Hell Just Froze Over

Houston's first female hockey team gives new meaning to the term "body check"

Eventually their rink offered an adult hockey clinic and Friday-night pickup games where Lea and Carol could play. And slowly Houston began to resemble a real hockey town. The Houston Aeros started playing in '94, and soon after, the Sugar Land Aerodrome launched a coed novice league for adults; Lea and Carol played in its first, stupefyingly clumsy game. But the league grew, and so did the number of women playing in it. Lea subscribed to a women-in-hockey mailing list, and when it mentioned a women's hockey tournament in Las Vegas, she printed a flyer and began recruiting teammates.

Someone in a locker room suggested calling the team the Houston Harpies. Women's hockey teams often appropriate their names from ugly, man-hating stereotypes -- the Iron Maidens, the Black Widows, the Valkyries -- as a kind of joke. And besides, someone found a definition of "harpy" that included "arbitrary," "aggressive," "tormented men," "bludgeoned their prey with sticks" and "stank." What could fit better?

In that first tournament, the Harpies lost all their games. They hadn't expected to play so hard that their hands bled. They hadn't expected to need their husbands and boyfriends to tie on their skates. They hadn't had any idea the tournament would be so fun.

When boy meets goalie: Steve Santini proposes to Pam Berry.
Deron Neblett
When boy meets goalie: Steve Santini proposes to Pam Berry.

Lea decided that she wanted to keep the Harpies alive, and she recruited Trevin Baker to coach the team. Trevin had played hockey for the University of Wisconsin, and he'd taught Lea in the adult clinic. Except for hockey, Lea and Trevin have next to nothing in common. She's the capable get-things-done type, a civil engineer for the Port of Houston ("I like to pave things," she says). Trevin's easygoing, laid-back, a puppyish guy who looks cute in baggy jeans and is reliably late for practice. Lea jokes that he's a "true blond," but still, she spent hours on the phone with him, trying to figure out where to start: How do you reserve ice? How do you pay for everything? Where do you find players?

In retrospect, it's not surprising that women joined the Harpies. Lea was at the leading edge of a trend. By some estimates, the number of American women playing hockey quadrupled in the '90s; women's hockey became an Olympic sport in '98. The Harpies offered would-be players the things newbies need: loaner equipment, experience, and a coach and teammates who didn't mind if you skated badly or asked stupid questions.

The surprising thing is this: The Harpies developed male groupies. Or, more accurately, a gentlemen's auxiliary.

At first, the guys were organized as a team to play against the Harpies. Dick Lockwood, Deborah's husband, learned to skate along with her, and he began rounding up a group of handpicked men -- boyfriends and husbands, mostly -- to play against the Harpies. The team called itself Dick's Friends.

Dick's Friends was perhaps the sweetest, most nurturing hockey team in history. The Harpies set definite limits (no body-checking, no fighting, none of the crap you see on cable), but the Friends held themselves to a higher standard of good behavior. The Friends would go easy on a new Harpie; they'd boo their own teammate if he accidentally knocked over a female player.

The men, in fact, were much gentler than the Harpies. Occasionally more men than women would show up for a practice, and a man would fill out the Harpies' roster. One man told Lea that the experience had shaken him to the core. He'd played against the Harpies before, and he'd chatted with them after practice: sweet, normal-seeming women. But sitting on their bench, he could see how they were transmogrified by the hockey gear, how they turned evil and showed no mercy. His benchmates yelled, "KILL HIM! KILL HIM!" to the other Harpies, and they seemed to mean it. Playing on the women's team, he said, was the scariest thing he'd ever done in his life.

Dick's Friends seem content with their second-class status, happy to be the Harpies' sparring partners and support staff. Their names don't appear on the Harpies Web page; when the Harpies travel to tournaments, the men merely accompany them, cheerleaders instead of participants. Lately, for scrimmage games like tonight's, the Harpies and the Friends have intermingled, with Trevin shuffling any given night's participants into two coed teams. The men are still expected to play nice; overly rowdy newcomers are subtly encouraged to play elsewhere.

Some of the Harpies' male groupies continue to play with the Harpies even after breaking up with the girlfriend who introduced them to hockey. Some have dated more than one member of the team. Some of the men have skated with Dick's Friends so long that nobody can quite remember where they came from, what girlfriend brought them in the first place. On average, the Harpies' men have stuck with the team longer than the Harpies' women.

Almost as soon as the scrimmage game starts, one of the male players blatantly trips a male player on the opposing team. Lea, watching from the stands, can't believe it: The Harpies' men don't play like that.

The ref awards the wounded party, Steve Santini, a penalty shot. Steve gets into position, facing Pam Berry, a relatively new Harpie. Tonight's her first game at goalie, and a half-dozen of her relatives are watching from the stands.

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