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The Steel Magnolias, Ann Arbor's First Women's Hockey Team

In 1991, a group of women who grew up playing hockey with neighborhood boys started renting ice at Yost Arena and formed Ann Arbor’s first women’s ice hockey team. They called themselves the Steel Magnolias. 

Logo with hockey skate and flowers

Steel Magnolias women's hockey team photo

The Metro Skaters Hockey League
Female hockey player poses with older man

Blue hockey jersey with Metro Skaters Hockey League logoThe Steel Magnolias were one of the original five teams in the Metro Skaters Hockey League (MSHL), which is a recreational women’s hockey league established in 1993. Other teams included the Polar Bears (Inkster), the Ice Pack (Melvindale), Team Michigan (Fraser), and the Terminators (Howell). Prior to the MSHL’s founding, women in southeastern Michigan had very few opportunities to play hockey, let alone join an organized league. By comparison, Ann Arbor offered four recreational men’s leagues catering to over 600 players in the mid-1990s. The MSHL–now known as the Michigan Senior Women’s Hockey League (MSWHL)–still exists and thrives today, expanding to multiple divisions based on skill level to accommodate the fast growing sport.

When it was first established, the MSHL was supported by former Red Wings players. NHL Hall-of-Famer Ted Lindsay dropped the puck at the league’s annual Ruicci Cup tournament for many years. “We laughed about calling it the Stephanie Cup because the name Stanley was taken,” recalls former MSHL president Sue McDowell. Ultimately they decided to name the tournament after Gil Ruicci, husband of MSHL co-founder Michele Monson. Ruicci was a longtime friend of many Wings players and had been instrumental in getting equipment and running skills sessions for the players.

Three Ruicci Cup program covers and one page showing the Steel Magnolias' roster

Founding of the Steel Magnolias

As one of the founding teams of the MSHL, Ann Arbor’s Steel Magnolias hold an important place in Michigan hockey history. It took grit and determination for these players to carve out a space for themselves in a male-dominated sport. Former player and assistant coach Sue McDowell (née Edwards) recalls a time in the early 1990s when she had difficulty even renting ice time at Ann Arbor rinks, while her male friends had no trouble. A friend advised, “List your name as S. Edwards and they’ll call you.” Reflecting back on this disparity, she says, “At the time, I doubt I could have secured ice if I didn’t play with the men.” 

The co-founders of the Steel Magnolias first dreamed up the idea of playing together as a women’s team during pond hockey weekends in the late 1980s. For readers not familiar with this popular winter pastime, pond hockey consists of playing pick-up or “shinny” on a frozen lake or pond and nearly freezing off your fingers and toes while drinking and socializing with your friends. The goals are wooden boxes on either end of the rink, and the rules are informal. It’s a time for tossing around your best hockey banter while showing off your dangles and dodging ankle-breaking cracks in the ice. 

Front and back of #45 hockey jerseyReferee prepares to drop puck at hockey faceoffTwo women sit in hockey equipment with male coach standing near locker room door

Marie Coppa and Jayne Haas enjoyed playing pond hockey so much that they began renting ice time at Vets and Yost, and inviting friends to practice with them. Coppa, a local business owner, and Haas, a teacher and granddaughter of Fielding Yost, lived together on Ann Arbor’s West side. They were thrilled to be building a space where women could play hockey together. Another co-founder, Susan McCabe, brought in her friend Don Bartolacci as a coach. In 1991 they decided to make it official: they set a practice schedule and began recruiting players. The Steel Magnolias were born.

Coppa remembers choosing the team’s name because it seemed like “a good representation of women on skates.” The popular film Steel Magnolias had just come out in 1989. The original team logo, stitched in pink and gray, features a skate with magnolias blooming out of it. Over the years some team members felt the name wasn’t tough enough, but Theresa Marsik (née Juetten), who joined the team in its second season, recalls that it was quickly shortened: “Everybody just called us the Steel Mags so we weren’t getting hit with Sally Field references.” The team’s name evolved over the years depending on leadership, including a stint in the mid-2000s as the Mag-a-Ritas, and finally simply the Mags.

Five Steel Magnolias hockey jerseys displayed in a row

Female hockey players shoot on net

Early Years of the Mags

Young female goalie without helmet stands near net

In their inaugural 1991-92 season, the Steel Magnolias ranged in age from 16-yr-old Sarah Stockbridge, a Pinckney High student who played goalie, to skaters in their 40s and 50s. Many had grown up playing on neighborhood rinks with their brothers or dads in the 1960s and ’70s, and continued to play drop-in or beer league as adults. They were accustomed to being one of only a handful of women they ever encountered on the ice. Others took their first strides at Yost Ice Arena during Steel Magnolias practices in the early 1990s. Despite differences in age and skill level, the team stuck together and went on to win in their first tournament appearance, the inaugural March 1992 Ruicci Cup.

The Steel Magnolias advertised their practice times and actively recruited players. Sue McDowell remembers seeing an ad in the Ann Arbor Observer for drop-in practices. She showed up, and asked “Hey, do you guys need a goalie?” McDowell grew up on Cape Cod and played for Colby College in Maine before coming to Ann Arbor in the 1980s.

Theresa Marsik had grown up in the Upper Peninsula and played men’s intramural hockey at the University of Michigan, where she studied environmental engineering. She heard of the team through a mutual friend of Susan McCabe.  Teammate Carol Lentz Wiley remembers what an impact Marsik made on the ice: “I was just in awe of her when we met, because she had such a great shot.”

Wiley connected with the Mags when a coworker at Parke-Davis told her he had heard of a women’s hockey team starting in Ann Arbor. She had been playing for the company team, but jumped at the opportunity to join the Mags. There she met her partner Amy Brow, and the two took over from McCabe to manage the team from the late 1990s through 2006. 

Newspaper clipping showing player shooting at net

Newspaper clipping for Mags drop-in practice

Female hockey team photo at Yost arenaFemale hockey team photo, maroon jerseys

Growing the Women’s Game in Ann Arbor

While many of the Steel Magnolias were seasoned players, just as many were relatively new to the game of hockey. Ken Weber recalls that his wife Jill was using figure skates when she joined the Mags. He and Jill both started playing in the early 1990s, when their three boys were playing in the Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association. Jill was “a novice skater,” but the Mags practices helped her learn the fundamentals of the game. Ken remembers being invited to play pond hockey at a team member’s lake house: “All the families and kids were skating together.”

The Steel Magnolias were supported by several local businesses with connections to the team. The team’s sponsors in the 1990s included the Lord Fox (owned by Marie Coppa’s family), Weber’s Inn (owned by Ken and Jill Weber’s family), Espresso Royale, and Play It Again Sports of Ann Arbor. Sponsors typically helped cover the cost of jerseys, ice time, and tournament fees. Many skaters who were just starting out also needed help buying hockey equipment, which is notoriously expensive.

The Steel Magnolias were able to secure practice and game times at Yost Arena with the help of teammate Camille Hutchinson, who was a scheduler for the rink. McDowell remembers that it was “quite a coup” to get ice at the home rink of the University of Michigan’s men’s team; the Wolverines hit their stride in the 1990s under coach Red Berenson, and they were NCAA champions in 1996 and 1998. During these same years, the Mags held regular practices and games at Yost. 

Hockey players sit on bench Hockey players wait to get onto the ice“Sometimes we played after the U-M men’s games on Saturday nights,” Marsik recalls. “I’d have to duck under the bleachers [to get to the locker room].” Wiley attended games at Yost as a child, soon after the Wolverines moved there from the Coliseum in 1973. “My dad drove us down to Ann Arbor, and we would watch those U-M vs. MSU hockey games. I couldn’t believe it, twenty years later–playing on that ice, sitting in that penalty box.” Fans who stuck around after the U-M games might have been surprised to see a group of women skating onto the ice. No matter the number of fans their own late-night games drew, many former Mags agree that it was some of the best ice they ever skated on.

Man wears jacket reading 'Coach Bartolacci'

Wiley and Brow, longtime co-captains of the Mags, remember how much fun they had playing on a line together. Their teammate Angie was fifteen years younger and her dad used to drive her down from Port Huron to play. She heckled their coach, Don Bartolacci, with comparisons between the Mags and the Red Wings. “I told him we were the grind line,” she said to her teammates one day, referring to a popular nickname for one of the Wings’ forward lines. The trio of Kris Draper, Joe Kocur (replaced by Darren McCarty in 1998), and Kirk Maltby were known for their physical presence on the ice, and their role as enforcers. On the Mags’s “grind line,” Angie was Draper because she played center, Carol was Maltby, and “Amy was McCarty because she was always in the penalty box.”

The team also pulled together when times got tough. When Jill Weber was diagnosed with breast cancer, her teammates supported her and her family. She passed away in January 1995, just a few years after the Mags started playing together. Soon afterwards, her teammates dedicated a game to Jill, and they won a decisive 11-1 victory against the Howell Flash. Vicki Loy helped organize an award in memory of Jill, which was “given to the female AAAHA [Ann Arbor Amatuer Hockey Association] player who demonstrates desire, confidence, and sportsmanship on the ice.” Nine-year-old Mary Cohen was the first recipient.

The team’s roster shifted over the years and the Metro Skaters Hockey League grew from five teams to several dozen, but the Steel Magnolias usually landed in one of the top MSHL/MSWHL divisions based on skill level and playing experience. They brought home the Ruicci Cup in 1992, 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2011. The Mags played together for almost thirty years. Their final 2019-2020 season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. After that, a core group who had been playing together as a tournament team reformed as the Top Titties (a tongue-in-cheek reference to what most hockey players call “top shelf” or “top corns”–the sweet spots just above a goalie’s shoulders but below the crossbar). Many longtime Mags skaters still play in recreational and house leagues in the area.

Female hockey team photo, yellow jerseysFemale hockey team holding championship sign

Changing the Narrative

Most female hockey players are familiar with the comments leveled towards women in the male-dominated sport. Whether it’s sexist slurs uttered among players or skepticism about women’s ability to excel in a fast-paced, physical sport, the pattern continues to this day: “You skate like a girl.” “No checking? That’s not real hockey.” “Can I have your number, sweetheart?” Players on the Steel Magnolias had to weather these types of comments (and much, much worse) just to step out on the ice and play the game they loved. The team’s mission was to grow the women’s game in Ann Arbor, and they had to put themselves out there in order to do so.

Newspaper article titled 'Ice Queens'The Ann Arbor News ran several articles about the Steel Magnolias in the mid-1990s. There was even a short documentary picked up by PASS Sports about women’s hockey in Michigan. Ken Weber remembers that Jill appeared on screen in her Steel Magnolias uniform: “They brought cameras into the locker room at the Joe [Louis Arena], and Ted Lindsay was there.” While press coverage was great for raising awareness about the game, some players got tired of hearing the same narrative repeated. Back in the 1990s, McDowell explains, “There was a pattern in the press. Every year there’d be an article about how groundbreaking, how fascinating it was [that girls and women were playing hockey].” But what these players and coaches really wanted was equal opportunity to play and coach the game. 

Woman wearing hockey tournament sweatshirt stands outside

McDowell was a co-founder of the city’s first girls hockey program, the Ann Arbor Girls Hockey Alliance, in 1994. She and fellow Mags players Kate Pinhey and Camille Hutchinson also helped found the University of Michigan women’s club hockey team in 1995. Nearly thirty years later, another Mags player, Deb Bolino, spearheaded the launch of Biggby Coffee’s AAA girls hockey program in Ann Arbor. Local girls now have the opportunity to play competitively at the 12U, 14U, 16U, and 19U levels, or to join their high school team at Pioneer, Huron-Skyline, or Washtenaw United. But when the original roster of the Mags were growing up, playing in an all-girls league wasn’t an option.

Theresa Marsik, captain of the Mags from 2013 until 2020, remembers that her hometown of Pelkie, Michigan had “a lot of hockey” for a small farming community in the UP, but no girls league. She played with the boys until her family doctor told her parents that “she might never have children if she got hit.” Marsik talked her dad into coaching a non-checking girls team. There weren’t any other girls teams around, so these 11- and 12-year-old girls played against younger boys teams who hadn’t learned checking yet (in hockey lingo, that’s peewees versus squirts). These days, body contact and checking is allowed more and more in girls’ and women’s hockey.

Upside-down hockey player holds trophy with help of teammatesHistorically, girls hockey programs didn’t really take off in the U.S. until the 1990s, and even then it was in hockey hotbeds like Minnesota, Michigan, and New England. Momentum picked up when the U.S. women’s hockey team won gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Seeing female hockey players succeed on the international stage drew more women and girls into local leagues. USA Hockey and the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association reported only 610 female players registered in the state of Michigan in the 1990-91 season (compared to 23,984 male players). By 2000-2001, that number had risen to 3,636, and the latest 2023-34 season totaled 5,327. In the same timeframe, the number of female players registered nationwide climbed from just over 6,000 to reach a milestone 100,000 this year.

Despite major gains recently such as the January 2024 launch of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (which has six teams based in Boston, Minnesota, Montreal, New York, Ottawa, and Toronto), female hockey players at all levels are still seeking parity in funding and opportunities to play. In Michigan, a state with one of the leading AAA girls hockey programs, there are no NCAA Division I women's hockey teams. There is only one Division III team (Adrian College) and a few club teams. Many young women leave the state to play elsewhere. When McDowell and others lobbied the University of Michigan for a women’s team in the mid-1990s, they wanted a D1 team, but that dream never materialized. In 2024, rumor has it that Ann Arbor may someday have its very own D1 women’s team. Who knows, maybe the PWHL will even expand to Detroit!

Author’s Note

A file reading "Steel Magnolias" being pulled out of a file cabinetWhen I joined a team called the Mags in 2015, did I know that I was donning the jersey of Ann Arbor’s first women’s team? Did I know that years later I would find newspaper articles and photos documenting this legacy in the Ann Arbor District Library Archives? Did I know that I would be writing that history to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the city? No, no, and no–but I sure am glad to be doing it! Now enough about me. Let’s hear it for the Mags!

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