is."
"If any women are going to make it" in men's hockey, she adds, it will be as goalies.
Denese Kerrissey, who played goalie on the all-boys varsity team for Newton North High School in Newton, Mass., for two years, proved she could compete. Few were able to score on her last season.
"I get hit with pucks and get slashed and stuff," says the 16-year-old junior, but "I like the fast pace, the action. It's exciting."
In September, a Quebecois named Manon Rheaume was the first woman to try out for a National Hockey League team. Ms. Rheaume saw action as goalie with the Tampa Bay Lightning, an expansion team. She played an exhibition game and now plays on a farm team. Though some sportswriters said she was chosen as a publicity stunt, Brown University's Ms. Degidio-Murphy says, "I was assistant coach of the women's national team last year, and we played against her. She was very good. My own opinion is she's probably n ot better than a lot of the men that are out there."