By Carol Radin
They are teachers, business managers, veterinary professionals, physical trainers and retirees. On weekends, though, they pack their body gear and skates and head for the ice. These are the Blades, Syracuse’s only women’s team in the U.S. Hockey League. The 20 women, ages 23 to 61, compete almost every weekend in the season, travelling from Buffalo to Saratoga, from Ithaca to Alexandria Bay, and farther north to Canada, against teams with names like the Sirens, the Sabrettes, and the Arctic Foxes. In 2019, they also have two tournaments: one in Florida in April and another in Massachusetts in May. Home is Sunnycrest Ice Rink at Henninger High School in Syracuse.
The Blades have been competing as a team for 15 years, although some of the older players go back 10 years before that, when a few played for the now-defunct Syracuse Clippers. Becky Doyle, 61, and Judy Tack, 55, have been playing since college club team days, Becky at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Judy at Oswego State.
“Years ago, people used to say, ‘Oh, so you play hockey,’” Becky said. “Now they say, ‘You’re STILL playing hockey?’“
For Blade members, whether in their 20s or 50s, ice hockey is a lifelong pursuit. Those who grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s talk about the days they braved pond hockey alongside their brothers.
“With no equipment! On figure skates!” Leigh Swanker, 56, recalls. Girls’ hockey skates were just not available in those days. Nevertheless, these women persisted.
Times have changed since Becky and Judy discovered organized hockey on club teams. Younger team members, like goalie Lynn Baker, 35, and left wing Jenda Kwiatkowski, 29, had access to actual league competition as they were coming up through college. Lynn played for the Hockey League’s Ithaca Sirens, when she studied at Cornell VeterinarySchool, and Jenda was with the U18 Edge, Rochester’s travel team. These days, even NCAA membership is more common. Lindsay Rice, 26, saw that progression with the club team she started at SUNY Canton; it became a Division III team just after she graduated.
In women’s league hockey, the game and rules are the same as for the men’s teams, except that the women don’t have checking. Practice is “twice a week for two weeks in October and that’s it,“ Becky Doyle said. Each practice covers 60 to 75 minutes of skating, passing, shooting drills, and scrimmage. To stay in condition for the intensely athletic sport, each woman also has her personal regimen along with other seasonal sports: gym workouts, spinning, golf, pickle ball, etc.
“You have to keep moving!” Judy Tack said.
As with any sport involving body contact, injuries go with the territory. In ice hockey, the upside is skates and speed, and the down side is skates and speed. Puck shots to the face, jarring falls, knee and hip problems, backaches and foot bruises — it all happens sometimes. The Blades take it in stride, including the occasional surgery.
What do they love about the sport? While words like the challenge, the fast pace, the skill, and the exercise come up frequently, the number one refrain from everyone is best summed up by Lynn Baker: “We have a phenomenal group of women!” Jenda Kwiatkowski puts it another way: “We’re like one giant family!”
Off the ice, the team gathers for summer picnics, bunko, birthdays, and weddings.
“We have a lot of laughs,“ Leigh Swanker said. And when times get rough, when there’s a crisis like a house fire, or an ill child or parent, the Blades are there for each other, too.
For the Blades, it’s one sport that fits all generations. The older members chuckle and say, “We call ourselves the Old Biddies! ”
The younger players, though, have a different perspective. As Nicole Hill explains, “For me personally, I feel really inspired by the older members. It’s what I can look forward to — that I can have a future in the sport.”