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Pope Francis gives girls new opportunity with formation of hockey team

  • Brooke Weinman practices puck handling on a SuperDeker at her home in Amherst, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brooke Weinman at her home in Amherst, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brooke Weinman practices shooting at her home in Amherst, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brooke Weinman practices shooting at her home in Amherst, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brooke Weinman practices puck handling on a SuperDeker at her home in Amherst, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brooke Weinman and her brother, Alex, play one-on-one at their home in Amherst, Tuesday. Brooke, a freshman at Amherst Regional, played on the junior varsity and varsity hockey teams for the Hurricanes last past season. Next year, she has an opportunity to play for Pope Francis, which will field an all-girls high school team that will draw players from several schools, including Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rowan Howe at her home in Northampton, Wednesday. Howe played hockey for Longmeadow last season. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rowan Howe practices goalkeeping at her home in Northampton with the help of her brother, Ben, Wednesday. Howe, a sophomore at Northampton High School, played for the Longmeadow girls hockey team this past winter. After two years with the Lancers, Howe has an opportunity to play for Pope Francis, which will field an all-girls high school team that will draw players from several schools, including Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rowan Howe practices goalkeeping at her home in Northampton with the help of her brother, Ben, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rowan Howe practices goalkeeping at her home in Northampton with the help of her brother, Ben, Wednesday. Howe, a sophomore at Northampton High School, played for the Longmeadow girls hockey team this past winter. After two years with the Lancers, Howe has an opportunity to play for Pope Francis, which will field an all-girls high school team that will draw players from several schools, including Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • CHRIS CONNORS

Sports Editor
Published: 5/22/2020 1:55:05 PM

Brooke Weinman started playing hockey when she was about 5 years old.

The Amherst Regional freshman first participated in the learn to skate program offered by the Amherst Hockey Association after watching her older brother Alex play. She advanced to learn to play then started dressing for the mite team. “I just really love it,” she said.

As she grew older she played for other teams, both coed and all-girls teams. This past winter Weinman played defense for the Hurricanes.

Northampton sophomore Rowan Howe was 6 when she started to play. She got involved because her older brother, Benjamin, played hockey when he was younger and a teammate of 2019 Northampton graduate Brigitte Goeler-Slough.

Howe played at various rinks growing up. This past winter she was a backup goalie for the Longmeadow cooperative team.

The Lancers were the only all-girls high school team in western Massachusetts last season. It was a cooperative program with 10 other schools, including Frontier Regional, Hopkins Academy and Northampton.

Next year will be different though. A new opportunity has surfaced for girls to play high school hockey. Earlier this month, Pope Francis announced it will field a girls hockey team next season, pulling some of the cooperative programs from Longmeadow.

If the coop is approved by the MIAA next month, and the prevailing thought is it will, Weinman and Howe could be teammates during its inaugural varsity season this winter. If the coop is denied, Pope Francis will compete as a club team during its first season.

“I love it,” Howe said. “There’s an opportunity where I can go to my school, which I like, and also get to play with a bunch of other girls and on a good team.”

Options to play

For Weinman, Howe and any other players who are thinking of playing for Pope Francis, it’s a decision they are all too familiar with.

While girls hockey has grown, and in some cases quickly, the opportunities at the high school level are limited.

Howe played in several organizations growing up. She started in learn to skate and stayed through the midget level in the Nonotuck Valley Hockey Association this past season. She also played for a year on a girls team in the Franklin County Hockey Association in Greenfield, and for one season on a girls team in the Amherst Hockey Association (AHA).

When she reached high school, she could have played for Easthampton, which Goeler-Slough did at one time. Northampton is a part of the Easthampton hockey cooperative.

Instead, the then-freshman followed Goeler-Slough, who moved on and was a senior on the Longmeadow team. The only other options for Howe at the high school level were prep schools or club programs.

“It’s something any hockey player has to consider, but I wasn’t too interested in going to a school specifically for hockey,” Howe said. “I love playing hockey and it’s something that I wouldn’t want to stop doing. I was perfectly happy at my school.”

Like Howe, Weinman played on several other teams. She played for the Springfield Junior Thunderbirds U14 girls team in eighth grade. She played for the full-time girls team in the AHA, in addition to two seasons spent on a coed AHA team. She spent the past winter skating on the wing for the Hurricanes.

“I really did enjoy the team,” Weinman said. “All the boys were super nice and I loved the coach, Coach (Mike) Rousseau. It was a great environment.”

While Weinman is undecided about where she will play next season, she is looking forward to learning more about Pope Francis.

“I’d be really excited for an opportunity to play with all girls,” she said.

Providing opportunities

The Amherst Hockey Association has spent the past five years building its girls program, which is directed by Erin Flanagan.

The program has a full-time U14 team that competes in the Connecticut Girls Hockey League. AHA has a part-time U12 team as well as an in-house team.

“We have seen it grow more than we expected,” Flanagan said.

Two current players in the AHA program are watching Pope Francis materialize.

Maeve Dougherty, Flanagan’s daughter, is an eighth grader at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, which is not currently on the list of cooperative schools for Pope Francis.

Amherst Regional, Chicopee, Chicopee Comp, Frontier Regional, Hopkins Academy, Monson, Northampton, Palmer and Pittsfield are the listed coops.

Dougherty is interested in playing for Pope Francis and she and her mother are hopeful PVCICS can be added to the list of cooperative schools. “We’re keeping our figures crossed,” Flanagan said.

Ava Carvel, Dougherty’s AHA teammate, is looking ahead. Carvel is in seventh grade at Amherst Regional Middle School. Still, the daughter of UMass hockey coach Greg Carvel couldn’t help but be excited for the opportunity.

“It’s awesome to have different options,” Ava Carvel said. “It’s hard when you’re a female hockey player because you have to work pretty hard to find teams that are right for you. I may not even get to play on the Pope Francis hockey team but it’s nice to have options and opportunities. I love that there are more options and opportunities for female hockey players in this area.”

Stephen Rich has been involved as a scheduler, referee and coach in the AHA. He grew up in upstate New York where girls hockey thrived, but when he arrived in the Pioneer Valley, he didn’t like the limited opportunities for girls.

So Rich joined Flanagan and former girls director Karen Skolfield, among others, to help build the girls AHA program. They all have daughters that play the sport.

Rich’s daughter, Isabel, just finished her freshman season with Amherst Regional. She is looking forward to the option of Pope Francis.

“She wants to be on a team that’s improving and gives her an opportunity to improve as an individual,” Stephen Rich said. “She’ll be watching to see who is on the team. She has that very positive experience with the high school and she’s got that as an alternative.”

The AHA gave Isabel Rich and Weinman the chance to play on coed teams as well as all-girls teams. Rich and Weinman each had positive experiences playing with boys, but there are still differences.

“Off the ice there is a big social difference,” Weinman said. “I make stronger friendships with the girls generally than the boys. I feel like I fit in more on a girls team than a boys team. On the ice, too, I think girls definitely play a different way than boys do. It’s less physical, which I do like. I’m sure this isn’t the same for everybody, but I have noticed girls tend to pass the puck more.”

Howe has had two years of high school experience playing with Longmeadow’s girls team. Most of her time has been spent on junior varsity.

“The connectedness between the teams and in the locker room is something that’s a lot better when it’s all girls,” Howe said. “We understand each other more.”

The Cardinals

As the third-string goalie heading into her junior season, Howe was running into a numbers crunch. The top two goalies were coming back and if Howe made varsity, there was a chance her playing time would be limited to junior varsity again.

Enter Pope Francis, which will pull some players away from Longmeadow due to the shakeup in cooperative teams.

“When I found out that I could play for Pope Francis and a lot of my Longmeadow friends were going there, it seemed like the perfect thing,” Howe said.

Pope Francis Athletic Director John Goda said he received a lot of interest from incoming freshman about the program. About a year of planning went into the program.

“It’s going to be nice to see a second team in western Mass.,” Goda said. “We’re definitely excited about it. Our boys hockey team gets so much attention it’s going to be nice to have a girls team as well, balance that out. No matter how good or bad they are, it’s going to be fun.”

Earlier this month the school announced that Chris Connors will serve as head coach. From 2005-2010 Connors coached the Saugus High School boys team. Prior to that he was an assistant for nine years at Saugus and St. Mary’s of Lynn.

For the last nine years he has been a youth coach. He currently coaches the Springfield Rangers Mite Select team, a coed team that includes his daughter.

Connors is looking forward to meeting his potential players.

“I’m an educator and a communicator. I take great pride in my communication skills. At the same token I’m fair. I demand a lot of our players,” he said. “When they come into our system, they are going to get accustomed to using words like we, our and us. The word me and I is not going to exist. When they put on that jersey, they could be from various communities, but when they put on that jersey they are representing the team the name on the front of the jersey.”

Dave Graham, Michael Zaranek and Bryan Musa have been hired as assistants. Connors said he is looking to added women to his staff.

“We’ve talked about it as a staff and we’re talking to a couple of women as we speak,” he said. “We just have to see if it fits in with their work schedules and the same philosophies.”

When the team comes together, there could be a heavy presence from Amherst.

Amherst Regional had three girls on its team last season in Weinman, Rich and Morgan Peritz. Weinman, meanwhile, played with Carvel and Dougherty in the AHA.

Weinman is looking forward to the potential opportunity of being a member of the inaugural team.

“I’m really excited for that,” she said. “We played Pope Francis last year for the Amherst (JV) team and they were a very good program. I think it’s awesome that they are getting a girls program too.”

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.




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