GLENDALE -- The youth hockey landscape in Arizona continues to change and develop – and for AZ Lady Coyotes skater and incoming ASU Women’s Hockey player Megan Mroczek, those changes are coming at just the right time.
A native of Chicago, Mroczek got into hockey the year after her brother started to play; joining, at first, to be better than her brother, then sticking with it for love of the game.
When she joins the freshman class at Arizona State University as a member of the school’s first-ever women’s ACHA hockey team, she’ll only have a few years of girls hockey under her belt.
She didn’t start out with the girls programs in the state; her first season of hockey, she remembers being just one of just two girls in the peewee house league at Gilbert Polar Ice. The only girl on her team, Mroczek won her first state championship that year – and fell in love with the game while still playing co-ed.
The move to playing for a girls team her freshman year of high school, though, helped her find her true niche.
“I decided to make the switch [to a girls team] when I went to my first tryouts for girls district camp,” remembers Mroczek.
“I had never seen girl hockey players before, and the older girls at tryouts were incredible. They were strong, pretty, and totally awesome. They were my role models, and showed me what competitive girls hockey was really like.”
“I’m sure they didn’t realize it, but seeing those older girls influenced me so much. They were the reason I want to play girls hockey at the highest level, so I could be just like them.”
That first year, Mroczek failed to make the cut for the district team – but she was sold on making the move to a girls team, and hasn’t gone back.
It took research to get a feel for the atmosphere of girls hockey that year. Where boys hockey was growing at a tremendous rate at that point, Arizona saw the girls program – at that point, there was only the first incarnation of the Lady Coyotes and a competitive team that was a part of the Mission Hockey program – try to expand into three teams.
That diluted the talent more than anticipated, though, and left Mroczek with just one option before long – the U16AA She-Wolves, part of the Coyotes Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA).
Despite the limited options for girls hockey in the valley, Mroczek had her most memorable season to date that first year after making the move. She and the She-Wolves won districts that year, then went on to compete at nationals – something she said was unheard of for a girls team from Arizona.
She got to experience all that while wearing an A on her jersey, to boot.
“I was chosen as Assistant Captain, even though I was one of the youngest on the team,” remembered Mroczek.
“At that time, I was so surprised – I’d never had much confidence in myself. Now that I look back, though, I’m so grateful for those coaches that year who saw the leader in me when I couldn’t see it in myself. They set me on the path to becoming a leader and reaching my full potential.”
The team disbanded after that season, but the re-creation of a new Lady Coyotes program saw Mroczek and the remaining players from the CAHA program have a new opportunity to keep playing in state. Now, just a few years later, she’s ready to take her career to yet another valley organization at ASU.
While Mroczek said that the decision to play at ASU was one made for finances and education, the addition of a women’s ACHA team gives her – and a number of other skaters – an opportunity they wouldn’t be able to have otherwise. Playing out of state isn’t an option for everyone, so having the team at an affordable in-state university with a good four year program opens doors that a number of young girls playing hockey in Arizona may not have had in years past.
That, suggests Mroczek, is going to be one of the biggest catalysts for girls hockey in Arizona in years to come.
“Seeing those older girls at district camp influenced me so much,” she reiterated. “By having a girls team at ASU, all of the younger girl hockey players [in the valley] can see what competitive girls hockey is really like. The team can be their goal; this is something that they can aspire to be. That is so important.”
“Girls on the East Coast have so many opportunities to watch competitive female hockey – and right now, Arizona just doesn’t have those same opportunities. Now, this ASU team gives them that chance.”
The difference between playing hockey as a girl on a boys’ team and playing girl’s hockey, said Mroczek, is huge – but not in the way onlookers may think. It’s the shift from being viewed as ‘the girl hockey player’ to just ‘a hockey player’ – and that’s a valuable identity shift for many girls who want to thrive in the game.
Playing hockey in Arizona hasn’t always been easy, and it still has room to grow for girls programs. The option a handful of girls take each year is to play out of state, but the financial limitations that places on players has deterred a number of girls from sticking with the sport in the past. The Lady Coyotes and the ASU club program will work to change that; players like Mroczek hope they’ll prevent girls from having to choose between staying home and playing the game they love.
“Stick with it,” said Mroczek. “Be stubborn. The switch to girls hockey… your teammates will become your best friends.”