Just after 6 p.m. Tuesday, one girl after the next files into Genoveva Chavez Community Center’s ice rink. They carry bags larger than themselves packed with padding, helmets and hockey sticks.
Among them is the Under-15 team’s captain, Hailey Braaten, a lanky 14-year-old with blond hair and braces.
The moment she steps onto the ice, she serves as a reminder: Don’t be fooled — these girls are tough.
At 6:45 p.m., a pack of more than 40 girls, ages 7 to 19, enter the rink, suited in layers of thick pads, skates and mouth guards.
Blades zig-zag across the ice, kicking up flakes of frozen powder. Players race at about 20 miles per hour, slamming into one another, battling for control of a puck.
This is the New Mexico Mustangs, the state’s only independent girls hockey team.
In a desert state where the sport is relatively unnoticed, the Mustangs play against other youth hockey teams in the Rocky Mountains.
“It’s the mental strength overcoming the physical pain,” said Jeff Schultz, director and founder of the Mustangs. “It’s a difficult game. … You have to learn a totally different mobility skill. You’re doing it faster than you can run and you’re normally doing it all backward.”
The Mustangs, founded in 2014, are comprised of teams categorized as U-12 (players under the age of 12), U-15 and U-19, as well as two developmental teams, Schultz said. Prior to becoming an independent club, he said many of its players were registered with different organizations under the umbrella of the Santa Fe Youth Hockey Association. Many of those clubs, he said, were boys only, and others were co-ed.
About five years ago, Schultz said he wanted to fill the void. Ever since, coaches and players say the group has grown.
“Since I started playing, a lot of young girls have started,” said Braaten, who got her start in hockey seven years ago. “The women’s hockey in New Mexico has definitely expanded.”
Today, girls from all over the state — mainly Northern New Mexico — have joined the group, which is part of the Mountain State Girls Hockey League. Schultz, also the league’s president, said of the 14 clubs, the Mustangs are one of two — the other is in Salt Lake City — not from Colorado, which means the majority of games are played on the road.
The girls are playing about one game a month, said Floyd Braaten, head coach for the under 15 team and Hailey’s father. Starting in January, he said the girls will play about one game every weekend through February.
“We like showing the teams from Colorado we’re just as good as them,” said 13-year-old Audrey Neale, the U-15 team’s assistant captain. “We know the game. We know what we’re doing.”
One of the most important aspects of playing for a girls’ team versus coed, coach Braaten said, is that it gives girls a safer game. Unlike in coed or men’s hockey, he said women don’t “body check” — a hockey practice of driving into an opponent to separate them from the puck and knocking the person against the board or ice.
Coach Braaten said they still have contact, but it’s not as rough.
“You don’t really want your daughter checked by a 200-pound, 6-foot tall boy,” coach Braaten said, adding that many girls leave coed teams for this reason.
Schultz said that “when girls get into girls hockey, it’s like a sisterhood,” and the turnover rate is fairly low.
The bond, players say, is arguably the best part of the sport.
“All my best friends are on the Mustangs,” Neale said. “There’s a lot of support on the team. No one’s excluded from anything.”
“We’ve been known to scrimmage boys teams and beat them,” coach Braaten said. “It’s kind of fun seeing the guys on ice crying and the girls laughing.”
Looking ahead, coach Braaten said the club aims to form a Tier II U-19 team next year, which would involve tryouts and national travel. For every age group and every skill level, he said the most rewarding part of coaching is watching individuals grow.
“I can remember when Audrey could barely stand on her skates, and now she’s scoring goals and stick-handling through the opposition,” he said with a laugh. “It’s really impressive watching the evolution.”
Schultz agrees, adding that most of the transformation is mental.
“They get to learn a lot about themselves — their own toughness, their own resilience,” Schultz said. “They learn so much about being knocked down and getting back up again.”