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Karen Koch:  Iron Ranger Goalie
(click on the pictures to view full-size image)

Gal_Goalie2.jpg (323025 bytes)Having worked as a photographer for The Mining Journal back in 1969 and '70, I shot many Iron Rangers games at the old Palestra. I can't imagine a more photographically challenging venue. If the low light and fast action didn't get you, the drunken fans would. Enclosed are two photos I shot during a practice session at the Palestra. Both are of the first female player in the US Hockey League, a goalie whom I believe played for the Iron Rangers.  I don't recall the young lady's name, but I do remember that my photo of her ran on the AP wire and was reportedly picked up by the Los Angeles Times. 

Bob "Sudsy" Glantz
Vice President, Writing Director
Access Communications 
101 Howard Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105

 

Girl Goalie by Leonard "Oakie" Brumm
How pro hockey's first woman goalie took the world by storm-right here in Marquette-as
told by her coach.

With the tremendous growth of girl's hockey, especially here in the far north, I think it would be interesting to the sport's fans and female players to where when and where the first woman hockey player made her debut and how she fared.  It happened in October 1969 at the old Palestra Ice Arena in Marquette. It came at opening tryouts for the Marquette Iron Rangers when all comers war invited to show their skills.  I was the coach for the Iron Rangers, a very strong senior United States Hockey League team, and the woman player was Karen Koch (pronounced "Cook") from Gibraltar, Michigan. 

     In those days the first night of Iron Ranger practice was a combination of a happening, a civic event, and a circus with some serious hockey mixed in.  Several players from the previous season were signed to contracts and two or three good players were signed or about to sign.  Then, there were the usual ten to fifteen guys who either felt they were good enough to make the team, had been goaded into trying out by their friends, or had bragged about their hockey skills all summer.  Now it was time to "put up or shut up!"

      In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula it was every young hockey player’s dream back then to someday get paid for playing hockey.  The Iron Rangers, or some other USHL team was usually their only practical chance to get paid for playing.  Salaries ranged from $25 per game for marginal rookies to $100 or more per game for top-notch players with a Division I college, minor league experience or occasionally a former NHL player on the way to retirement. The USHL was a good deal for many excellent hockey players because they could hold down full-time jobs and still get some decent money for playing a game they probably would have played for fun.

     Besides, in those days there were only eight or nine NHL teams (the first expansion took place the previous Year, 1968).  At that time, the USHL had ninety-five percent of the best American hockey players, many Canadian Junior "A" graduates who had recently graduated from U.S. Division I universities and were not quite good enough for the NHL but wanted to continue playing while they started their chosen careers.

      The league was strong and the Iron Rangers were the defending champions.  Interest in the team for the coming year was extremely high, so fan attendance at the first practice was high as well.  By 1969 I had coached for eighteen seasons, so I was used to all kinds of hype and confusion.  I had a pretty good idea which players I could count on, which new players should make the team and how to let down gently those who simply were not good enough to play.  Consequently the Iron Rangers always had one or two guys coming out of nowhere to become solid team members.  The best example was the Carlson/Hanson Brothers, later famous for the movie Slap Shot. 

     I got a big surprise.  Our regular goalie was Brian Lunney, who had been sent to us by the Toronto Maple Leafs via the Canadian Olympic Team. Outnumber One backup was Lonnie Lytaikainen, a local kid who showed great promise.  Both were on the ice along with two goalies I had never seen before and hadn't expected. After a brief talk to the entire group (four goalies and about twenty-five players), we did some preliminary skating drills and easy shooting drills so everyone had a chance to show what they had.  Of course, our best goalie looked good, our backup looked pretty good, but one of the two newcomers couldn't stop a basketball with a snowshoe. The other one looked surprisingly quick and made some nice saves in spite of being small.

      We'd been working for twenty minutes when Barry Cook, our captain, skated up to me and said, "Coach, did you know that little squirt of a goalie is a girl?"

     "What!" I said.  "How do you know?"

     "One of the kids from Northern (Michigan University) told me," he said.

     I quickly asked him to take the practice so I could talk to her myself.  She had given no indication that she was a woman.  All players were required to wear helmets, so with the helmets and goalie pads it was impossible to tell she was a female.  I motioned her off to the side where we could talk without being run into or hit by a puck.  She was extremely apprehensive and wouldn’t look at me. (I found out later that she had expected me to kick her off the ice).

     Finally she told me her name was Karen Koch, she was eighteen years old and she had enrolled at Northern Michigan University specifically to try out for the Iron Rangers.  She had been playing hockey and lacrosse with the boys in Gibraltar ever since she could remember.  She went on to say that none of the senior teams in the Detroit area would give her a tryout.  She said she had heard nothing but good things about the Iron Rangers and felt she could make the team.  She desperately didn't want to be cut without a fair tryout.

     I thought to myself, A girl goalie...what if she gets hurt?  Where is she going to change clothes?  Just how good is she?  For one of the few times in my life I didn't know what to do.  She had done nothing to justify cutting her.  So I told her we should see how well she did and that she'd be given a fair tryout.

     In subsequent practices she showed remarkable ability.  Her only drawback was her size.  Both of our goalies were big guys.  They stopped more pucks by accident than she did on purpose.

Hockey's First Female Pro, Karen Koch

     Koch's presence on the squad brought complaints from the veteran players, but even they admitted she was surprisingly good and probably equal to our regular backup goalie.  Their griping was far overshadowed by the national publicity she generated after her photo was run in the daily and weekly newspapers.  We got calls from the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters and newspapers, radio and TV stations from all over the U.S. and Canada.  It was a major news story.  And, all the while Karen Koch was stopping pucks and earning her place on the squad. When it came time to cut the team down to eighteen players and two goalies; I changed the number and kept seventeen players and three goalies, including Lunney, Lytaikainen and Koch.  Koch signed a contract for $40 per game.  As far as I know she was the first female player ever to do so in the world.

     She played as well as any of our previous backup goalies when I was able to use her.  She wasn't solid enough to start and play regularly because the league simply was too good. Word of her being on the squad preceded our first game of the season in the Canadian Soo.  She caused so much interest that Soo officials called and insisted that she be announced as the starting goalie to swell attendance.  City staff arranged for the Mayor of Sault St. Marie, Ontario, who had been a pretty good hockey player in years past, to take a pre-game penalty shot at Karen-the Mayor going in all-alone against the world's only female goalie.  Her presence, along with the highly anticipated "shootout”, filled the arena and she received a standing ovation when she stopped the Mayor's shot. He received taunting boos as he returned to the stands. She played the first period, giving up tow goals on twelve shots as the Iron Rangers left the ice trailing 2-0.  Lunney finished the game with the Iron Rangers winning 5-3.

     Later on Koch again filled the Green Bay Arena when the rumor spread that she was going to start against the Bobcats. I hadn't planned to start her, but the sight of more than 5,000 fans in the arena changed my mind.  I decided it would be good for hockey and for the Green Bay coffers.  She played half of the first period but had to come out when she took one of Paul Coppo's slap shots on the knee above her leg pad and below her thigh pad.  The score was 1-1 at the time.

     As the season wore on Koch reached a plateau in her ability, partially caused by her small size.  She never missed a practice and finally was accepted by all but the most chauvinist guys on the team.  Unfortunately, she seemed to have a "death wish" for a facial scar caused by a hockey puck in a USHL game. She simply and consistently defied my orders to wear a mask while playing.  After flagrantly removing her mask during all of the games after Christmas, I was forced to let her go with about ten games remaining in the schedule.

     Koch left NMU the next semester and went to Canada to play in the Toronto area.  She again made headlines throughout North America when she was barred by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association from playing on men's teams.

     Today Karen is a legal secretary in Minneapolis.  After her hockey days, she earned bachelors degree at Wayne State University and a Master's degree at the University of Dayton, both in the Liberal Arts.  She holds a black belt in judo and is training in jujitsu.  She also is writing and is illustrating her first children's book.

 

Kirkland Lake. North Daily News
MARQUETTE, Mich. (AP)
Billed as the first professional female hockey player in North America, 18-year-old goalie Karen Koch says she's not interested in boys, only hockey.  "I just don't have time for boys" says the 130-pound freshman coed at Northern Michigan University who has already outclassed four men as goalie for
the semi-professional Marquette Iron Rangers.

Len Brumm, coach for the United States Hockey League team, said Miss Koch "will have a regular contract with us" although she isn't likely to be the starting goalie since another player has that spot pinned down. 

Brumm said that she would play in at least seven exhibition games this year, starting November 5. He said he doesn't know yet if she will play in the regular season games.

When the brawny semi-pro players thunder in and slam a 60-mile-an-hour puck at the little brunette guarding the nets, they don't take it easy on her.

SHE'S GOT GUTS
"She's got a lot of guts," says Robert Caster, 175-pound Iron Ranger left winger.

"It's hard to believe a girl would just stand there and let us shoot at her. She's not scared."

"I can't remember when I wasn't playing hockey", says Miss Koch, a freshman from Gibraltar, Mich. "It is probably true that goalies get hurt most often but it's really not as bad as most people think". 

It took ten stitches to close the gash under her left eye after her Father whammed a puck at her two seasons ago. She was back tending goal three days later, wearing a mask for the first time.

Miss Koch says her parents don't object at all to her love of hockey.

"They told me that as long as I think I can handle it, they won't interfere".

MAY BE A PROBLEM

Ranger players are wondering what sort of dressing room procedures will be observed once she joins the team.

Right now there are no shower room problems since the coed leaves her dormitory already dressed for the ice except for her bulky shin pads and she trots back to the campus after scrimmages.

A hockey player since she was 12, Miss Koch said she enrolled in Northern Michigan University expecting to play varsity hockey. She said she was upset afterward that the school had no hockey team.

Persistent, she tried out for the Iron Rangers, who found themselves without a strong backup goalie last year.

The United States Hockey League is composed of semi-pro teams in Rochester, Minn.; Green Bay, Wisc.;  and Sault St. Marie, Ont.; in addition to the Marquette club.