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Lah Paw finally got her goal.
The first-year hockey player crashed the net hard after a rebound, fought through two defenders, and buried the puck past the goalie on February 11 to put her team, the Starwhals, up 3-1 over their opponents in Hudson, Wisconsin. Her teammates erupted, mobbing Paw and cheering so hard that they nearly forgot to do the traditional “fly-by,” where the players who score skate past the bench to receive high-fives.
Paw, 14, is a left-winger for the Starwhals, a youth girls team based at Langford Recreation Center in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood. Her first season playing hockey is going well. She’s becoming a faster, more confident skater, learning the fundamentals of the game, and making new friends. But she really wanted that goal.
Following a late January Starwhals game under the lights at Langford’s outdoor rink, she shrugged off her pads on a bench, unfazed by the cold in a Levi’s T-shirt. She has improved a great deal in her first season on the ice, and said she was determined to score by the end of it.
After she got her goal, once her teammates finally let her skate back to the bench, she wore an enormous smile, according to Starwhals coach Clayton Howatt.
“What I like about hockey is being around people,” she said.
Minnesota, widely known as the State of Hockey, has the nation’s largest youth and high school hockey programming. But the sport remains heavily white, even as Minnesota becomes more diverse. According to Minnesota Hockey, 86 percent of players under 8 years old are white. Today, 34 percent of children ages 5-9 in the state are youth of color, according to nonprofit demographer Minnesota Compass.
The Starwhals are different. Six of the 12 players of the team are people of color, with Native American, Somali, Filipino, and Chinese backgrounds. Then there’s Paw, who is believed to be the first Karen American girls player to be a registered member of USA Hockey, the game’s governing body.
The team has many new skaters, and might not win a game this year, though Paw’s goal helped secure their first tie. But that doesn’t seem to bother them. Before the outdoor game on their home rink, as light snow fell, the girls roared with enthusiasm during the team’s “Who are we? Starwhals!” pregame refrain.
Bridging the gap
Chy Nou Lee learned how to skate as a kid when the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office Youth Plus program came to his St. Paul neighborhood and offered a hockey clinic. Today, Lee is a crime prevention specialist for Ramsey County and runs the Youth Plus program, which provides gear and instruction in several sports. There are 50 kids in its hockey program. It’s a way to forge relationships between youth and law enforcement at a time when trust needs to be built, Lee said.
“Our philosophy is to just get kids involved,” Lee said.
The program is popular, he said, and there’s a waiting list due to equipment shortages. This year, the group engaged members of St. Paul’s Karen community, which led to a few boys and one girl, Paw, signing up for youth teams.
Paw took to the ice quickly, Lee said.
“She was like a rock star out there,” he said.
He continues to support her hockey adventure, often taking her to practices and games. He cheered on Paw and her teammates in the cold at their outdoor game, and drove her home afterward.
Raised by Hmong refugee parents, Lee understands what it’s like for immigrant households to try to break into traditional American activities. He credits Howatt with helping Paw and similar players get involved.
Howatt grew up in St. Paul in the 1980s, and played youth hockey at Langford Recreation Center before playing in high school and college. When he was a kid, each recreation center in St. Paul had its own team.
But over time, demographics changed in St. Paul, and the recreation center teams declined. A few years later, high school teams started to consolidate to maintain rosters, Howatt said.
But he saw no need for the decline, and was frustrated by the lack of outreach to get neighborhood families involved.
“There’s not a lack of kids. It’s that the kids are Black and brown now and the hockey community goes, ‘They don’t want to play,’” Howatt said.
During his 10 years as a coach, Howatt has tried to get his neighbors involved in the sport, no matter their background. Parents don’t tend to care what their kids are doing if they are safe and having fun, he said.
The team has equipment and scholarships for families, and never lets cost be a barrier to participation, Howatt said.
But challenges remain for aspiring players in the urban core. Youth hockey in Minnesota is divided into 13 districts. Four youth associations in Minneapolis and St. Paul make up District 1. The Starwhals are a cooperative team composed of girls from north and northeast Minneapolis and St. Paul, part of the consolidation that’s occurred in the core cities to keep rosters viable. Rural areas and the core cities often have a harder time putting youth teams on the ice than large suburbs, Howatt said.
Minneapolis and St. Paul were once the core of the State of Hockey, regularly turning out Division 1 players, professionals, and Olympians. Today, Minneapolis has one boys and one girls hockey team among all its public high schools. St. Paul has one girls team for all schools and two boys teams for the district.
There are several efforts throughout the state to encourage kids from diverse backgrounds to get on the ice. One is Hockey Is For Me, a program launched by the Minnesota Wild in 2021 that is being adopted by the entire National Hockey League.
Wayne Petersen, director of community relations and hockey partnerships for the Wild, said the goal is to make hockey more welcoming to children of color and the LGBTQ community.
“We have more kids playing hockey in Minnesota than any other state and it’s not even close, but the vast majority of players in the state are white,” Petersen said.
The Wild network works with community partners to try to recruit families of color with kids who might want to try hockey, Petersen said. Kids who sign up start with four learn-to-skate sessions at the Wild’s Tria training center in St. Paul. If they want to continue, they can attend four more learn-to-play sessions hosted at 20 rinks throughout the metro, where they receive more instruction on the fundamentals of the game.
The program is free, provides all the equipment needed, and gives grants of up to $500 to families who want to sign up for youth hockey to cover registration fees. The learn-to-skate sessions take place in the late summer and learn-to-play sessions are in September so that kids who like the game can sign up for the winter season.
“We want it to be sustainable so they can continue to play into their high school years,” Petersen said.
‘This is my favorite team’
Getting youth players to stay in the sport up to the high school level is a challenge for urban organizations, Howatt said.
If a kid doesn’t start playing until age 12 or 13, the chances of them sticking with the sport long term are low. But signing up one child from a community can inspire others to join, and if an older sibling plays, brothers and sisters are more likely to follow, Howatt said.
This year’s Starwhals team is Howatt’s favorite in his decade of coaching youth hockey. The girls are diverse in their backgrounds and interests, but they’ve come together as a team and formed tight friendships, Howatt said.
“They’re incredibly supportive of each other,” he said.
The team has struggled on the ice, but with so many first-time players, that’s not a surprise. Howatt has three goals for his players from a hockey skill perspective. He wants all of them to be able to raise a wrist shot off the ice, to skate backwards using a crossover technique, and to do a mohawk turn—a change in direction between forwards and backwards skating. By January, all of the girls had the three skills down.
But the biggest goal is creating good times and memories for the players. The scene at Langford Park for the Starwhals’ outdoor game against the Minneapolis Storm in late January was like a snow globe interior brought to life.
Parents cleared the rink of falling snow before the game. Howatt reminded the girls that the puck would move slower outdoors.
The girls dug out a divet in the snowbacks along the boards for a makeshift bench, and labored up and down the ice for 60 minutes, giving 100 percent effort. They didn’t score a goal and lost, but they seemed happy and cheered for each other the whole time.
The season is coming to a close, with playoffs starting in mid-February. There’s still time for the Starwhals to get a win, and for Lah Paw to score more goals.