Once a week at 6 a.m., 18 students from the University of Montana forfeit an extra hour or two of sleep before class to run hockey drills at the Glacier Ice Rink. Anyone familiar with the grind of 10-page papers, blue book exams and part-time jobs can relate to the sacrifice.
The payoff can't be measured in fan support. An average of only 30 people show up to weekly games to cheer on the UM Women's Ice Hockey Team—mostly friends, family and the odd hockey enthusiast. These women lace up the skates for a sport still struggling to gain popularity across the nation. So why bother rising before the sun?
"It can be a little overwhelming," says team captain Stephanie Mann. "But it's a fun outlet and it's something that's not law school related. I just feel thankful I've gotten to play, never having played before."
Mann, 25, doesn't look like your stereotypical hockey player. She's short and slim, has all her teeth and a distinct lack of facial bruising. Before joining the team last year, during her first year of law school, she'd never competed in women's hockey. Now she's dedicated to building support for the sport outside the team's limited fanbase.
"As a whole, I think the hockey community is really pretty close-knit here in Missoula," Mann says. "Everyone's on the same side, trying to get the program bigger and stronger."
That effort has met with mild success in recent years. Head coach Troy Dvorak, 33, recalls that six years ago, most community-based women's hockey clubs in the region considered UM's team "laughable." UM had few experienced players and little recognition in Missoula. Just fielding a team was hailed a victory.
"Teams used to invite us to tournaments and put us in their bracket just because it was a guaranteed win for them," Dvorak says. "It was an easy pass. 'Oh, it's that cute university women's team. Try not to score too many points on them. Take it easy on them.'"
UM women's hockey has since experienced what Dvorak calls a "180-degree change." In addition to dedicated novices like Mann, an increasing number of entry-level players have played the game before.
"In the last one or two years, I think it's changed from a hockey team that's there to compete to a hockey team that's there to win," Dvorak says.
Just look at Missy Fales, 23, a second-year law student. Two years ago, Fales saw the team as a way to continue her hockey career beyond her undergraduate studies in New Hampshire, where she played as a wing for Plymouth State University. She sees the bump in experienced new players as a benefit not only in games but also during practices.
"This year, it's a lot easier to just go to practice and run drills that experienced hockey players know well," Fales says.
The uptick at UM mirrors the slow growth of women's ice hockey nationally over the last two decades. The International Ice Hockey Federation lists 59,506 current female players in the United States—less than 8 percent of the country's total registered hockey population. In 1992, the number was just 10,000.
Still, Dvorak believes the sport continues to fight against an unfair cultural stigma.
"It's hockey, not 'women's hockey,'" says Dvorak, also a graduate student studying psychology at UM. "I'm here to coach a hockey team. Not a women's hockey team, because as soon as you say a women's hockey team, there's a tendency for people to treat it differently...When you show up to a women's hockey tournament and there are no slap-shots and no checking, you start to see how society still treats women's athletics as if it's something other than the true essence of the sport."
Mann and her teammates play one game a week from October to April in Missoula's Advanced Women's League, a collection of six community-based teams. They also compete in two tournaments each semester against other club teams from Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and eastern Washington, and have hosted annual home tournaments for five years.
"In the past, when we weren't very good, I think we just got killed every game," Mann says, adding that the trend has changed in recent years. "Being good, people want to play you. But they don't want to get crushed all the time. I think we're pretty even with a lot of these teams."
The team's most recent success came in early November when it beat a Bozeman-based team 3-2, claiming its second tournament win this fall.
But the victories come at a high cost, not just in time. UM women's hockey receives some funding from the UM student senate, but relies heavily on player dues and fundraising efforts to cover the costs of equipment and travel. Ice time for practices alone runs $190 an hour.
For Mann, Fales and the rest of the team, the fact they're finally winning is well worth the sacrifice. They've managed to turn UM's cupcake reputation on its head, and take satisfaction in the reactions from teams that once considered them easy pickings, like the club from Jackson, Wyo., they clobbered at the Rick Bayer Harvest Moon tournament in Helena in late October.
"I'm pretty sure they came into that game thinking, 'Oh, this'll be breezy.'" Fales says. "Then we shut them out four-nothing. That was pretty sweet."