It was like a “Mighty Ducks” remake.
Saint Mary’s first Cardinal women’s hockey team in 1998-99 wasn’t exactly composed of first-string recruits. “We were a mishmash of girls — ranging from a few who had played hockey their entire lives to girls like myself who had been around hockey all my life and knew how to skate, but hadn’t played,” said Carey (Stover) Benson ’99.
“We had two figure skaters who we recruited to play hockey instead. And there were even two girls who had never really skated before, but were determined to figure it out.”
About the only thing they shared? The desire to play hockey.
Benson was there for the birth of women’s hockey at Saint Mary’s, even before it became a varsity sport. It started when she was a first-year student, recruited to play some pick-up hockey games by Jess Bauer ’99.
By the end of that year, these women formed a club, one of the men’s hockey players served as 46 their coach, and they traveled to other schools via carpool. Bauer drove the Zamboni and cleared the ice for them, and junior varsity men’s players would referee their games.
“It was very ‘Mighty Duck’ish,” Benson said. Fittingly, someone on the team had heard about Mighty Duck Grants, matching grants awarded annually by the Minnesota Legislature in support of ice sports in the state. With the help of Tony Piscitiello, AFSC ’69, M’82, and Ken Pelligrini ’72 from the Saint Mary’s Admission Office, and then athletic director Don Olson, dreams of a varsity women’s hockey team began to take shape.
“By our junior year, we knew we were going to go varsity,” Benson said. “Tony Piscitiello began recruiting girls who played hockey. And by that summer we knew a coach was coming, we just didn’t know who it was.”
That coach turned out to be Jeff Vizenor, who came to Saint Mary’s in his late 20s not fully knowing what to expect, but excited for the opportunity. “The thing that was amazing about our team was that our motto was, ‘Work hard and have fun,’ and that’s just what we did, Vizenor said. “You couldn’t have asked for a group of young women who worked harder than they did. They worked like crazy and just loved it. We really pulled together as a team.”
Vizenor coached for two years at Saint Mary’s, and both years Cardinal women’s hockey captured conference titles.
Benson said more than 20 years later she still has a sense of pride in being on that team. “Being on that team gave me a connection to Saint Mary’s that otherwise I wouldn’t have had,” she said.
“I’m from Wyoming, and have zero connection to Minnesota. The people I’m closest to are my teammates. For me, hockey was the glue that brought Saint Mary’s into my life and kept it here. Some of the best memories I have are from being on that team.
“I’ve been competitive my whole life. We started a team of mishmash players and grew it from the ground up. We were MIAC champions. We were a really good team of misfits. That’s carried me far in life. I’ve been able to say, ‘I can always figure it out. I did that at Saint Mary’s playing hockey.’ ”
Benson went to grad school for sports psychology and worked for a reputable sports agency in Florida for seven years. To get closer to home, she moved to Colorado and worked in the athletics department at the University of Denver before changing careers and becoming a corporate recruiter for finance professionals. She went on to earn both an MBA and a Master’s of Education in Counseling.
Vizenor went on to coach for the University of Wisconsin and Minnesota State University-Mankato and is currently a high school principal, but he continues to referee hockey in the Twin Cities metro area. Like Benson, his time at Saint Mary’s holds a special place in his heart.
He and about 10 alumni-athletes from that first women’s team returned to campus this past fall for the 50 years of women reunion. Benson organized the reunion on Facebook and said returning to campus was like stepping back in time.
“It was like we were back 20 years ago, sharing stories and laughing,” Vizenor said. “This is a highly successful group of women who have learned lessons from being a hockey player and a Saint Mary’s graduate. Two players from those first years are in the Sports Hall of Fame.”
Benson said she’ll always support women’s hockey. “When you look at sports like football or baseball where physical strength and physical size come so much into play, it’s hard for girls to feel they can compete at the same level as guys. In hockey, girls really can compete successfully. It’s a sport where boys don’t look at you as a girl but a teammate. You’re not a girl, you’re a hockey player. It’s an equalizer.”
Vizenor said the skills you learn in hockey are life-long skills. “There’s something special about being a hockey player,” he said. “Hockey players and hockey people are special people in a very unique family.
“And Saint Mary’s is a special place,” he added. “It’s crazy to think that those two years could have such a big impact on my life.”
Photo caption: Alumnae of the first Cardinal women’s hockey team returned to campus last fall.