WHEELING – The city of Wheeling has a new women’s amateur ice hockey team – the Wheeling Lightningbirds.
The team, which consists of women with a lot of past experience and some with little time on the ice, plays its home games at WesBanco Arena. The games are free to see for anyone who wants to attend.
Rachel Adams, the team’s captain, said the team was formed after members of the newly formed women’s hockey league that is connected to the Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association, decided to form an amateur team. That team is now part of the East Coast Women’s Hockey League, though WAHA still has the women’s league.
Adams started playing ice hockey when she was 5 years old, played in high school and then went on to play for Adrian College in Michigan.
After living in Pittsburgh for a while with her husband, they moved back to Wheeling. Adams realized there were not many opportunities for women to play amateur sports in a league. So she helped form one and, before she knew, it 30 women were participating.
“If you look around there are men’s leagues for basketball, baseball, but not a lot of women’s league sports around. This is an outlet for women,” she said.
There is also a league for girls ages 10 and under.
“We still have a league with WAHA, but we’re dividing the women who want to play there and for the Lightningbirds, which is more competitive,” she said, adding there is no “checking” in women’s hockey.
“Our main goal is to get girls to play,” she said, adding many of the girls who attend the game say they have never seen women play ice hockey before.
Adams said there currently are no professional women’s ice hockey teams in the area, but perhaps that will change in the future.
“Girls hockey is on the rise – there is like a 43% increase every year,” she said.
Adams said the Lightningbirds’ name pays homage to Wheeling Thunderbirds, which was the name of the city’s ECHL hockey team before it was renamed the Wheeling Nailers.
Stephanie Crow of Triadelphia said she has been enjoying being a member of the team.
“Playing on the Lightningbirds has been an amazing experience. All of the ladies on the team are so encouraging and fun to play hockey with,” she said. “I have always wanted to play hockey, so to have a chance to play hockey and play against other teams is a surreal experience.
“I also wanted to join the team because my son (8-year-old Racen) is getting started with hockey as well,” she added. “I love having him in the stands watching me play. We always have plenty to talk about after each game.”
Crow said she played basketball and softball while growing up, but she always wanted to try hockey.
“I honestly feel like a kid at Christmas when I am lacing up my skates. It is so fun to learn a new sport even though I am older,” she said.
The Lightningbirds won their first two games against the Chesapeake Bay Lightning.
“Playing the first two games in front of the crowd was awesome. Just having the support is great to see,” Crow said. “We are hoping that the girls in the stands see us out there having a blast and it inspires them to get out there and try it, too.”
Crow described winning their first two games as “incredible.”
“You are not sure how you will stack up against the other teams, so it was great to get out there and see that not only were we able to compete with them, but we were able to come out on top for both games,” she said.
Crow said what makes the team special is that everyone is just having fun and trying to help grow the sport among women and girls in the Ohio Valley.
“Some of the team is made up of ladies who grew up playing hockey and then took a long break. Some, like me, have never played hockey before, and a few have played hockey through college,” she said. “Hopefully, this will encourage the girls watching us to not be scared to try new things.”
The Lightningbirds’ next two home games against the Hagerstown Mayhem are scheduled for 5 p.m. Nov. 5 and 9 a.m. Nov. 6. Then they will hit the road and play the Pittsburgh Puffins at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 19. The team will take a break and play the Puffins again at home at 12:45 p.m. Dec. 3, and then away again at 2 p.m. Dec. 10.
At 10 a.m. Jan. 7, they will play the Puffins at home. Their last four games of the season will be played away: 5:30 p.m. Jan. 21 and 1:30 p.m. Jan. 22 against the Chesapeake Bay Lightning, and Hagerstown Mayhem, 4 p.m. Feb. 18 and 1 p.m. Feb. 19.
While the Wheeling Lightningbirds’ roster currently is full, women can join the WAHA women’s league, which practices at 8:40 p.m. Sundays at Wheeling Park’s ice rink.