From Flutz to Faceoff
Updated: Aug 10, 2019
Published on class website
Ariel Groner spent her days as a young girl learning to skate gracefully on ice. She squeezed into brightly colored leotards and tied ribbons into her perfectly styled hair. The cold air brushed against her face as she skated rapidly to prepare for a leap. Upon landing she muttered, “I hate this sport.”
Now, 26-year-old Groner is not leaping through the air; she’s being pushed into the hockey rink boards. Where she once tied ribbons, there is now a helmet, and a jersey has replaced her leotard. When the puck hits her stick, she charges toward the net.
Today, as Groner lugs her equipment into the Glenview Ice Arena, hockey players young and old wander in and out. She enters the rink like she owns the place and sits down to tape her stick before heading into the locker room.
The Lincolnwood native has played for the Glenview MsConduct Women’s Hockey League since her sophomore year at Carthage College. After graduate school, Groner secured a job as a social worker, but hockey remained an important aspect of her life.
Her laid back persona contrasts with the fierce competitor that emerges on the ice. Looking at her brown, wavy hair tucked up in a bun and the piercings on her eyebrow and lower lip, you would have no idea she spent the majority of her youth as a figure skater.
When Groner was young, her mother insisted she stay in figure skating. Groner’s coach and the other player’s parents had to convince her mom that she was unhappy. In junior high, Groner was allowed to pick a new sport but felt lost doing so. Her sister suggested she try hockey. Groner had been around the rink since kindergarten, and she already knew how to skate, so it seemed like the next logical step for her. It was a decision that went on to consume her life. She traded in her figure skates for hockey skates, laced them up and charged onto the ice.
“I preferred more team sports. I was more of a tomboy, so I liked going out and playing catch with my dad and stuff like that,” Groner says. “I didn’t really have as much of a chance to play sports as I wanted to.”
By the time she hit seventh grade, Groner was using her figure skating skills in a new way. She joined a girl’s hockey team and realized that she had a lot of catching up to do. Flash forward to high school and you’ll find Groner now learning the game with more self-assurance. When sophomore year rolled around and there weren’t enough players to sustain a girls’ team, Groner geared up to join the boys. However, boys’ hockey is a different environment. The pace is quicker and there’s checking.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated when I was the only girl on the boys’ team,” Groner says as she secured the thick, black tape onto her stick. "There were some bad hits where this guy came from behind and just cross-checked me in the back and I fell forward. It could have been really bad, but I was okay.”
Groner explains that when male hockey players are young, they go through a checking clinic to learn how to properly hit their opponent. Girl’s don’t have to do this because there is no checking in their league. In high school, Groner found herself in this checking clinic next to boys half her age and size. While she continued to master the fundamentals of the game, and accept the idea of being the only female, she had a whole new aspect to consider: she had to learn how to defend herself on the ice. Because of her gender, Groner found the opposing team would either refuse to check her or they’d target her unfairly, blasting her into the boards with no mercy.
"They do target the women because they think that they’re better than the women, or they think that the women are going to be an easier target than some of the male players,” says MsConduct General Manager Sean Sodko. “That’s absolutely the wrong type of thinking, but unfortunately that does happen.”
While there’s no denying that hockey is a male-dominated sport, this idea doesn’t faze Groner. She explains that every sport starts out as male-dominated, and hockey is no different. She said genuinely that you should do what makes you happy and not worry about anything else.
“Life is too short for stupid stuff. You have one life to live, so live it to the fullest, and have the most fun doing it,” Groner says. “That’s something I feel when I play hockey, and I try to make sure that I do that in everything I do.”
Despite the differences in playing style and the issue of targeting, Groner did not get discouraged, nor did she back down. In fact, she played with a men’s recreational league at her local hockey rink. This experience was entirely different from the other boys’ league. They taught her what offsides was, and they were patient and welcoming. There was no targeting, no bias and no need to prove herself. Instead, they gave her a new perspective to the game.
“I went on and I fell in love and I never turned back,” she says. “I was obsessed.”
It was never her intention to play competitively in the men’s league, and once another girls’ team was available, she shifted her focus. Groner says she never really liked playing with the guys. Even when her club team at Carthage College played in the men’s league, she hated it. In the girls’ leagues, they would hang out after practices or have sleepovers after games;, but with the guys, she was missing the social aspect. Groner joined the Glenview MsConduct Women’s Hockey team during her sophomore year at Carthage College even though she had to commute an hour each way. Not having hockey in her life wasn’t an option.
"She is just an automatic leader,” says Samantha Herron, a current teammate. “She wants to talk to everyone; she wants everyone to be involved, and she wants everyone to feel included.”
Groner is never afraid to step out of her comfort zone, even if that means playing hockey with grown men as a young high school girl or volunteering to play goalie with no experience. When Groner and Herron decided to help the lower-level women’s hockey team, they didn’t realize they would be making an entirely new set of friends. However, the team needed a goalie to survive. As a natural leader, Groner stepped up to the challenge of playing goalie. Her only issue was she didn’t want anyone to go easy on her.
“I realized I was really trying, and she would actually save my shot even though it was her first year of being a goalie,” Herron says. “That moment just really said a lot about her, where she really wanted to improve as a goalie and not just be there for the social aspect.”
Groner has seen women’s hockey evolve over the years, and although it has become more common to see women in hockey, it is still not the norm. Sodko and the rest of the MsConduct organization hopes to continue to expand the realm of women’s hockey in order to provide safer playing arenas; free of targeting.
Next year, Groner and Herron hope to start coaching a youth level girls’ team, and in the coming years, Groner has no plans to end her hockey career. The ice arena that was once a place of dread has transformed into a place of glory.