On Nov. 14, 1994, Holy Angels and South St. Paul opened the Minnesota high school hockey season amid an atmosphere of anticipation. There was a buzz in the air as fans streamed into Richfield Ice Arena and TV crews arrived.
Any season opener carries added emphasis. This one offered something extra special.
It was the first official girls’ high school hockey game in Minnesota history.
With the Minnesota State High School League sanctioning girls’ hockey beginning that season, that autumn Monday started it all. South St. Paul won 8-0, but the significance goes far beyond the final score.
For Holy Angels coach Lynn Olson, it was the long-awaited triumph after she and others persuaded, buttonholed and cajoled league officials for nearly 15 years to sanction girls’ hockey.
For South St. Paul coach Dave Palmquist, it was validation for a career choice in which he would help girls realize their hockey dreams.
And for Packers standout Kelly Kegley, who scored the historic first goal and ignited victory with a hat trick and two assists, it was a chance to have fun with teammates, even if the magnitude of the moment didn’t immediately resonate with the eighth-grader.
“Looking back 26 years, you have a different set of eyes,” said Palmquist, then a 30-year-old in his first year coaching South St. Paul. “You knew it was a big deal back then. … It was special, and it’s something special for me today.”
Added Olson, “My daughter [Lisa] had been playing hockey for 10 years at that time with the boys and went on to girls’ teams. It was exciting to have her be able to play her senior year of high school on a hockey team.”
Planting a seed
Girls’ hockey in Minnesota is thriving in 2020. The state has 116 high school programs, it’s the home of two-class state tournament at Xcel Energy Center each February, and 126 women from Minnesota were on NCAA Division I rosters in 2019-20, the most of any state.
The seeds were planted in the 1970s and ’80s. Then came the inaugural 1994-95 season. The state had 24 teams, and four section champions advanced to the state tournament at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood. Apple Valley claimed the first title with a 2-0 win over South St. Paul.
“Aldrich was packed wall to wall with fans, and it felt like the crowd was on top of you as you were playing,” said Kegley, who played on a Greater St. Paul team of girls and women before that first high school season. “That was a good thing — so much excitement.”
Excitement for the girls’ game, however, wasn’t universal.
“There were a lot of individuals who didn’t want to see girls’ hockey come about because they were afraid it was going to take the ice away from their boys,” said Olson, former director of girls’ and women’s hockey for Minnesota Hockey. “So that was not fun sometimes.”
Palmquist, who coached the Minnehaha Academy boys’ team before taking the South St. Paul job, experienced pushback, too.
“For me to go over to the girls’ side, it was almost looked down upon, like ‘What are you doing?’ ” said Palmquist, who’s guided the Packers to four state titles.
Star power from the start
Kegley entered that first game as one of the main attractions.
“She was a little eighth-grader about 5-foot-nothing,” Palmquist said. “I just remember how all the people were staring at her, ‘There’s Kelly Kegley.’ It was a big deal for young girls coming to a hockey game for the first time.”
Palmquist encouraged his team to embrace the moment.
He told his players, “Take it in. A first of something, they can never take that away from you. You are a part of history, girls. Enjoy it.”
The Packers, whose roster included players from the school’s successful ringette teams in previous years, got two goals from Anne Joswiak and Melissa Milbert, plus 12 saves from Jen Retka in the shutout.
“It’s kind of cool to look back and think I was pioneer of it, along with many others,” said Kegley, who played collegiately at Wisconsin.
Olson agrees, especially because of the opportunities hockey has given girls and women.
“It’s gratifying to see there’s something for the girls and that they learn such leadership skills, such team skills — things that they didn’t have before girls had sports,” Olson said.
“Look where we are now,” she added. “It’s absolutely fantastic.’’