A skating sisterhood
Cathy Crum’s eyes dart across a picture of the 1977 Mother Puckers women’s hockey team; it is a visual cursor that triggers years of unforgettable memories.She scans the photo, stopping on one face and then another. A grin forms at the corners of her mouth as the characters seem to come alive. Some wear figure skates, others have newspapers taped to their knees. They all sport mismatched jerseys and well-worn Cooper pads, gloves and sticks. Their smiles are penetrating.Crum points out friends as well as coaches. Her memories, collected during close to three decades on the ice, are still strong today.”I have some great stories, but they’re all a little personal,” Crum said. “But maybe it’s OK now, because my kids have all graduated.”It’s been 32 years since the first group of Mother Puckers took the ice. It was a modest beginning for a team that has since ascended to the ranks of the state’s best.
John McBride Sr., a founder of junior hockey in Aspen, set up a game in which the Squirts – a squad of local 9-year-olds – challenged their mothers in hockey. After a sound beating, the mothers had no choice but to seek redemption.
“It must’ve been frustrating, so they formed their own team,” said McBride, whose wife, Laurie, was one of the team’s original members. “In the early days, I was thinking not much would come of this. The name just amplified the idea of them being the joke. But now, the joke’s on me.”Over the years, the Mother Puckers have become a Women’s Association of Colorado Hockey (WACH) powerhouse. They won their fifth state championship in April, taking home the Lady Stella Cup – a trophy former Puckers created to mimic the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup. But back in the 1970s, the Mother Puckers struggled to gain momentum as there was a disparity in talent – many team members were just learning to skate – and age on the team.
Plus, the ladies had no competition; the Puckers were the only women’s hockey team in the state at the time, according to Crum. Still, the Puckers wanted to play, which led to faceoffs with a host of interesting foes. The team regularly competed against Aspen’s Peewees. They even squared off with the Gentleman of Aspen rugby team as a fundraiser. “That’s how I got my first stitches, and tore my ACL,” said Crum, who grew up skating on frozen ponds outside Philadelphia.”I remember walking into the rink for the first time and saying, “Oh man, they’re old,'” recalled Mary Sloop, who, at 20, was one of the team’s youngest members when she joined. “I wasn’t a star, but I did stand out because I was one who could skate.”Team members never took themselves too seriously, Crum said. The experience was not defined by goals scored or crossbars hit. Rather, the Puckers were built on a foundation of camaraderie and fun; ice time afforded players a precious few moments of respite during a busy week, a chance to trade in street clothes for sweats and a helmet.It was on the ice that Mary “Be-bad” Sloop would don a nun’s hat to heckle referees and opposing players. She once spent an entire period in the penalty box because of what she described as “lip service.”It was also on the ice – and on bars across the country – that Cathy “Rubber Legs” Crum performed her trademark splits. The Puckers once gave Crum’s son – a Bantam player – a wig, and let him take a few shifts during live action; they called him “Tammy” instead of “Tommy.” McBride even played as a women on more than one occasion.Local orthopedist Dr. John Freeman, one of team’s longest tenured coaches, created his own playbook for the Puckers. Nothing more than a plastic-covered children’s alphabet book, the “playbook” would be pulled out during timeouts and breaks in play. Freeman would often say, “Let’s consult the playbook,” as he turned to a random page.
“We didn’t remember any plays, so it meant nothing anyway,” Crum said. “We had a pretty wicked turnover of coaches because we were so uncoachable. We were of a bunch of … well, a bunch of women.”Still, Aspen couldn’t get enough of its hometown team. A cheering section made up of fathers, husbands and children – affectionately known as the “Fans from Hell” – were in the Ice Garden bleachers during home games.When six Puckers were pregnant at the same time, a television news program produced a story that went nationwide. Fans lined the downtown streets to cheer on the Puckers when they skated in the parade. The team became an Aspen mainstay.”We were all hams and had huge egos, so we loved it,” said Sloop, who was a competitive figure skater growing up in Chicago. “The team was a novelty in the beginning, but people were proud of us.”And in a ski town built on individual sport, women from all backgrounds were intrigued by the opportunity to be a member of a team, McBride said.Aspen women were not the only ones who were intrigued by the idea of women’s hockey. The Vail Snails were soon formed, and a rivalry between the two resort towns emerged. The Puckers also hosted teams from Alaska and Sun Valley, Idaho, and even traveled to national competitions in Minnesota.Sloop and Crum did their part to promote the sport locally. Both coached junior hockey teams; Crum headed the Mighty Mites for 10 years. She even started a women’s regional all-star team, comprising players from several states. Many of her players received college scholarships; Crum’s daughter, Ali, played hockey at Harvard.
There are currently seven female hockey teams in Aspen: Under-10, under-12, two under-14s (the Aspen 2 squad just won the U14 Mountain States Girls Hockey League title), under-19 and the Mother Puckers’ A and B squads. A new generation of Puckers has started to assert itself under a familiar name. Kate McBride-Puckett is on the current roster, as are Ellen Falender and Kendall French – two girls who Crum coached at the youth level. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova even donned the familiar black and white jersey; she was a member of the 1999-2000 WACH championship team.And the league founded by John McBride and a core group of strong, independent women has blossomed into 29 teams, stretching from Aspen to Denver to Fort Collins. “We helped put women’s hockey on the map in Colorado,” Crum said. “Now, there are a lot of girls who graduated from college on the team, who have taken a year off before going on with real life. But, for now, they consider hockey their real life.”The days of topless photos and silly wigs are a distant memories. Competition with local boys and rugby players has been replaced. And what Sloop once described as a tea party on skates has developed into a program with statewide prominence.
“I love the fact that this team stayed, where most things die out,” Crum said. “It really has had a life of its own.”Although competition may be more fierce, the Puckers’ foundation remains the same. Women of all ages still line the bench, and some play the game for the first time as a Pucker. Current team member Courtney Clark was 30 when she joined the Puckers 10 years ago.”My knees were knocking, and I shouldn’t have been out there,” Clark said. “But nobody said anything.”It is sort of an unspoken code of this sorority on skates.”When you get the senior breakfasts and the senior discount at the movie theater, then it’s time to quit,” joked Crum, who was 55 when she hung up her skates two years ago. “It got hard relating to kids my daughter’s age, and because you kind of fade into irrelevancy at a certain age. It’s natural and not a bad thing. We didn’t have to prove anything on the ice. “But the experiences I had will always stay with me,” she added.Indeed, once a Pucker, always a Pucker.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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