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The Pa. women who broke hockey's glass ceiling

The Pittsburgh Pennies solidified a new era in contact sports in a city some consider to be the birthplace of professional hockey.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.

March 3, 2023
Inside this edition: Northern lights, radio star, crowdsourced symphony, Bansky show, shop credit, and a hockey story for Women's History Month.
🏆 TEST YOURSELF: Another big week of Pennsylvania news is in the bag. Test your grip on the latest headlines from Harrisburg and around the state with this week's installment of The Great PA News Quiz.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
Actor Jimmy Stewart's only Oscar sat for 25 years in the window of a downtown Indiana, Pa., hardware store. True or false?

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

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Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One thing worth seeing: The northern lights made a rare appearance in Pennsylvania this week. Here's photographic proof from Cameron County and a stunning time-lapse from Sullivan County.

» One thing worth hearing: Pittsburgh's newest radio show is More Bounce, a celebration of music and culture from the African Diaspora hosted by Clara Kent. It airs Fridays at 6 p.m. 

» One thing worth sharing: Pennsylvania mom Mimi Wallace found sheet music written by her 10-year-old Olive and turned to strangers on TikTok for help. They turned the composition into a symphony.

» One thing worth doing: Banksy's work is coming to Pittsburgh this month. But the location of the "unauthorized" showcase will only be announced to ticket holders one to two weeks before opening.

» One thing worth buying: West Philly's Fu-Wah Mini Market hoagie shop — maker of one of the city's best bánh mi sandwiches — is now taking credit cards for the first time in its 41-year history, per Billy Penn.

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Pa. House adopts critical chamber rules
» State rep. accused of sexual harassment
» Big food and health benefit cuts loom in Pa.
» Penn State eyes Greek life oversight rollback
» Penn State teaching unit wants livable wage
» How your county ranks on voter friendliness
» Conflicting court opinions on recount requests
A team photo of the all-female Pittsburgh Pennies hockey team.
The Pittsburgh Pennies. (Courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum)

Making history was the last thing on Barbara DeShong’s mind when she and a few other girls decided to create Pittsburgh’s first women’s hockey team.

“I was 16 when I started playing and loved the sport,” she recalled. “We weren’t thinking about being pioneers or anything like that.

Alpine Arena, a former ice rink in Swissvale, on the eastern edge of the city, was the hotspot for ice skating then. Many girls who had a passion for ice hockey took advantage of the stick time offered there. DeShong certainly noticed.

“We said, ‘Let’s see if we can get a team together,’’' she added. “We put flyers with the advertisements and we put them in every rink we could find.”

The ads attracted enough people for the group to meet in late 1972, the same year the federal gender equity law known as Title IX expanded opportunities in sports for women nationwide. 

Soon after, the Pittsburgh Pennies were born, solidifying a new era in contact sports in a city some consider to be the birthplace of professional hockey.

It had been a long time coming. 

Almost a decade earlier, Nancy Schieffelin had joined a Brown University men’s hockey practice in disguise, a move that paved the way for the first women’s college ice hockey program in the U.S., according to the Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Pittsburgh Pennies ranged in age from 10 to 40. The team limited the youngest players to scrimmages, but there were some notable exceptions (see the last sentence of the news clipping below).

A news brief on Pittsburgh Pennies wins in Canada.
 (Courtesy of Patti Gaab)

After a couple years, the roster grew to 30 players.

The Pennies spent late nights practicing at various rinks. Without any other established women’s hockey teams to face, they scrimmaged against each other or played against high school boys teams. 

“The high school boys teams always got preference, or the college teams,” said Patti Gaab, another former Pennies player. “We always got the weird times for practice. There weren’t that many rinks around either … We went wherever we could get ice time.”

Maintaining an amateur competitive women’s hockey team proved challenging financially. The Pennies held skate-a-thons, bake sales, and flea markets to raise money to afford equipment, travel, and monthly dues. They arranged their transportation for each game, using whatever was available.

“We never got paid. We called ourselves the Mini Penguins or Girl Penguins,” Jean Lombardi said. “We were just out there having fun.”

In a 2021 interview with the Steel City clothing line, Lombardi said one of her college professors at Pitt suggested she join a men’s ice hockey team but she declined because she didn’t want to be the “token girl.” She wanted a team of her own.

To challenge themselves, the Pennies began to travel to tournaments in Canada, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and beyond. The team gots its formal start when it joined the Mid-Atlantic Women’s Hockey League around 1977. 

“Being able to play this sport predominantly for boys, it gave me increased confidence. It empowered me,” Shelley Starkey said. “It made me feel equal to my friends. It really was a life-changing experience.” Starkey joined the squad in 1973 at the age of 12.

Female hockey players celebrate on the ice.
The team celebrates. (Courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum)

The team disbanded in 1979, but the Pennies saw their trailblazing come full circle in January. Six original players reunited at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Butler County to be honored at a professional women’s hockey game between the Montreal Force and the Connecticut Whale. Players on the Connecticut Whale donned throwback Pennies jerseys.

“It just showed how women have so much opportunity to participate [now],” DeShong said.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald declared January 14, 2023 Pittsburgh Pennies Women’s Ice Hockey Day. The recognition brought an overflow of emotions for the women, now in their 60s, who were seeing each other for the first time in 50 years.

“We were just a group of girls who loved hockey. We truly loved it. It didn't seem like a trailblazing thing,” said Stephanie Strauch St. Leger, who joined the team in 1974.

Jim Hughes, the team’s coach and the father of the goalie mentioned in the news clip above, found out about the tribute event the night before. He was happy to see some of his players after all those years: “They were the pioneers. They started it all.”

Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, curates the “A Great Day for Hockey!” exhibit and said the Pennies story is important to tell.

Lombardi’s original jersey is one of the many items of memorabilia on display. 

“It shows how far women’s hockey has come and how much further it has to go,” she said. “This is a great foundation for the Title IX story about women’s sports and gives you a sense of the journey of the pioneers and the history today.”

Tanisha Thomas for PA Local

Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and for a limited time, all monthly gifts will be matched 12X!

"It just hit me one day while in the woods and I thought 'I bet no one has done this.'"

—Van Wagner, a Danville Area High School teacher, who is determined to climb the tallest tree in all 67 Pennsylvania counties (paywall)

Our favorite photo of the week submitted by a PA Local reader.

Taken at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster with migrating snow geese in the background, via Patricia C. Send us your photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

An eagle perched on a bare tree with migrating geese flying in the background.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
It's true. Jimmy Stewart, a native of Indiana, Pa., won the Best Actor Oscar for 1940's The Philadelphia Story and put it on display in the window of his father's hardware store on Indiana's Philadelphia Street.

TribLIVE reported that the Academy's engravers misspelled "Philadelphia" on the trophy. They had it as "Philidelphia."

The Oscar stayed on display at J.M. Stewart & Co. Hardware Store for 25 years before eventually making its way to California. It returned to Indiana for stays at the Jimmy Stewart Museum located directly across Philadelphia Street from the site of the family's old hardware shop. 

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 
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