"Don't be fooled ... we still play tough."
That's what the fourth annual Alaska State Women's Hockey Challenge T-shirt said.
The Peninsula Puffins did their share to prove those words at the Challenge, which finishes up this morning.
The tournament semifinals are at 8:15 and 9:30 and the championship game is at 10:45, all at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The six-team tournament is sanctioned as a statewide championship in women's hockey. This year marks the debut of a traveling trophy the state association donated.
Three teams from Anchorage and one from the Matanuska Valley join the hosts in the three-day championship.
The tournament also marks the close of the Peninsula Puffins' season.
The Puffins are split into two squads -- Red and Gold -- and get very few opportunities to play regular games, said Heidi Hanson, a "team captain, team mom, team organizer."
Most of the time the Puffins spend their Sunday practices running drills and have a game or scrimmage one weeknight a week.
Hanson said the women play games against local squirt- and bantam-level boys teams as often as possible.
Hanson, who has been with the Puffins for seven years, said the bantam games are good competition and help prepare them for the tournament.
"The squirts is more for fun," she said.
Even though women's league rules do not allow body checking or slap shots, the women still play hard.
"Every now and then, somebody will get checked," Hanson said.
Despite the lack of local competition, the Puffins are holding their own in the tournament.
The Puffins Red team went undefeated through their first three games, including two shutouts.
The second of those shutouts was against Alcan, considered by many -- players and spectators alike -- to be the toughest of all the visitors. The 1-0 loss gave Alcan a 2-1 record up to that point.
Hanson said the Puffins Red are in a good position going into this morning's semifinal game, especially since they have far fewer players than the other teams.
"We've been playing really well," she said.
To help with numbers, members of the Peninsula Chinooks Junior B team have been serving as goalies for the Puffins. The hitch is they can't play goal normally.
Dan Fagan, a Chinooks defenseman, was in for the Alcan game, which featured several strong offensive flurries at each end.
Fagan will continue to play for the Red squad throughout the tournament -- a minimum of five games.
"He's going to be a tired puppy," Hanson predicted with a laugh.
The Puffins have gotten a lot of support from the Chinooks. Former coach and general manager Paddy Flynn coached the Puffins for a while at the beginning of their season and three players helped them prepare for the tournament. During the season, the Chinooks played goal for the Puffin shooting practice.
"It gives us someone good to shoot against," Hanson said.
The Puffins also are supported by other hockey organizations.
Members of the Rusty Blades senior men's team were in the stands cheering the women on.
"We need more people to come out and support our teams," said Rodney Boyles.
"We don't have a whole lot of entertainment here in town and hockey's one of them," added Rod Nelson. "Hockey's great entertainment. And it's free."
Boyles said watching recreational hockey games is an affordable alternative for families.
"It's something the whole family can enjoy," he said. "You're not too young or too old to watch this team.
"This is a lot different than watching it on TV."
Both men enjoyed the play at the tournament, cheering loudly when the Puffins solved Alcan's goaltender with less than a minute left in the first period.
"There's been a lot of good action," Nelson said.
Women on the Puffins range from 14 to 50 years old said Dawn Lesterson, who has been on the team five years. She said players come from all parts of the peninsula to take part, some from as far away as Homer.
"It's competitive, yet it's fun," she said. "It's good exercise."
The Puffins will send a team to Phoenix to compete in a tournament over Memorial Day weekend, Hanson said.
"This will be our first traveling out of the state," Lesterson said. "It means (women's hockey) is growing all over."
Kathy Herring, a member of the Gold squad, said the tournament is something the Puffins have been preparing for all season.
"We don't get to play many games in the year," she said. "It's nice to play; it's a nice way to end the season."
Herring said everyone in her family plays hockey at some level. Her son was even acting as a linesman for some of the games.
She said she enjoys the camaraderie that exists among the players, even those on opposing teams.
"It's more supportive," Herring said.
Many of the Puffins had some support in the sports center stands, also.
A friend of Lesterson's, Sheila Waggoner, was watching the game between Alcan and the Red squad.
"It's wild at her age to be out there playing," Waggoner said. "She just never ceases to amaze me."
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