Credit: Alex Messenger
When Bonnie Shea suited up to play ice hockey back in 1951, she didn’t realize at the time that she was paving a road for future generations of young girls and women in the sport. She just wanted to play.
More than 70 years later, despite evidence to the contrary, Shea still doesn’t view herself as any sort of trailblazer. But, when you’re the first at something – she was the first girl to play organized hockey in Duluth, Minnesota – those accolades come with the territory.
Now nearly 80 years old, Shea loves the game as much as always, is still playing (with WHAM, the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota), and, despite her own humble objection, continuing to blaze trails.
Recently, Shea was recognized with a banner-raising “Bonnie’s Night at the Rink” in Duluth, celebrating her accomplishments and contributions to the game.
Shea took the time to talk to us about her amazing journey in the game
USA Hockey: How does it feel to be known as a trailblazer, being the first girl to play organized hockey in Duluth?
Bonnie Shea: It’s an honor to even be recognized. I never thought of myself that way, but I guess I was. I joined because I lived across the street from a skating rink. As a girl growing up, what do you do? You sled, ski or skate. Most of my friends were boys so I just started playing hockey with them and the coach saw me and said would you like to join our team? He was such a nice man to let me play. Nobody knew I was a girl because I put my hair under my stocking cap. I just enjoyed playing, so never thought of myself as a trailblazer.
USA Hockey: What was the experience like for you back then?
Shea: When I first started it was fine. Fortunately, I became a very good center and was a good scorer. Articles would be put in the Duluth newspaper including my name and then other teams realized I was a girl. So, when I was 10 or 11 years old, the other players would look to hit me, even though checking wasn’t allowed. So, I had to be alert and skate better and faster than the boys. My teammates supported me 100%. They didn’t care, they just wanted me on the team.
But when I turned 15, I had to change rinks because not every rink wanted girls playing. Then, my high school principal said we can’t have girls playing hockey, even though the coach, who was also my teacher, thought it would be good for me to try out. At that point there was nothing left for me, except for playing pickup games against the boys for fun. So, for 25 years I didn’t play. Then I was watching TV and heard that UMD was starting a club team for women, and even though I was 40, they said sure I could come since I did graduate from there. So that was the start of my story with women’s hockey. I was 40 playing with 20-year-olds. Now I’m 79 playing with 30- and 40-year-olds.
USA Hockey: What’s changed the most in the women’s game since you started?
Shea: It’s much more aggressive, with more body contact. It’s become highly competitive. Now we have girls coming up the ranks that have had very good coaching and get to play high school hockey. Then after high school or college they have a place like WHAM, so, as a result it’s much more competitive and with the physical part that we didn’t have before. They’re young and want to win, so you want to do your very best.
USA Hockey: Did you ever envision yourself playing this long?
Shea: Oh, heavens no. Before I started again at 40, I thought I’d never get to play organized hockey again. I was a teacher and a counselor, so I would play with the kids outside my school. Robb Stauber (eventual Hobey Baker Award winner, NHLer, 2018 Olympic Gold Medal coach)was one of my students and would always say, ‘shoot on me, shoot on me.’ We would play floor hockey in our gym classes. At that point of my life there was nothing for women, so I never dreamed of playing this long. Now everybody thinks it’s a big deal, but I don’t think I’m any different than the gals I play with. Every year to me is just another year. I love the game and always have. It’s funny, at 8 or 9 o’clock, I’m at home getting dressed to go into town and play and my friends are going to bed.
USA Hockey: What do you love most about playing hockey?
Shea: It fulfills me. After a game I feel so excited and full of energy. That’s the best. I also love the camaraderie and meeting new people and keeping active. I think it’s important as an older person. People tend to isolate themselves or think they can’t do things. The game revitalizes you.
USA Hockey: What are your keys to longevity, preventing injuries and staying in good health?
Shea: Part of it is genetics. My mother and father lived to almost 97. I think it’s also about being active. I live on a lake and there’s lots of heavy chores. Maybe it’s having good home cooked meals and less processed foods. I really just think I was given the gift of being an athlete. I think you’re born with certain talents. I can’t sing, but some people are naturally singers or artists. I was given the athletic gene. I played softball, I curl. I’m just an athlete. As far as injuries, I would say now I play more cautiously. I’m not skating as fast as I probably could because I don’t want to get tripped or catch an edge. My muscle mass isn’t what it once was. So, I’m just playing smarter.
USA Hockey: What would you say to others who may be in their 50s or 60s or beyond, who are thinking about playing again, but are nervous about it?
Shea: Give it a try. We do have a team starting up with some mothers, some young people. Many of our players started at 50. A lot of people worry about falling and there’s no question you’re going to fall sometimes. But I believe you should try anything at any age if you have a desire. It takes a lot of effort and dedication to play hockey. You’re giving up weekends to drive to the Cities and play. Any sport demands dedication if you want to excel at it.
USA Hockey: Any advice for players who are young now, so they can stay in the game the rest of their lives like you have?
Shea: Try. Keep at it. Practice. Don’t give up. When doors shut there’s always another one open somewhere. That’s what happened to me.
USA Hockey: What has the formation of WHAM meant to you and other female skaters across the state?
Shea: It’s provided organized women’s hockey and it’s grown immensely. I heard we were one of the biggest organizations in the U.S. We have divisions with college grads that play and it goes all the way down to people who can hardly skate. But they are skating. These young gals that just started playing together struggled, but they were together. I can’t tell you the amount of women that are excited about playing.
USA Hockey: How important is it that we continue to expand opportunities for girls’ and women’s hockey and equality in the game?
Shea: It’s wonderful what’s happened. As a kid I didn’t know. I thought, why couldn’t I play hockey? Because I was a girl? I never thought of it as something I shouldn’t do. We’ve proven women can play. Now that there’s women’s teams at least we’re on the same plane, playing against each other. And we have a pro league now. I think women have proven they should have their own sports. It’s great.
USA Hockey: How long do you think you’ll continue to play?
Shea: I’ll play until I can’t, or until our team here folds and I don’t see that happening. Or, until life puts me on a different perspective. But so far, so good. I’ve had some injuries and had to skip games, but never because of a hockey injury. It’s always been something else, like pulling something from doing too much work or something. Hockey is in my blood. I had the opportunity to play, they took it away from me once, and I’m not going to have that happen ever again. I just love it.