The board, its surface dinged from countless blades, reverberated from the many sticks simultaneously pounding against it. Shouts and cheers echoed through the vast rink, adding to the cacophony. Just behind that board, on the bench, sat a row of women clad in jerseys and helmets, a hard grid crisscrossing their faces. In a frigid and largely empty rink tinged with the acrid smell of stale sweat, they were the ones solely responsible for the noise, which ebbed and flowed with the game.
Because they’re in uniforms and helmets, it’s hard to know how old these women are. In fact, they’re in their mid-20s to early 60s, with work backgrounds that range from veterinary professionals to software designers. Such a vast disparity in age is uncommon in most sports, but it’s welcome on the Lightning, one of the many teams that make up the United Women’s Hockey League. It attracts players from all over eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey of varying skill levels, competing against one another from October to March. Players take to the ice weekly— sometimes more often.
What sets the Lightning apart is the strong camaraderie across generations. In a way, they’re a family—if a rather unconventional one. Part of the UWHL’s White division, the Lightning was formed around 15 years ago, playing home games at West Chester’s Ice Line ever since. It’s the offshoot of a team that began some 20 years ago as the Grillers, which was founded by a handful of moms whose kids skated with—or against—each other. “It looked like so much fun,” recalls Elizabeth Cottle, a West Chester resident who started with the original team.
Today, the 19 players are all fairly nimble on the ice, though that wasn’t always the case. Most had never skated before, taking learn-to-play ice hockey and roller-skating classes before jumping in. “The very first game, I couldn’t stop yet,” recalls Cottle. “I’d throw myself into the boards. You do what you’ve got to do.”
Team captain Dawn Reeps also got her start on skates as an adult. “I’ve always loved to watch the Flyers, but once I put on skates, it was over. I haven’t taken them off since,” says Reeps, who lives in Downingtown and works at Hope Veterinary Specialists in Malvern. Reeps has captained the team for over a decade. She also served on the UWHL board for several years and even coaches kids’ hockey. “I just love coming and seeing my friends play hockey,” she says.
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The team has evolved into a tight-knit community with a familial feel. Among its 19 players are a married couple and a mother-and-daughter duo. The coach, Carl Speroff, is husband and father to that duo—Diane and Danielle, respectively. A former player for West Chester University, Danielle is a goalie by trade and the first girl to compete on Henderson High School’s boys’ varsity team. She radiates intensity on the ice. Her defensive line is made up of women of all ages, including her mom. “I learn so much from her,” says Diane. “She’s a really strong player. I can do a D-to-D pass to her and know she’s going to get it, or she’ll coach me through a play. It’s just awesome.”
Diane’s husband has been involved for years, and he recognizes the challenges of coaching a team with such varied skill levels. “You have to be able to try to balance players to make it competitive,” he says.
Other teams in the league are focused exclusively on winning. For the Lightning, wins are a bonus. “There was no option to play when we were young,” says Tammy Rosner. “It’s a different level now.”
Keeping it in the family, Rosner’s husband manages the door that leads to the bench during home games. Today, she tends net largely thanks to her son. “She had the gear—her son used to be a goalie,” says Cottle of her teammate. “Now she’s a good goalie.”
The Lightning does have a few young players who grew up around the sport, including 911 operator Miranda Stueve. Like Danielle Speroff, she also played at WCU. As with many of the players, Stueve was recruited by friends.
The few young players might have most of the skills, but their older teammates make up for it in spirit, which is never in short supply. It permeates the heart of the team that’s always open to new players—so long as the personalities jibe. “You need to find your people,” Cottle says. “Not all teams would just accept people, but I don’t care. You want to play? Come on.”