The godmother of local women's hockey
From the January, 2020 issue
"I won't sugarcoat it-it's an aggressive sport," says Susan McDowell. Women's hockey is less violent than men's, she points out, because "checking" (bashing another player to get the puck) is not allowed. But, she says, "any time you put a bunch of people in a confined space and make them go fast ..." She lets the sentence finish itself.
McDowell acknowledges "one fight in my career. It's nothing I'm proud of." She was playing goalie for Maine's Colby College when an opposing player "crashed the net, bowling me over, in an attempt to score. When I went to stand up, I realized she had her stick inside my leg pad and I also felt one of my tendons tearing ... really painful. So I definitely came up swinging. We were both thrown out of the game."
An icon in the robust local women's and girls' hockey scene, McDowell usually tended goal. "I like the challenge of being able to stop the player," she explains. "I like the speed.
"I think it can be a very elegant game and a very physical game."
She's now fifty-seven, and hockey has taken a toll. When we meet at Westgate's Star's Café, she's just come from physical therapy for hip problems that have pretty much kept her off the ice the past three years. She retired from the U-M last summer, and is scheduled for replacement surgery in March.
Clearly tired but still energized, McDowell speaks in a husky voice that frequently breaks into laughter as she explains how she became the "godmother" of women's hockey in Ann Arbor.
She considers herself fortunate that, growing up in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, her family lived near the Cape Cod Coliseum. The multipurpose facility, since closed, included an ice rink. She and a handful of other girls formed a small hockey team there. A tall girl who did art, she was something of a loner. But hockey gave her a community, and
an outlet for her drive.
"I grew up in a straightlaced New England family," she explains. "You didn't yell at each other and you didn't swear. For me to participate in a sport that allowed you to be physically strong-that helped. It gave me a way to release aggression."
She first came to Ann Arbor as a grad student in what is now the U-M School of Information. After graduating in 1986, she moved to Portland with a boyfriend. They returned to Ann Arbor eight years later and married, but soon divorced.
While working at the university as an IT project manager, McDowell immersed herself in amateur hockey. She played on both men's and women's teams and soon started coaching, too.
She met her second husband, Steve McDowell, playing on a summer rec team. She describes him as "an easygoing, funny man. Some years we coached together. A lot of years we were just passing in the rink."
She's so passionate about creating opportunities for other girls and women, she says, because "someone did it for me." In the mid-1990s, she joined a group of women who successfully lobbied the U-M athletic department to create its first women's hockey team.
They wanted a varsity sport, with funding and scholarships, but were rebuffed, McDowell suspects for financial reasons (water polo was made a varsity sport the same year). As a "club" team, the U-M women pay their own way, renting vans to drive to competitions. Though disappointed, McDowell continued to volunteer with the team as assistant coach until 2016, when her hip problem pretty much took her off the ice. She's still a commissioner of the Central Collegiate Women's Hockey Association, which schedules and supervises competition for the U-M and thirteen other club teams in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
McDowell also played a crucial role in organizing the first girls' team in the Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association (AAAHA). She coached it for years while also playing goalie on adult teams. An early thrill was playing on a team that won the USA Hockey Senior B Nationals. "The tournament was in Minnesota," she recalls, "and Michigan rarely beats Minnesota in hockey!"
She's currently helping the AAAHA establish a team for girls attending high schools without girls' hockey. "Sue's been instrumental in finding everyone a place to play," says AAAHA executive director Peggy Costello.
McDowell doesn't consider herself a jock, since hockey's the only sport that really interests her. Her other passion is art.
Excited by a glassmaking class at the University of Toledo about fifteen years ago, she began taking more classes and workshops and turned the garage in her east-side home into a studio. Cutting colored glass and fusing the pieces together in a high-temperature kiln, she creates panels, plates, suncatchers, and other objects. She's had exhibits in Ann Arbor and elsewhere, won a couple of prizes, and sells her work online and at craft fairs. Recently she's been working in other media as well, including fiber.
She says her hockey friends aren't necessarily aware that she's a working artist. But her art friends knew, since she'd often miss openings or receptions because "I was coaching a girls' team in Kalkaska that weekend, or with the U-M club team in Chicago."
Late on a December afternoon, McDowell meets a photographer at Vets Ice Arena. Despite her hip, at one point she hoists herself atop the barrier bordering the ice. Afterward, she chats with Pioneer High girls' hockey coach Lea Arend, who played on her AAAHA girls' team more than twenty years ago.
"We were always told to keep a positive attitude," Arend recalls. But when she praises McDowell's patience as a coach, McDowell rolls her eyes.
Gesturing towards a group of young girls with hockey sticks huddled nearby, she says, "Ask them. They were the last team I coached!"
I call out, "Was Sue easy to play for?" Someone shouts back. "Yeah, except when she gets mad and yells!"
McDowell misses skating so much that on a couple of occasions she has strapped on her skates and had her husband steady her as they glide together slowly.
"That makes no sense," she says. But some men Steve coaches, she points out, have resumed playing after hip replacement, "and one guy has had both knees done." She's hoping she'll soon be back on the ice, too.
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