Exploring how women’s ice hockey broke the ice to achieve varsity status

Gretchen Howard ’95 (top row, second from the left), Stacey Dufour ’93 (bottom row, fourth from the right) and several former team captains helped women’s ice hockey secure its varsity status in 1993.
Photo Courtesy of Williams College Archive.

Women’s ice hockey has enjoyed more than two decades of success, with 11 Little Three titles and finally a NESCAC championship in 2014. Yet the team has not always been in a position to achieve such success. Until the 1992-1993 season, women’s ice hockey was a club sport, one of the few in the NESCAC. But with the combined efforts of   decades of club players including Gretchen Engster Howard ’95 and Stacey Dufour ’93, women’s ice hockey came to enjoy all the resources and privileges that varsity status offers.

The fight for varsity status, which was situated within the national Title IX controversy of equal opportunity for females, especially in collegiate sports, was not an easy one. The journey started in Howard and Dufour’s Winter Study class “Inside College Athletics,” taught by Sports Information Director Dick Quinn.

Quinn designed the class when he realized that most college students do not understand the inner workings of collegiate athletics. “They don’t know how the games [are] scheduled, what some of the conference rules [are] and what some of the NCAA regulations [are],” he said. In addition to covering collegiate athletic logistics, “Inside College Athletics” also served as the springboard for players like Howard and Dufour to finally succeed in bringing varsity status to the women’s ice hockey team.

Part of Quinn’s class involved studying the  controversy of Title IX and reading “Breaking Down Barriers: the Legal Guide to Title IX,” a piece written by Ellen Vargyas ’71, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center and the principal author of the Title IX regulations issued in 1974. Vargyas, one of the College’s first female graduates, had experienced the potential for change in Title IX cases when she represented the women’s club soccer team at the University of Texas at Austin.

Howard recalled that Vargyas’ coming to talk during Winter Study was a pivotal moment in their case. “There had recently been press about Title IX-related lawsuits at Brown and Colgate, and I wanted to better understand how to approach the topic at Williams without entering into litigation,” Howard said. “Ellen told me she was happy to provide advice, and it felt amazing to have such a knowledgeable and powerful woman from which to learn.”

With a Title IX expert at her side, Howard began researching and writing an essay arguing for varsity status for the women’s ice hockey team. She recalled her background in ice hockey and tried to understand why varsity women’s ice hockey was still not feasible.

“I had this project in mind and Dick Quinn encouraged me to pursue it,” Howard said. “In high school, I was lucky enough to have played on a very strong, supported team, so the contrast at Williams was stark.  Even though women’s ice hockey was a club sport at Williams when I arrived, I still wanted to play because I loved the sport.” While the team had been founded in 1974, it did not receive the same support from the College as other teams due to its club status.  Howard played varisty lacrosse for four years and noticed the disparity in treatment between the two programs. “To my knowledge, the women’s ice hockey program [was] always a full team and played a full varsity schedule but had never made the leap to varsity status,” she said. “The reason why perplexed me.”

The club team’s scarce resources not only hindered its performance, but also caused  safety issues. “Some of the risks in running a club ice program included using old equipment and not having trainers on hand when we practiced late at night,” Howard said. “There were a few instances when players got hurt on the ice and we had to call an ambulance to get support, which raised safety concerns.”

Dufour, one of the senior captains on the club team from 1992-1993, noted the long delay in the push for varsity status. For at least 12 years, a captain had gone to the athletic department each year asking for varsity status, Dufour said.

She also saw firsthand the imbalance in resources between sports. “My senior year, I wound up being the JV coach for field hockey, so I got to know some of the coaches,” Dufour said. “I realized that none of the coaches at Williams knew their budget…. The athletic director set it, and if you wanted something, you went to him and asked for it.

“I still had friends on field hockey and football, and I could tell that there was … a fairly blatant inequity between men’s and women’s sports. It just seemed that it was time for it to be evened out, at least by number of varsity sports available.”

Dufour found out just how different the opinions were between the athletic department and the women’s ice hockey players when Athletic Director Bob Peck came to speak to their Winter Study class. When asked about women’s ice hockey’s desire to go varsity, Dufour recalled, Peck was not aware of the issue and believed the club team liked its independence. “A bunch of people looked at me, and everybody knew we had been asking for this for decades,” Dufour said. “In my head, something snapped. I [was] like, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ And so I went into the office with Peck, Aleka [Alexandra] Novitski ’93 and Erin McGill ’93, and … [we said], ‘We think it’s the right thing to do and the fair thing to do.

“All we really wanted was a coach. We didn’t want fancy lockers or anything like that. We did have pride in the fact that we had chicken wire for lockers and that [trainer] Dickie Cummings’ wife was the one that sewed our names on the back of our jerseys. It was nice that we were a ragtag team, but we kept on having different coaches every year – students or people who volunteered. And we just wanted some consistency in the program.”

Today, the women’s ice hockey team is thriving and attracting new recruits every year. However, none of its success would have been possible without the work of its former club players. Howard and Dufour, along with decades of club ice hockey players and other alums, sacrificed and contributed to making sure that women at the College can pursue ice hockey at the highest level.