Anna Lurie wants to bring a professional National Women’s Hockey League team to Chicago.
That’s why she co-founded the Chicago North Stars, a new, elite women’s hockey team that aims to qualify for next spring’s USA Hockey Nationals and establish itself as one of the country’s best women’s teams.
Lurie and her teammates will have to skate by, around and — if necessary — through men to get there.
With a roster compiled of former NWHL, college and Triple-A club hockey players, the North Stars plan to play in a Johnny’s IceHouse men’s league in preparation for nationals.
“We were trying to figure out a way to play regularly and play high-competitive games, so we decided that we’re going to join a men’s league,” team president Ali Lawrence says.
The North Stars — thought to be the first all-women’s team to play in a Chicago men’s league — have been placed in the C2 division, made up mainly of players who have competed at least in high school or on highly competitive Triple-A club teams.
“We’re playing guys who are much taller and have stronger upper-body strength, so we’re going to have to be smarter than them in order to be competitive,” Lawrence says. “We hope, in turn, that makes us smarter, faster and better hockey players, so, when we do play against those women’s teams, we can just go in there and destroy them.”
There are limited options in Chicago for women to play hockey beyond college. There’s the Women’s Central Hockey League, but playing in that league means having to travel regularly to neighboring states for games.
It isn’t uncommon for individual women to play alongside men in adult leagues. But Lawrence says she first wanted to develop an elite all-women’s league in Chicago with the idea she could pull top players league-wide for a nationals team. She points out that the city and suburbs have produced some of the best college and professional players.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a really powerhouse of a team,” Lawrence says. “The biggest problem, of course, with creating a powerhouse of a team is there aren’t teams to play against that are local. So we wanted to create that.”
Lawrence had six teams ready to play for a season starting in May. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
So Lawrence and Lurie, a forward on the team who doubles as general manager, decided to create the North Stars with some of the initial league’s top players.
“We’re not just another beer league team,” Lawrence says. “We’r’re something special.”
Forward Jessica Howerton, a Schaumburg native who played at Colby College, was invited to try out for a NWHL team on the East Coast in 2015 but passed so she could come home to be closer to her family. Howerton, 28, has been playing in leagues largely made up of men. The women’s game is more skills-based, she says.
“There’s more passing, there’s more game flow than with the guys, and that’s why I enjoyed it a lot more,” she says.
The men are generally welcoming to women on the ice, Howerton says. But some guys can be a little more physical when they spot the ponytail hanging from her helmet.
“A lot of the guys don’t like girls out there who are better than them or can make a move and go around them,” she said. “So there’s definitely a target on your back.”
The North Stars’ season has been derailed several times by the pandemic. For now, the team is practicing when it can at Johnny’s IceHouse, sometimes with men’s teams in the C2 division. Players have to wear face masks when they’re not on the ice. And the number of players on the ice and bench at any time is limited.
“We kind of have the mentality that we’re going to keep practicing, keep scrimmaging amongst ourselves, and, hopefully, come 2021 things will lighten up a little,” Lurie says.
To make nationals, the team has to play 14 qualifying games against other women’s teams and win its district.
But Lurie and Lawrence have bigger dreams. Lurie says it’s not unrealistic to think Chicago could have a professional women’s franchise in the next “four to five years.”
Since the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded last year, the NWHL is now the only professional women’s hockey league in North America. with teams in Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut, New Jersey, Minnesota and Toronto and looking to expand.
Lawrence would welcome a partnership someday with the Blackhawks — big supporters of women’s hockey programs — much as the Anaheim Ducks supports the Lady Ducks and the Boston Bruins partner with the Boston Pride.
“Why not eventually become a Lady Blackhawks?” she says. “We should have a high-level women’s team here.”