As the Mariner hockey season nears its conclusion and the team looks toward the regional tournament at the Kevin Bell Arena Feb. 6-8, Hannah Baird and Maggie LaRue are excited to join their teammates in competing for a regional championship banner.
Baird, a senior, began playing hockey at 4 years old and has been a part of the Mariner varsity team every year of her high school career. Watching her older brother Jason’s hockey games inspired Baird’s desire to play, and Kevin Bell’s encouragement cultivated her love of hockey. Bell was a driving force of hockey in the Homer area. He died in 2008, and the rink is named in his honor. Through Bell’s coaching Baird focused on the joy of the game and often reflects that he would be proud to see her play today.
“My favorite thing about hockey is the speed of the game and the intensity it requires,” said Baird. “I love the flow of the game and the gracefulness of skating contrasted with the intensity, speed, and the power that is inherently part of the game.”
Though she feels pressure as a female in a male-dominated sport, Baird doesn’t mind being in the minority, because “it isn’t about gender, it is about the sport and how much I love to play. And I want to show younger girls that if they want to play hockey, they can.”
Homer High junior Maggie LaRue’s hockey career began at age 7 when she joined a Mini Mite team with several of her friends. She has been playing with the Mariners since her freshman year, enjoying the flow of the game as well as the thrill of skating. LaRue’s father, Steve, has supported her love of hockey, attending her practices, driving her to games and even starting a girls’ team when she was younger so she could develop her abilities.
When asked about the dynamics of being part of a mostly-male team, LaRue said the quickness of play in this setting has strengthened her own skills.
“Everyone on the team is inclusive of us girls. And on the ice I don’t get treated any different,” she said.
Baird and LaRue also play for teams other than the Mariners. Baird plays on an Anchorage Hockey Association team. LaRue plays on a Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association U17 team that recently competed in games in Hartford, Conn. That opportunity opened up a door for LaRue to invite coaches from Amherst College to see her play and has led to their interest in her abilities.
“They said I did great and asked for my coach’s contact,” said LaRue.
Mariner Coach John Carlin values having Baird and LaRue on the team.
“They’re good, smart, part-of-the-team players that are having fun with it and actually getting a lot of ice time,” said Carlin. “They both see the ice really well, are good decision-makers, know our system and apply it well. It’s nice to have that versatility.”
Carlin recognizes how valuable playing for the Mariners can be for LaRue and other girls wanting to continue in the sport.
“Outside people are looking inside the state at the ladies playing with the guys, and saying wow, they’re playing with the men, holding their own and they’ll do well at the next level because they’re used to contact, used to intense speed,” said Carlin. “It’s a great opportunity for someone to take it to the next level like LaRue is trying to do.”
For now, however, there are regions to focus on and LaRue is confident of the Mariners’ ability.
“Our level of play has really escalated in the last few weeks despite dealing with some injuries and sickness. So, I think we are ready to take it to them in a couple of weeks,” she said.
Baird agreed, adding that she feels a unity within the team under Carlin’s coaching.
“I couldn’t think of better people to be headed to the regional tournament with,” she said. “I couldn’t be more excited to be playing in front of the crowd that raised me, the community that has always supported me and under the name of Kevin Bell who started it all.”
Baird and LaRue aren’t the only females on the otherwise male team. Kaela Jiron, a Connections sophomore, and Hayden Nelson, a Homer High sophomore, serve as student team managers.
Mariner fans can thank them for the programs available at home games. Their understanding of the game is essential since they help keep stats. They also keep water bottles filled to make sure the players are hydrated and they travel with the team to away games.
“It’s been a great experience,” said Jiron. “Seeing the team play is really fun and it’s a great group of kids.”