In 1994 the Minnesota State high school league sent out letters to more than 500 member schools asking if they were interested in starting girls' ice hockey teams. Twenty-four replied yes. "That was good enough for us," says John Bartz, an MSHSL associate director at the time. "We were looking for a new sport for Title IX purposes. Given that and hockey's wild popularity in the state, we thought, It's worth a shot." When the MSHSL sanctioned girls' hockey as a varsity sport beginning in '94-95, the Land of 10,000 Lakes became the first state to do so.
Eight years later, with Minnesota leading the way, girls' ice hockey is the fastest growing high school sport in the country. In 1995-96 there were 1,471 girls participating nationwide, many on their schools' boys' teams. Last season there were 6,442 competitors on girls' teams alone. " Minnesota's been the leader in the development of girls' hockey," says Chuck Menke, spokesman for USA Hockey. "We're seeing popularity increase throughout the country because of them."
The number of varsity girls' teams in Minnesota has ballooned from 24 in 1994-95 to 125 (in two classifications, AA and A) this year, a figure that rivals the boys' (167). Last year the three-day girls' state tournament attracted 15,551 spectators, up from combined crowds of 6,155 in its first year. In February the event moves from a state-fairgrounds venue to the University of Minnesota's new Ridder Arena.
"Communities everywhere are embracing their teams," says Dave Palmquist, coach of the Packers of South St. Paul, last year's Class AA champion and, at week's end, the state's No. 1-ranked girls' team.
Early on, one of the biggest knocks against girls' hockey—which, other than a no-checking rule, has the same regulations as the boys' game—was the poor quality of play. That's no longer the case. "The improvement in the [high school] skill level has been amazing; there was a huge difference even between my junior and senior years," says Minnesota freshman forward Krissy Wendell, a 2000 graduate of Brooklyn Park's Park Center High and a 2002 Olympian. The state's alltime leading girls' high school scorer, Wendell competed on boys' teams growing up, "To have a girls' team was a gift. Physically, I wouldn't have been able to keep up on a boys' team at the high school level and progress as much as I did."
The sport's boom may be far from over. In 1994 there were 1,863 Minnesota girls participating in organized hockey outside of a varsity high school program. Today that number is 6,856, the vast majority of whom are playing on increasingly popular girls-only youth teams. "It's still growing," says Palmquist. "We all knew that hockey's in the blood here, but no one could ever have imagined how quickly things would change."