The puck whips across the ice towards the goal as players from opposing teams battle fiercely to gain control of it. Two skaters collide and then something unexpected happens. The Wilton High School skater stops for a moment and helps the Masuk High School skater back up. Two seconds later, they’re both digging their blades in and burning up the ice again.

Eleven years ago, this incident would have been impossible because these skaters are girls playing for their respective high school teams. Eleven years ago, Wilton High School didn’t have a girls’ ice hockey team. Not that Wilton didn’t have girls who loved ice hockey and played it competitively. But with no Wilton girls’ team or town rink, these girls were playing in boys’ leagues or on girls’ teams in other towns. Chris DiLello and Jeffy Emerson, Wilton moms who had ice-hockey-playing daughters about to start high school, were determined to change this.

“Chris and I met when our daughters were playing ice hockey in a Ridgefield youth league. We knew there were other girls out there who played and who wanted to continue at the high school level,” explains Emerson, who has played ice hockey since she was old enough to lace up her own skates, competing on Boston University’s women’s team and playing in a local competitive women’s league now.

The two women approached the Wilton High School athletic director at the time, Christie Hayes, and asked about starting a girls’ high school ice hockey team. As a first step, he asked them to gauge the level of interest.

DiLello and Emerson set up a table that spring at the high school’s 8th grade athletic fair to promote the idea of a girls’ high school ice hockey team. A surprising number of girls expressed interest. Another Wilton mom, Sloane Levy, joined forces with them and, citing Title IX, petitioned the school to start a girls’ high school team.

The administration agreed to establish a team, however raising funds to support it fell to the interested students and their parents. Piggybacking on the boys’ ice hockey Boosters, DiLello, Emerson, Levy and several other parents organized a fundraiser to help cover the cost of ice time, hiring a coach, and purchasing basic equipment and team jerseys. To this day, the girls still have to supply their own gear.

From Yesterday to Today

The first Wilton High School girls’ team launched the winter of 2008/2009, and this year, celebrated its 10th anniversary. Unlike other school sports, it’s a co-op team made up of players from Wilton as well as Norwalk High School and Brien McMahon. The joint effort has been a win-win for everyone, enabling Wilton to field a full team and giving students from schools that don’t currently have a girls’ high school team the chance to play. Sono Ice House in Norwalk serves as their home ice. During hockey season, practices run for an hour every Tuesday and Friday morning at the eyes-aren’t-even-open-yet time of 5:45 a.m.; many of the girls show up in their pajamas. Sunday practices start at a more reasonable 3:10 p.m..

“Having a co-op team has been very positive. We’re not just a team of girls who’ve known each other for year. All the players have had a chance to meet new girls,” explains Pete Maxfield, the current coach. This is his third year with the team and he clearly loves coaching it, despite having to get up at 4:30 a.m. so he can be on the ice before any of his players arrive.

“The girls never quit. They work as hard as they can and it shows. They have so much passion. It’s great to see. They’re highly competitive and disciplined, but during practice there’s always a lot of laughter,” he adds.

Izzy Najah, a Wilton High School senior and one of the team’s four captains, echoes Maxfield’s sentiments. A field hockey player, she joined the girls’ ice hockey team her sophomore year. She’d been a recreational skater since she was young, when her family lived in New Jersey and had easy access to a rink.

“Coach Maxfield makes it so much fun. He’s the kindest coach I’ve ever had, and motivates us without ever having to raise his voice. Every game we go out wanting to win, but Coach also stresses sportsmanship. It’s easy to get overly aggressive, but he’s taught us that sportsmanship is as important as skill. Everyone on the team is so close. We’re all sisters. And we learn from each other,” Najah admits.

Her Wilton co-captain, Molly Thomas agrees. “The team is so amazing. Everyone’s so supportive. We want to win, but we’re also there to have fun. We can be competitive and still be civilized. If someone falls, our first instinct is to make sure that person is okay.” She also points out that whether someone is a senior or freshman, a seasoned skater or a beginner, doesn’t matter. “Our team includes upper classmen who just started playing and freshman who grew up on ice hockey skates. We’re all best friends. We work really well together.”

Ten years later, the team is still developing, but the level of enthusiasm and interest has grown exponentially. Every year, the number of girls showing up at try-outs increases. This past season, 30 girls came out so there were enough players to field a JV as well as a varsity team. The fact that the US women’s national team won a gold medal at the Olympics this winter may encourage even more girls to pick up the sport.

“Every year, the biggest challenge is the range in talent. We have some players who’ve been skating most of lives and some who are just starting to skate and play hockey,” notes Maxfield. “Even the girls who haven’t ever played or played much are just as athletic, fearless and determined as the experienced skaters. We had one player two years ago who joined the team as a junior. She was new to the sport, and after practice, she’d go home and watch YouTube videos to improve. She’s now playing club ice hockey at a competitive New England college,” adds Emerson, who has been the team’s assistant coach for the past five years. She and Coach Maxfield work with the team on skills, including skating backwards and stick handling, and on game strategy.  “It’s tricky to run an effective practice with so many ranges of ability,” Emerson notes, but she and Coach Maxfield make it work.

Both coaches speak about the need for a girls’ youth program. Other towns, including New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich and Ridgefield, have well-established youth programs for both boys and girls. Some of these towns also have a local rink, which along with their youth leagues, gives their girls’ high school teams a competitive advantage.

“It would be great to get girls and boys in Wilton started earlier. Launching a youth program here would require at least one dedicated individual to recruit skaters, organize the program, find a rink and ice times, and raise the necessary funds to make this all happen, and then keep it going year after year,” Emerson explains. Maxfield says he’d be more than happy to help get one started in Wilton, and that anyone wishing to take the lead on this, can email him. They both agree that it would also be great if Wilton had its own rink.

Eleven of Wilton’s 30 players are graduating this spring, and many of them plan to play club ice hockey in college. Maxfield says while it’s tough to lose so many team members, the returning ones have already been asking what they can do in the off-season to improve. “These girls are incredibly resilient and committed. Their spirit is great.” He insists that the team’s season record of 5 wins and 15 loses doesn’t begin to reflect how well and how hard they played.

Picking up on this point, Thomas recounts that when the team played Greenwich, they held them off 1-0 in the first period and that the final score was just 1-3. “We put up a really strong fight. Greenwich ended up winning FCIAC’s. They were number one in the state. The fact that we did as well as we did against them says so much about our team. We’re more than our record. I’m really proud of how we played, we had a lot of heart.”

And while the Wilton High School girls’ ice hockey team has proven they’re fire on the ice, they still take the time to stop and help up an opponent. Now that’s heart.

photos:  Carolyn Rundle Field