Downriver United offers high school hockey to girls

Thanks to a group of dedicated coaches, the future of girls high school hockey Downriver is looking brighter.

The Downriver United girls hockey team, now in the midst of its first season, features a roster of 15 players from communities throughout the region, and even a little beyond. 

Coach Ken McMullen had been thinking of putting a team together for some years before starting the Trenton Girls Hockey Association three years ago, which then led to the effort to grow the game at local high schools.

“Several of us got together to do this,” he said. “We’re trying to build a youth program from the ground up.”

Like other youth sports, Downriver United’s first official season has had to work around restrictions created by the pandemic, and despite some slowdowns have been at it pretty much all year. DRU started with 19 girls before some moved, bringing the number of players down to 15. 

Girls hockey is sanctioned by the Michigan High School Athletic Association. DRU is an affiliate member of the Michigan Girls High School Hockey League, which has existed since the 1990s. 

League teams usually are formed according to student ratios, but DRU was allowed in because it’s their first year, and draws from a lot of schools, but not necessarily ones with large student bodies. 

There are 18 teams in the MGHL. Affiliate status allows DRU to play league teams, but the games don’t count on those teams’ records. Many Downriver United players drive up to an hour a day to practice.

“It gets the girls used to it,” McMullen said. “There are some extremely solid hockey players in this league and people don’t know it.”

But good competition isn’t the only reason he started DRU; 1 in 3 girls hockey players can use the game to go to college.

“Our team gets their feet wet,” McMullen said, “The league approved us to draw from multiple schools and we’ve told every girl who wanted to play that they could play. We took one girl from Garden City who’s a hard worker and great student. “We weren’t going to just shut the door.”

There are still well over 100 Downriver girls with nowhere to play, and he’s sure that DRU will pave the way for more local high schools to form teams. The program may not be ready to break off to one or two schools next year, but in the future might include branches in Southgate or Wyandotte, where Roosevelt High School Athletic Director Tom DeSana has supported the program’s efforts.

“”If this keeps moving there will be enough girls for as many solid high school teams Downriver as we can get,” McMullen said. “For now, our girls have had an opportunity to do something they never thought they’d get to do and they’re running with it.”

DRU won three of its first four league games and one out of league, but four other games were canceled because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“We’re going out and skating three days a week now,” McMullen said. “That’s better than it was a few weeks ago. But the adversity has made our team stronger. If we can pull this off, then pretty much anything’s possible.”

McMullen is quick to credit those around him for getting DRU off the ground, including assistant coaches Dan Renaud, Mike Cahalan and Gordan Dale; goalie coach Matt Wierzba of Great Lakes Goaltending; student assistant coach Brooke Spiegel and team manager Wade Lau, who has had to negotiate “an absolute roller coaster ride” of scheduling.

“Everyone’s  positive energy has been keeping us moving forward,” McMullen said. “It is great to have a great group of coaches all from the Downriver area with one vision: to grow the game of girls ice hockey Downriver. We are always looking to add future student athletes.

“Giving them the opportunity is the whole plan. We just do what’s best for the girls.”

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