Pittsburgh Hockey Digest

Burgh Hockey

She’s got game: PIHL has become co-ed training ground for girls hockey

Olivia Cindrich kills a penalty against Ringgold. -- BRIAN MITCHELL

Indiana’s Madison Barker walked into the hallway of the Robert Morris Island Sports Center for the 2018 PIHL single-A All-Star game only to be interrupted by her coach, Jordan Haines.

Barker was informed that she should be ready to go, as the junior was set to start the game for her squad. The goaltender was nonplussed by the news. After leading her team to the PIHL Penguins Cup final in 2016-17, the all-star nod was an honor, but not an unexpected one.

It’s believed that Barker was the first girl to start both a Penguins Cup game and a PIHL All-Star game, but her story is becoming increasingly common. Women’s hockey has been steadily increasing in popularity since it was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1998 and has taken a big step forward with the 2014 development of the National Women’s Hockey League, a professional women’s hockey league. From 2015-16 to 2016-17, USA Hockey reported across-the-board increases in the number of girls playing hockey. The wave should continue to grow, as players in the under-6 and under-8 age groups increased by 13.5 and 11.4 percent, respectively.

Of course, those players need places to play. There are travel teams, notably the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite and Steel City Selects, but there is no girls-only corollary to the PIHL. Luckily, that league has been inclusive to the girls of the sport.

Hockey inclusivity might also include a good, old fashioned check into the boards, too. The PIHL is a full-contact league, something that’s not done in women’s hockey at any level. But that’s more of an advantage than it is a drawback for many of the girls.

“I see quickness,” Selects coach Bernie Maurice said. “When you’re playing boy’s hockey, especially at the older age levels, you have checking involved. The girl’s hockey program under USA Hockey doesn’t have checking. Due to the nature of not having checking, the girls have a little bit more time to catch a pass and look up the ice. With the PIHL, the girls don’t have that time. They need to make plays a lot faster.”

Grace Johnson practices with the Selects — BRIAN MITCHELL

Grace Johnson, a forward with Selects, as well as a junior varsity player with the Highlands Rams, sees it as a positive training mechanism.

“It’s very physical,” Johnson said. “On every shift you have to keep your head up and you can’t be too aggressive on the puck. With girls you can be without having to worry about someone coming after you.”

The speed is a factor for most of the skaters. Travel teams and developmental leagues tend to be played at a slower pace than the high school game, allowing for less time for players to adjust to plays. It’s a lesson that gives the cross-league players an advantage.

“I definitely take the speed of the game,” said forward Olivia Cindrich, who plays for Selects as well as Carrick. “The boys are much faster, so I try to take the speed back to Selects, heads up hockey too. In the boys game, you have to try to not get hit, so obviously I have an advantage knowing how to make heads up plays and passes for Selects.”

LEADERSHIP BY EXAMPLE

Cindrich, a senior who plays for Carrick by way of Carlynton High School, is one of two female players in the PIHL that has the honor of being named an alternate captain for her squad this season. The fact that Cindrich was selected by a vote of her teammates shows the level of respect they have for her game. Months late, she still seems somewhat taken aback by that honor.

“It’s team vote, so all the guys took a vote,” she said. “It just happened, I guess.”

Olivia Cindrich in a game against Ringgold. — BRIAN MITCHELL

A unique aspect of Cindrich’s game is that she spends a lot of her time on the penalty kill. Defensive aspects of the boys game are usually reserved for the elite few who have the high hockey I.Q. to make the quick plays, while also the willingness to jump in front of the other teams’ scoring opportunities.

“I like to focus on small parts of my games, and work on little parts at a time,” she said. “I’m not a power-play player, so I’ll focus on getting the puck out of my own end.”

That kind of high-end hockey awareness led Cindrich to a future in NCAA hockey, as she’ll play for Division III Lebanon Valley in the fall. It also has helped her game with the Selects.

“Olivia is one of our dominant players,” Maurice said. “The way she plays, her hockey I.Q., her positioning on the ice, she really exhibits the knowledge of a good hockey player.”

The other girl sporting an “A” is Wheeling Park forward Brooke McArdle, a member of the Penguins Elite under-19 squad, will also play at the next level. She’ll be attending Division III Elmira.

DEFEND THE CROWN

Brianna Medved on defense for West Allegheny — BRIAN MITCHELL

West Allegheny needed help on their blue-line during the early games of their season. The team, which finished in third place in single-A at 16-4, brought in Brianna Medved from the junior varsity squad. The sophomore stepped in and paid immediate dividends.

“It feels great as a call-up from J.V. and not getting as many minutes as I do at the varsity level,” Medved said. “I’m starting games with a good team in front of me. It feels great to know that the team trusts me enough to be out on the ice.”

The youngest player on Maurice’s squad, Medved has plenty of room to grow, and she’s getting a good taste of postseason hockey at the PIHL level. West Allegheny has a quarterfinal matchup against Indiana on Thursday.

NET GAINS

Sydney Smith in a game for Morgantown at Connellsville — BRIAN MITCHELL

Sydney Smith is a sophomore at Morgantown High School, and, along with Barker, is one of the two bona-fide female starters in net in the PIHL. She’s also on the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite under-16 team, traveling from her home town to Cranberry to play for Elite. Her Penguins Elite coach Cobina Walkland, is inspired about her work ethic and dedication to the program.

“Sydney has been a great goaltender for us this season,” Walkland said. “I love her commitment in traveling all the way from West Virginia to Pittsburgh on a regular basis to get out to our team practices. Being out of town, it is so beneficial for her to be able to play on another team. For herself and her development, to get out on the ice as much as she can and face all kinds of shots is helping her game day in and day out. Her work ethic and commitment to improving her game is very satisfying to see as a coach.”

One thing that Smith sees as a little tougher when playing for the Mohawks is the toughness of the PIHL game.

“In general, they have harder shots and it helps me get ready for the girls shots,” Smith said. “The defensive breakdowns that occur in the PIHL help me prepare for what can happen in the Pens Elite.”

There are now close to a dozen girls playing high-level high school hockey. There was a time when a set of pink laces or a ponytail streaking down the wing was a novelty. Now, they’re part of the landscape as hockey grows in Pittsburgh.

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