All Shelly Walker wanted to do last year was play hockey for the Philadelphia Freeze, a women’s ice hockey team founded in 1974 based out of University City.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Freeze to miss the playoffs in 2019 and cancel its entire 2020 season.
“So it was just like, if I’m not seeing my friends, my parents aren’t seeing anybody, so I’m not going to go play hockey,” Walker, who joined the Freeze in 2006, said. “It felt like both a no-brainer and also the saddest thing ever, because yeah, anyone who knows me knows I love hockey.”
After a year away from the ice, the Freeze returned to Penn Ice Rink at the class of 1923 Arena the last week of September to begin preparing for its 2021 season. It is here where the team hopes to reinforce the deep bond they share as teammates and successfully navigate playing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Freeze’s season, typically, runs from October to March, and the team played its first games of the 2021 season the weekend of Oct. 2-4.
Although everyone was happy to have an opportunity to play, the decision to start back up again was difficult because they needed to decide whether or not to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine among its members.
The team plays in the United Women’s Hockey League, which did not require all teams to mandate the vaccine. The Freeze, ultimately, decided to mandate it because businesses and schools in Philadelphia started to mandate it, said Emily Boda, a member of the Freeze since 2019 and manager of the team’s website.
The University of Pennsylvania, where the team practices, issued its own vaccine mandate requiring everyone to be vaccinated by Oct. 15, according to the school’s website.
“We’ve been making decisions kinda as the information has come in,” Boda added. “Originally, we weren’t going to require vaccinations but as that kinda started to become the norm, we kinda just decided to do that because it is safer for everybody.”
Besides mandating the vaccine, the team also wears masks while practicing. As a sport that requires a lot of cardio and already forces players to wear heavy equipment, the precaution does come at a cost.
For Jennifer Lyle, a member of the Freeze since 2009, the advantage of preventing the spread of COVID-19 supersedes the potential problems created by playing with a mask on.
“So, it does make me feel safe,” Lyle said. “Even though I know if everyone here is not vaccinated almost everyone is vaccinated, so I already feel pretty safe but this is a lot safer.”
For Walker, skating around with a mask isn’t difficult, but she noted it can be challenging to catch her breath when returning to the bench.
With COVID-19 guidelines in place, the team wants to focus on rebuilding the team chemistry and camaraderie integral to their mission of providing a place where any woman, regardless of skill level, can have fun playing hockey.
Players recall favorite moments spent with their teammates both on and off the ice.
For Bode, it was a skills competition she set up for the team similar to an NHL skills competition where players compete in various events like shooting and passing challenges. Lyle’s was winning the 2018 White Division Championship, and Walker’s was all the times the team hung out after games and practices and got to know each other.
Some of those hangouts included drinking beer, eating food, and just “chilling” outside of playing hockey together, Walker said.
Even during quarantine, the team tried to strengthen its bond. About four or five of the team members did Peloton rides together to try and stay in shape.
Those shared experiences are much more important to the team than winning games or even championships.
“Like, when you get out of college, where do you make friends?” Lyle wondered. “Where do you hang out? Like, when you join a team like this, you get 15 new friends, like immediately, and we get close really fast. So its, the camaraderie is definitely the biggest thing.”
The team also prides itself on being inclusive to players of all skill levels. They do this by offering three different teams separated by player’s experience and allowing anyone older than 18 to play.
The red team is for beginners, the white team is for intermediate players, and the blue team is for advanced players.
“There’s a lot of people that come and join us that have never played before,” Bode said. “Even if you have never played, even if you’re an adult. You can always start something new.”
As for the future, the Freeze is just focused on getting through this season without a COVID-19 outbreak while still having fun, and they don’t feel the pandemic will stop them from doing that.
“It just feels like we are back to normal,” Lyle said. “We just have masks on and we are in, just, not as great as shape. I think it is with all hockey too. Like, we are friends with people on the other teams too. Like we all just want to keep each other safe, hang out, and have a good time.”
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