GRAND FORKS, N.D. - When the University of North Dakota announced last March that it was dropping women's hockey for budgetary reasons, the move stunned this sprawling state on the northern Great Plains where the sport is a powerful unifying force.
The news leaked while players were on ice for an off-season practice at Ralph Engelstad Arena, and while an out-of-state recruit visited the campus. The team's staff, including the two-time Olympic silver medalists and twins Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando, received no warning. The sisters read about it on Twitter after flying to Detroit to play for the American team in the world championships. They were horrified.
Ten months later, the hurt remains pronounced and deep.
"It was a program we grew up idolizing," said Lamoureux-Morando, a volunteer assistant who had hoped to be a full-time coach at the university when her playing days are over. "My dad played there. My brothers played there."
Without the Fighting Hawks to look up to, the Lamoureuxes and others fear fewer girls will try ice hockey, endangering more than a decade of gains in the state's youth and high school programs, and stifling an emerging pipeline of college talent.
Youth hockey officials in the state's three largest cities - Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks - reported significant growth in their girls' programs in the last five years. According to USA Hockey, the sport's national governing body, girls' participation statewide is up 30 percent since 2012-13. And the number of girls and women of all ages playing has more than doubled since 2002-3, when UND fielded its first women's team and girls' high school hockey was sanctioned. UND was the lone women's Division I program in the state. North Dakota State, the only other Division I university, fields men's and women's club teams.
"You can't aspire to be what you can't see," Brian Idalski, the former North Dakota women's coach, said. "We're really concerned about what that's going to look like for the region, not having a Division I program."
Though the state is vast in area, North Dakota's population is small, roughly 758,000 residents. Only 11 girls' high school hockey teams compete, and many, like Bismarck and Grand Forks, are co-ops, made up of students from two or more schools. (The state has 18 high school boys' teams.)
Yet Margot Miller, an assistant coach for the co-op Grand Forks KnightRiders and a former UND player, sees the state's talent level rising.
Forward Britta Curl of the three-time defending state champion Bismarck, who is considered the state's best player, recently committed to Wisconsin, an NCAA power. She is a member of the United States team at the under-18 world championships this month in Russia.
A half-dozen others from the classes of 2018 and 2019, including goaltender Quinn Kuntz of Grand Forks and defender Hannah Dorsey of Fargo, play Tier 1 hockey - an amateur level considered a step up from high school competition. Idalski recruited them all and said he felt he could have signed at least two.
Many attribute the recent growth to the success of UND and the popularity of the Lamoureux twins. The program reached the NCAA tournament in 2012 and '13 and sent eight players to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, for the United States, Germany and Finland.
Every summer, the Lamoureux sisters, who play for the United States at the Olympics next month, return to Grand Forks to give individual instruction and skills clinics. They also belong to a local committee dedicated to encouraging more girls to play.
"I can't put into words the impact they've had on our city, and our hockey here," said Kelly Kilgore, who coached the sisters in boys' bantams and heads the committee.
More than anything, Grand Forks lives and breathes hockey. When Clifford Purpur, known as Fido, a Grand Forks native and the first North Dakota-born player in the N.H.L., died in 2001, his funeral procession was led by a Zamboni.
It is hard for Abby Schauer to talk about what happened at UND. Growing up in Grand Forks, she dreamed of wearing the Kelly green and white of the team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux. Her parents had men's and women's hockey season tickets.
"I've been going to games for as long as I can remember," she said.
In high school, Schauer seemed on her way. She made all-state as a freshman forward for the KnightRiders, a team drawn from the two Grand Forks high schools. (The nickname combines Grand Forks Central Knights and Red River Roughriders.) Seeking tougher competition to prepare for Division I, Schauer left two years ago to play Tier 1 hockey for the Northern Cyclones, based in New Hampshire. The news of UND's decision broke her heart.
Recently, while the Schauers packed for a move to another house in Grand Forks, her mother, Sally, discovered Abby's thick journal from first grade. It contained a crayon drawing Abby made of herself playing hockey, with a haunting caption using creative spelling: "When I grow up I will play college hockey and then go pro. I will play for the Sioux and be the goaly. I will lead them to the championship."
Last month, Schauer pinned it to her Twitter account and tagged U.N.D.'s president, Mark Kennedy.
"It's hard. It's sad," said Schauer, a junior, who is now playing Tier 1 with the Madison Capitols in Wisconsin. "I left here so I could play college hockey in my hometown. I sacrificed my high school years so I could play here. It was my goal."
'A huge loss'
UND dropped women's hockey, baseball, men's golf, and men's and women's swimming in a two-year wave of athletics budget cuts brought on by a state revenue shortfall. Men's golf was reinstated with outside financing. Most worrisome for women's hockey boosters, North Dakota is the third Division I member to shutter its women's program since 2011; Wayne State and Niagara are the others.
But it's especially troublesome here in a cradle of the game. College hockey players are rock stars in Grand Forks, unable to go to the grocery store without being recognized. Miller, the KnightRiders' assistant, said girls' teams had regularly attended UND women's games at opulent Ralph Engelstad Arena, known locally as the Ralph. Players were often asked for and gladly signed autographs, and conducted clinics.
"For our youth girls' team, skating side by side with those girls was exceptional," Miller said. "Now we don't have that anymore. You don't have those positive female role models to look up to. It's a huge loss in the community."
The KnightRiders drew about 200 fans for a recent Saturday afternoon game with Jamestown at Eagles Arena, a small municipal rink with a jungle gym next to the trophy case. The night before, more than 2,000 packed into Purpur Arena, named for Fido, to watch the city's undefeated boys' hockey teams, Grand Forks Central and Red River, play to a 2-2 tie.
Kilgore, the Lamoureux sisters' bantam coach, wonders if girls can adjust their aspirations to be KnightRiders instead of Fighting Hawks, and whether that will be enough to keep girls' hockey relevant in a vibrant hockey state.
KnightRiders junior defender Payton Kriewald also saw her UND dreams dashed, and she aches for the girls coming behind her. Kriewald scored a goal in the KnightRiders' 4-2 victory, a game followed by one between the Grand Forks Youth Hockey Association's under-12 team, the Wild, and East Grand Forks. The Wild dressed 11 players, two fewer than East Grand Forks, a community across the Red River in Minnesota.
"I hope they come and watch our games and learn from us now," Kriewald said. "I hope we're their leaders now. We're the oldest hockey program in town now."
This story was reprinted with permission from the New York Times.