On a dreary Saturday afternoon, a steady stream of stick-wielding kids wearing orange-and-black “Middlebury Hockey” jackets flow out of locker rooms 1 and 2 at the Howard E. Brush Arena. “Good job out there today, guys!” says a coach, patting one on the back. The pint-sized players shrug and shoulder their heavy bags of gear toward their parents’ cars — just another day of passing the puck around.
In locker rooms 3 and 4, however, the scene is anything but blasé. With only a few minutes to spare before the 4 p.m. game, dozens of athletes pull on padded pants, oversized socks, shoulder pads and jerseys. The clatter of sticks on the hard floor competes with high-pitched chatter about the weekend and the game ahead. Maybe there’s time to talk through a few moves from practice before the buzzer?
“Practice?” says Robin Terranova, loudly enough to draw several laughs from her teammates. “We never practice — you’re looking at moms, doctors and engineers here. We just play.”
These are the Burlington Ice Breakers and the Middlebury Otters, two all-women hockey teams that let off steam by heating up the ice on weekends and weekday nights. On January 26 and 27, their efforts will be less about sticking it to their opponents and more about helping women, as the two teams join six others in the ninth annual “Face-Off Against Breast Cancer” at the Brush Arena.
With husbands, kids and other community members joining the women’s teams, the two-day tournament will be the biggest ever for the fundraiser.
“This is a way to show our support for fellow women — and to show our strength and toughness, too,” says Liza Sacheli Lloyd, co-captain of the Middlebury Otters and marketing manager for Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts. “It’s personal,” she adds.
Liz Cronin, a 46-year-old middle-school teacher and Middlebury resident, grew up playing pond hockey with her brothers in Massachusetts. At Norwich University, she switched to field hockey, basketball and softball, earning a spot in the school’s hall of fame. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when she joined a group of other women playing pick-up games on Thursday nights, that Cronin got hooked on hockey again.
“Middlebury is a hockey town,” explains Lloyd, who subs for another Middlebury women’s team — the Mystix — and the men’s Monday Knights when she’s not playing with the Otters. “It seems to be in the water!”
Apparently, so is determination. In 1999, Cronin was diagnosed with breast cancer. But she didn’t let the illness keep her in the house — in fact, she continued to play some hockey through her chemo treatments.
Both on the ice and in the locker room, her team gave new meaning to the word “assist.” “I was sitting there bald,” recalls Cronin, “and our coach said, ‘You know, we really need to put on a tournament.’”
Another player chimed in that the event should benefit breast cancer survivors, and so the puck was dropped for the “Face-Off Against Breast Cancer.” By soliciting donations from friends, family members and co-workers, athletes round up individual player sponsorships. There’s no pressure on players, explains Lloyd, since donations aren’t tied to goals scored, games won or penalty minutes.
In eight years, the tournament increased its earnings tenfold — from $2000 in 2000 to $20,000 last year. (Fueling the competitive fire, teams also vie to raise the most funds.) The money goes to the Emergency Fund for the Burlington-based Cancer Patient Support Program, which helps Vermont cancer patients in need and their families with everything from mortgage payments to transportation to childcare.
“When a women is undergoing treatment, she needs all her focus and energy to go into healing,” says Lloyd. “But other worries crop up. What if she doesn’t have a car to go to the hospital? What if she misses work, or needs child care while she’s going to chemo? The emergency fund makes a real difference in the lives of breast cancer patients who have nowhere else to turn for help.”
The tournament both promotes and reflects the explosive popularity of women’s hockey in Vermont. The number of women’s teams grew from four in its first year to eight in 2008 — the Otters, Mystix, Ice Breakers, Green Mountain Thunder, Rutland Cutting Edge, Manchester Rusty Blades, Waterbury Wicked and Morrisville Motley Crew. “Teams from Massachusetts and New Hampshire also want to play [in the tournament], but we want to keep it to Vermont teams,” says Cronin.
Robin Terranova was 38 when she began pushing pucks 10 years ago, right around the time when the 1998 Nagano Games spotlighted the first Olympic women’s hockey and the gold medal for Team USA. Picking up her daughter from figure skating at Burlington’s Leddy Park arena, Terranova “was watching a bunch of moms walking by with hockey bags, and I thought it looked interesting,” she remembers.
Terranova missed much of last season because she was undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer. “I came right back, went into the boards and broke two of my ribs — the radiation had weakened my bones,” she says. “My doctor didn’t realize that I was going to go back and play such physical hockey.”
Cronin says her 12-year-old son Austin thinks hockey is too rough — he’d rather go skiing in the winter. But many of the players’ kids, husbands and partners were enthusiastic enough to form the Face-Off’s new coed friends-and-family division, which holds games on both Saturday and Sunday.
“Breast cancer can be devastating for all the members of a family,” says Bill Biederman, a Ripton resident whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago. The manager of a Sunday-night coed hockey group in Middlebury, he now also serves as organizer of the new Face-Off division.
Middlebury Otters co-captain Sherry DeGray says she’s surprised and touched by the support from the community — and by the way the tournament has grown beyond the confines of the arena. “It sends the message that women can Face-Off on the ice together in a competitive way and be very serious about winning, and then still join together to help other women,” she says. “We play together, laugh together, cry together, and we help each other. And what started as one team’s idea,” she adds, “has become this bigger fight for many women’s hockey teams, and now the hockey community at large.”