When the first puck dropped for the 2018-19 PIHL season, there were plenty of feel-good stories. Some teams returned to the varsity level, teams departed, a new group of varsity players began to make headlines and Blackhawk named Abby Schaefer as captain.
She is the only, and quite possibly the first, female varsity captain at any classification the league, although there are no records to clearly verify that statement.
Last year, the league featured a pair of senior female alternate captains in Brooke McCardle (Wheeling Park) and Olivia Cindrich (Carrick). Schaefer also wore an ‘A’ for the Cougars, but had her season cut short due to an injury early in the season.
Schaefer’s journey to get to the point where she was given the ‘C’ wasn’t necessarily a smooth one.
Doug Schaefer, Abby’s father, also serves as the head coach of the Cougars, but Abby serving as captain wasn’t exactly his idea.
“If I would have had my way she wouldn’t have had this opportunity,” he explained. “I was kind of like, ‘you sure you want to do this?’”
“I mean she’s 5-foot-3 and about 110 pounds – not the typical size of a varsity hockey player. Two years ago in a girl’s game she got hit from behind went into the boards and had a grade-five shoulder separation. Last November, she lost her whole season when we were up in Freeport, one of the boys didn’t like the idea that she hit him, you know put a check on him, and he came back with a knee on knee hit and tore her MCL and she missed her whole season.”
It wasn’t always an easy route for Doug either, as even her selection to the on-ice leader came with some hesitation. A normal reaction would point to nepotism, something he was hoping to avoid.
His coaching staff had already made the decision for him.
“I had a couple coaches come up to me and say ‘This is who the captain needs to be,’” the senior Schaefer said. “Normally I leave it up to the team to pick. The year prior they had selected her as an alternate captain. … People are going to say, ‘Oh she’s only the captain because her dad’s the coach.’
“So when those guys came up to me they almost said, ‘You know what? You’re not going to have a say in this.’”
It didn’t faze Schaefer to take on the leadership role as she’s always been considered an integral part of the team.
“I’ve been playing varsity hockey since I was a freshman and they’re all been like brothers,” she said. “I get along with these kids and it’s an honor that they voted me as captain this year.”
To get to that point, she had to put in the hard work of making the adjustment to the boys’ game- one that includes full checking. She didn’t have to look very far for guidance and protection as her brother, Kyle, was a senior with the Cougars during her first year at the varsity level.
“We had a group of 13 seniors that year; all really good hockey players.” Doug Schaefer said. “I could tell from the reactions from the initial try out to when we started actual practices that some of the boys were like ‘what is she doing here’ and I think she caught on to that in a way and that really pushed her and motivated her to go out and work harder, and work harder to the point where it took maybe one or two games to earn the respect of that group of seniors, and they really kind of adopted her on to the team.”
Teammate Tom Ford saw her on-ice progression first-hand through the years.
“Abby is a great part of the team,” Ford said. “We need her because whenever the team morale is down, she is always there to pick us up and encourage us to keep moving forward. A team can have ups and downs throughout a season, but Abby is always there, smile on her face, great attitude and ready to put in her best effort. This is an amazing character trait to have in someone on a team because it rubs off on the people around her and gives everyone one more reason on why they should give it their all. ”
As she progressed through the years, she learned to adapt to the physicality, being able to take a hit- as well as dish them out- on a nightly basis. On that night in Freeport, it was the physical aspect that cost Abby her junior year. After recovery, she was more than ready to hit the ice for another run at a full season.
“It is a concern of mine, that size difference,” Doug Schaefer said. “But you know when we were talking about whether she should play or not, she basically just said ‘I played my whole life and it would kind of be a waste to not play my senior year’ and I was like OK, you know you have the final say in this, and we let her go.
“Her mother was very concerned that first game this year, we were back in Freeport and at the end of the game her mom was like, ‘I don’t know if I can take this.’ As a coach, I love how she plays, she’s a physical hockey player that’s not afraid to mix it up. She will hit you, put you into the wall to steal the puck, kind of mop on the boards. As a father, I think to tone it down a little bit because to me, it always looks like you’re out there hitting all these kids, but then they’re going to come back and they’re going to start hitting you.”
The younger Schaefer agreed with those sentiments and sees both sides of being a girl in a checking league.
“There are definitely kids that will go after me just because I’m a girl,” she said. “I get a lot of comments from boys that aren’t always allowed like sexual comments or rude comments, or it always seems that they target me.
“But there are also kids that will pull me aside and be like. ‘Hey I have a lot of respect for you, you’re doing great, nice job captain.’ I do get a lot of respect from teams around.”