PCS Penguins girls ice hockey team strives for growth and community support

Salem sophomore River Berninger takes a shot on goal from the blue line. Dec. 6, 2023.
Salem sophomore River Berninger takes a shot on goal from the blue line. Dec. 6, 2023.
Ellie D’Angelo

A cold chill fills the air in the Mike Modano Ice Arena as the PCS Penguins take the ice. The sound of skates cutting at the ice echoes throughout as the puck flies back and forth. Words of encouragement and support are heard from every corner of the rink, creating a welcoming environment, one perfect for female athletes to gain confidence on the ice. 

The PCS Penguins, P-CEP’s girls ice hockey team, is looking to grow the love for the game, the program, and increase the overall amount of support that girls ice hockey receives. The Penguins team prides itself on creating a supportive environment for new players to get involved in hopes of making girls ice hockey more popular.

Coaches Don Berninger and Bob Baffy believe that hockey truly is for everyone. They encourage girls of all skill levels and grades to come try out for the team. Baffy highlights that hockey is a great sport for those already involved in other activities. 

“You’d be surprised if you’re an athlete how much your other sport will probably transfer over to hockey,” said Baffy. “You may be nervous or scared about it and think you can’t do it, but that’s just not true.”

Liz Plymale and Rithi Aree, current seniors on the Penguins team, recall how they first got involved with the program. Plymale joined the team her freshman year with little to no hockey experience, instead, she came with a background of figure skating.

“I’ve been a figure skater my whole life, I was always at the rink, and I was always jealous of the hockey players, I thought they were so cool,” said Plymale. 

Others, like Aree, started playing hockey at a young age and came onto the team with years of experience.

Regardless of playing experience, the Penguins aim to include girls of all levels and hockey backgrounds.

“No one’s gonna judge you, everyone applauds you just for trying because skating itself is its own battle,” said Aree. “Anyone that’s coming into the sport needs to give themselves room to just enjoy the sport without the nerves of it.”

The team even hosts camps and summer training to help new players get their footing on the ice and gain familiarity with the team and the sport. Aree acknowledges that one of the biggest problems girls face when they first join is confidence. Both Aree and Plymale believe that gaining confidence on the ice is important. As returning seniors on the team, Aree and Plymale aim to create an environment that encourages learning and increases confidence.

“There’s nothing else quite like hockey,” said Plymale. “You have to be understanding and go slow with yourself, be patient, and just support yourself and the people around you.” 

Sophomore goalkeeper Emily Baffy works on her stops and saves during practice. Dec. 6, 2023. (Ellie D’Angelo)

Over the last few decades, the growth of girls ice hockey has been prevalent not just at the Park, but across the country. Sue McDowell, vice president of the Michigan Girls High School Hockey League (MGHSHL) believes the key to growth in girls hockey is support and accessibility. 

“The biggest differences between boys/girls teams were in the 1990s when girls really didn’t have a lot of teams or choices,” said McDowell. “[Girls] also tended to start later. Boys started when they were younger and had a lot more options. I’ve spent most of my volunteer life trying to change that equation.”

McDowell has noticed the rapid growth in girls ice hockey and believes that it will only continue to grow as more girls show interest in the sport. 

“Now girls in many communities aspire to play in high school so they can be with their peers and rep [represent] their school in the sport they love,” said McDowell.

Currently, girls ice hockey is not an MHSAA-recognized sport and many schools feel that they lack funding and support for their programs. 2023 Canton graduate Lindsay Leinbach explained her feelings on the inadequate amount of support that girls hockey often receives. 

“There’s a lot more growth that the P-CEP team needs to have, compared to the boys teams,” said Leinbach. “There needs to be more spotlight and support for the girls team and more people trying it.”

Leinbach also expressed how challenging some of the previous Penguins seasons were due to the lack of players. Over the last couple of years, the coaches of the program, Don Berninger and Bob Baffy have worked hard to ensure that they have enough numbers to compete. 

“So our focus last year and this year was to make sure we had enough numbers to have a team, we needed to have a team,” said Berninger. “Our goal was really to have a broad reach to talk to and to survey the interest. No experience necessary. [Does] hockey interest you? Then come on!”

The Penguins hope to continue to watch the program grow over the next few years and encourage all who are interested to contact them and join the team. 

“We want you on the team,” said Aree. “We love it when new people come and try hockey and you have a spot, you have a place, and you should feel welcome here.”

The 2023/2024 season has already begun for the PCS Penguins team, but for those interested, be sure to follow their Instagram (@pcsgirlsvarsityhockey) to watch for potential camps and ways to get involved.

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