Girls Hockey Takes Off in the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

Click the image above or use the arrows to see more photos from hockey practice.

Alexa Lang traded in volleyball for hockey, but immediately faced a problem – she didn’t know how to play hockey. To her knowledge, she had only skated three times in her life before joining Kalispell’s U-19 girls hockey team.

So when the first game of the season rolled around, she did what came natural.

“I cried in the locker room,” Lang said. “I didn’t want to go.”

But Lang, a sophomore at Glacier High School, talked herself past the skittishness and took to the ice. Now, she can’t get enough of it.

“I got on the ice and it was super fun, so I stuck with it,” Lang said.

Lang is one of thousands of girls across the nation taking up hockey. According to USA Hockey, there were just over 10,000 females registered with the organization in 1993. Today there are nearly 60,000, with a strong push occurring in the past several years.

Kalispell’s U-19 girls hockey team is in its third – second full – year of existence. Like the sport of girls hockey itself, the team has grown rapidly. This year, there are 16 players on the Flathead Valley Flames’ roster, ranging in age from 12 to 19.

“The whole thing in general is exploding,” said Flames’ coach Scott Newlon.

While Newlon and fellow coach Don Herne recruited at local high schools, much of the growth is attributed to word of mouth. It turns out, a lot of girls want to play hockey in the valley. Whitefish also has a team this year, Newlon said.

The girls team is part of the Flathead Valley Hockey Association, which took over management duties of the Woodland Ice Center this year. The ice rink is privately operated, but functions in partnership with the city of Kalispell’s parks and recreation department. The girls, as well as other co-ed and boys hockey teams, practice and play at the ice center.

A few years ago, a group of parents and hockey enthusiasts approached city officials about a plan to bring an ice rink to Kalispell. Genia Tartaglino was one of the parents. She said former Mayor Pam Kennedy was immediately onboard. The city offered to house the rink at Woodland Park. Shortly afterward, the Flathead Valley Hockey Association formed. It is the 12th and newest such organization in the state, Tartaglino said.

The Tartaglinos are a hockey family, and a central ingredient to the Woodland Ice Center’s success. Tartaglino’s husband Steve coaches and helps run the rink. Her daughter is a star on the U-19 team. And Tartaglino does a little of everything at the rink.

Last year, the girls won first place in the “B” division at the state tournament in Missoula. The Flames outscored their opponents 27-5 in four games. This year’s team features many of the players from the championship team, as well as a host of newcomers. Some have never played hockey before.

Newlon and Herne work hard at easing the new girls into the game, starting with basic skating techniques and hockey maneuvers. It can be challenging enough to simply skate, let alone cruise across the ice in pads with a stick in your hand while trying to smack a small puck. Some have figure skated or skated for fun, but Newlon said “hockey is a whole different thing.”

There is no checking allowed in the league and a strict code of conduct is enforced, Newlon said. But it’s still hockey and it gets physical. The girls understand that it’s part of the game.

“There’s certainly contact,” Newlon said. “Sometimes you’re surprised by how much contact there is.”

The Flathead Valley Hockey Association invites anybody to join a team, regardless of experience. Hockey, especially girls hockey, is new enough to the landscape that it operates with a degree of informality. Newlon said it’s a tricky process sometimes just to schedule a game. Referees and ice times must be arranged, as well as other factors.

“There’s always a dance in terms of getting a game,” Newlon said.

Bridgett Herne, the daughter of coach Don Herne, started playing hockey in second grade. But she said if you knew her, you wouldn’t take her for a hockey player. The Flathead High School sophomore is, in her words, “the typical girly girl.” Her dad, however, convinced her to give hockey a try and she hasn’t since relented.

“It’s what I live for,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing to do. It’s the freedom of being on the ice.”