Growing up in the Pittsburgh area in the early 1990s was a great time for Kate Michael.
She had the chance to watch the Penguins capture back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and ’92.
Now, she’s hoping to capture a championship of her own with the St. Lawrence University women’s ice hockey team.
“I grew up being a Pens fan and I just absolutely loved the teams back then,” she said. “I was definitely a hometown fan and I still am even now.”
Michael, a senior, has cemented her place in Pittsburgh sports history. While the area has seen many females play collegiate hockey, Michael is one of the few to play at the NCAA Division I level. Cornell has had three area females on its women’s team rosters throughout the years: Gibsonia’s Jessica Trybus in 1995-96 and Allderdice High School graduates Sarah Mott (1977-78 through 1981-82) and Susan Brawdy (1978-79 and 1980-81).
However, a female from Pittsburgh has yet to win an NCAA hockey championship at the Division-I level.
“I didn’t know of many girls playing when I was growing up,” Michael said. “It’s definitely interesting to see how much [girls hockey] has grown [in the Pittsburgh area. When I was younger, I played on boys teams and there weren’t many girls. Now, you’re seeing many more girls on teams. I have met a lot of girls and they are awestruck at what they can do and how much playing hockey can help them out.”
Michael, a native of Leetsdale, played high school hockey on the Quaker Valley boys team.
“I loved it. I started playing at age of 5 and have played hockey ever since,” she said. “I had brothers on the team, too. Once the guys realized I could play with them, we got along really well. I had a great coach, too, in Kevin Quinn. He really helped me a lot.
“It was really a fun experience. I was one of the inaugural kids in the program. They are in maybe their eighth or ninth season now.”
When players are in full equipment, it’s not always easy to distinguish females from males on the ice. However, Michael, who was also a standout lacrosse player at Quaker Valley, knew her high school opponents were well aware of her presence.
“I always had a ponytail sticking out of the back of my helmet so pretty much everyone knew I was a girl,” she said. “A few teams took notice of that, but it wasn’t that often. I did fairly well. I like the physical aspect of the game. It was fun; I loved competing against them.
“It’s such a different game with the checking allowed in the men’s game and not in the women’s game,” she continued. “Personally, I like the checking. There’s less of the clutch and grab stuff in men’s hockey, too. Girls are more prone to hooking and holding and stuff like that.”
Michael didn’t begin playing in female-only leagues until later in her career.
“I only started playing women’s hockey at the end of my high school career to get exposure. I started playing on a women’s team, the Ohio Flames, in 10th grade. There were no women’s teams in Pittsburgh at the time. The league we played in was based out of Chicago and a lot of recruiters would come in come and watch.”
Michael racked up the accolades. She participated in the prestigious Hockey Night in Boston event and won a defensive player of the week award in two-straight seasons. In addition, she attended the USA Hockey women’s national development camps during all four years of her high school career.
It all led Michael to a hockey scholarship at St. Lawrence. And, she’s loved her stay at the university.
“It’s been great,” she said.
Michael and the Saints have enjoyed success in recent years. The program has grown into a national power in its nine seasons at the NCAA D-I level. St. Lawrence has played in three of the last five Women’s NCAA Frozen Four tournaments and finished runner-up in 2001.
This year, the Saints (24-3-2) seem poised for a return trip to the Frozen Four. At one point, they were the country’s top-ranked team, but currently sit at No. 2.
“It’s definitely a rush. There’s a lot of pressure, but we’re handling it well, hopefully continue to play well as a team,” Michael said. “We’ve been to the Frozen Four the past two years and finished third. We’re favored to be one of the top teams this year and, so far, we’ve held up our end of the bargain. We have a lot of games left to play, though.”
Michael, along with Tracy Muzerall and Kat Smithson, serve as tri-captains for St. Lawrence.
“I really enjoy the responsibility. We’re really good friends off the ice. We’re doing very well,” she said. “We have a lot of returning players and a few good freshmen that have come in and done well.”
One of Michael’s all-time favorite Penguins was defenseman Paul Coffey. A defensemen herself, she tries to emulate his style.
“I remember watching him carry the puck. He was great,” she said. “I’d like to say I am more of an offensive defenseman. I love joining a rush or sneaking in or skating with the puck.”
So far, Michael has two goals, 10 assists and is a plus-21 for the Saints. In her career, she has 14 goals, 31 assists and 45 points. She has been able to balance her time-consuming hockey schedules with her demanding academic studies: Michael is a biology major with a minor in chemistry.
“It’s very busy. I like science and I do well. I have always had an interest in it,” she said. “I don’t mind the extra hours. Professors are really lenient in terms of missing a lab or two. Our coaches know our education comes first and are lenient with us going to classes or labs and missing practice.”
St. Lawrence, located in extreme upstate New York, about 130 miles northeast of Syracuse, has some pretty long road trips for games. The Saints play almost all of their games on Fridays and Saturdays.
“We have road trips that are about seven or eight hours consistently. We get up the next day and get ready for games and then we leave after second game,” Michael said. “There is a lot of travel, but being on the bus is not bad. The buses are fantastic. That’s where I get a lot of my stuff done. A fair amount of my teammates do homework at least part of the trips.”
Michael isn’t the only Pittsburgher to play hockey at St. Lawrence. John Zeiler, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, is a senior forward on the men’s hockey team.
“I have never had a class with him; our men’s and women’s hockey teams don’t do too much stuff combined,” Michael said. “I have only really run into him a couple times. He seems like a really great guy.”
When Michael graduates at this year, she hopes to stay involved in hockey.
“I am looking at coaching and possibly teaching at the high school level or at a private school somewhere,” she said. “I love the game, not just playing, but the intellectual aspect of it. It’s something I could definitely see myself doing in the future.”