Torey Reinbold practices with the Chicago North Stars, an elite women’s hockey team, at Johnny’s IceHouse. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-TimeS
The North Stars, who are believed to be the first all-women’s team to play in a Chicago men’s league, hope to someday join the National Women’s Hockey League.
Anna Lurie would love nothing more than to bring a professional National Women’s Hockey League team to Chicago.
That’s why she co-founded the Chicago North Stars, a new elite women’s hockey team that hopes to qualify for next spring’s USA Hockey Nationals and establish itself as one of the best women’s teams in the nation.
But first, Lurie and her teammates will have to skate by, around and — if necessary — through male players to get there.
With a roster compiled of former NWHL, college and Triple-A club hockey players, the North Stars are planning to play in a Johnny’s IceHouse men’s league as part of their preparation for nationals.
“We were trying to figure out a way to play regularly and play high-competitive games, so we decided that we’re going to join a men’s league. This way, we don’t have to travel every week to find a team to play or play against teams that are a lower level than us,” team president Ali Lawrence said.
After consulting with the adult league’s general manager, the North Stars, who are believed to be the first all-women’s team to play in a Chicago men’s league, were put in the C2 division, which is made up of mainly players who have played at least on high school or highly competitive Triple-A club teams.
“We’re playing guys who are much taller and have stronger upper-body strength, so we’re going to have to be smarter than them in order to be competitive with them,” Lawrence said. “And of course, we hope in turn that makes us smarter, faster and better hockey players so when we do play against those women’s teams, we can just go in there and destroy them.”
‘Not just a beer league team’
There are limited options for women who want to play hockey beyond college in Chicago. Sure, there’s the Women’s Central Hockey League, but playing in that league means you have to regularly travel to neighboring states in order to play competitive games.
And while it’s not uncommon for individual women to play alongside men in adult leagues, Lawrence said she first wanted to develop an elite all-women’s league in Chicago with the idea that she could pull the top players from the league to create a nationals team. After all, she says, the city and its surrounding suburbs have produced some of the best college and professional players.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a really powerhouse of a team,” Lawrence said. “The biggest problem, of course, with creating a powerhouse of a team is there aren’t teams to play against that are local, so we wanted to create that.”
League taking form
Earlier this year, Lawrence had six teams ready to play in a premiere league in a season that would have started in May.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Unable to play as state officials urged people to stay home and closed sports facilities, Lawrence and her friend, Lurie, decided to create the North Stars, an “All-Star team” with some of the initial league’s top players.
“We decided we were going to put together the best team in Chicago and then hopefully one day the best team in this country,” said Lurie, a forward who doubles as the North Stars’ general manager.
“We’re not just another beer league team, we’re not just another rec team, we’re something special,” Lawrence said.
‘Target on your back’
Forward Jessica Howerton, a native of Schaumburg who played hockey at Colby College, was invited to try out for a NWHL team on the East Coast in 2015. But she passed on the opportunity so she could return home to be closer to her family.
Since then, Howerton, 28, has been playing in leagues largely made up of men. Playing with the guys has its challenges, as men are naturally stronger, faster and taller than women, she said.
But the female game is a lot more skills-based.
“There’s more passing, there’s more game flow than with the guys and that’s why I enjoyed it a lot more,” Howerton said.
While the men are generally welcoming to women, Howerton said some guys can be a little more physical with her when they spot her ponytail hanging out of her helmet.
“A lot of the guys don’t like girls out there who are better than them or can make a move and go around them, they don’t like that,” she said. “So there’s definitely a target on your back.”
Uncertainty remains as pandemic continues
The North Stars are eager to start their season, which has been derailed several times due to the pandemic.
Their men’s league season was scheduled to start last month, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s sports guidelines have put a pause on activities deemed “high risk,” like hockey. The North Stars also had to drop out of a qualifying tournament in Indiana this month after the Hoosier state was added to Chicago’s emergency travel order requiring travelers there to quarantine for 14 days after coming back.
For now, the team is practicing when it can at Johnny’s IceHouse including with men’s teams in the C2 division.
here are various coronavirus protocols in place. Each player gets her temperature checked before entering the rink and they have to wear face masks when they’re not on the ice. They’re also restricting the amount of players that can be on the ice and bench.
“We kind of have the mentality that we’re going to keep practicing, keep scrimmaging amongst ourselves and hopefully come 2021 things will lighten up a little,” Lurie said.
‘Best in the midwest’
While the short-term goal is to make it to nationals — the team has to play 14 qualifying games against other women’s teams and win their district to punch their ticket to the main event — Lurie and Lawrence have bigger dreams.
Lurie believes it’s not unrealistic to think Chicago could have a professional women’s franchise in the next “four to five years.”
After the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded last year, the NWHL is the only professional women’s hockey league in North America with teams in Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut, New Jersey, Minnesota and Toronto. Organizers have said the league is looking to expand.
Lawrence said she’d welcome a partnership someday with the Blackhawks — who have been big supporters of women’s hockey programs — in a similar way as the Anaheim Ducks support the Lady Ducks or the Boston Bruins partner with the Boston Pride.
“Why not, in a couple of years after we’ve proven to be the best in the midwest?” she said. “ … Why not eventually become a Lady Blackhawks? … We should have a high-level women’s team here.”