Cooper High School boy's varsity goalie Angel Hillstrom (27) blocked a shot by Armstrong's Kyle O'Conner (23).
Hockey goaltenders often have personal touches painted on their helmets, which is why Angel Hillstrom put "Native Pride" on the back of hers.
The words serve as a two-fold credo. Hillstrom, who is one-eighth Indian, scoffed at the idea of staying with the newly merged Armstrong-Cooper girls' hockey team. She was a Cooper kid who wanted to play Cooper hockey.
So she plays goalie for the Cooper boys' team.
"This is the craziest thing I have ever done in my life," said Hillstrom, who started the year as a 14-year-old freshman weighing in at 101 pounds but has played almost every minute of every game. "It's really been amazing how accepting and welcoming they've been. Hearing, 'We trust Angel in the net,' puts a smile on your face."
Returning the favor, Hillstrom posted a shutout against Somerset, Wis., and helped the Hawks (6-8-1) win all three games and the Silver Bay Invitational Tournament championship.
Hillstrom, who played for the Cooper girls' team as an eighth-grader, transitioned to the boys' team along with junior goaltender Kelly Sandhofer.
Girls playing varsity boys' hockey is not new, but it remains rare. Jenny Hanley played goalie at Edina in the early 1990s while Libby Witchger saw limited time in goal for Wayzata at the same time. Jackie MacMillan backstopped Buffalo later in the decade.
Skaters included Farmington's Amber Hegland and Brooklyn Center's Brittny Ralph.
Finding a place
Hillstrom hit the ice for tryouts in October uncertain what to expect. She wasn't alone.
"The first practice was for sure the hardest for me," Hillstrom said. "[Tom] Monteiro, [Joe] Lavalier and Dusty [Schultz] were shooting crazy hard. I mean, no guy is going to be excited about seeing a girl in the net the first day."
A combination of better talent and tepid reaction left Hillstrom asking herself, "Is this really where I want to be?"
Sticking with it, she earned the starting nod in the season opener against Legacy Christian. Her hands were still shaking after the first period, but she held on for a 5-5 tie. Nine days later, jubilant teammates surrounded her after a 4-1 victory against Shakopee.
"I turned to my assistant and said, 'I think she's part of the team,'" Hawks coach Bill Rooney said.
Even so, necessary boundaries are kept. Rooney instructs the girls to sit near him at the front of the bus. And they have separate locker rooms.
Senior captain Joe Lavalier acknowledged "various reactions" to girls joining the team, but now "they mesh so well, it's tough to pick them out. Other than the ponytails."
A competitive edge helps Hillstrom keep her job. As an 8-year-old playing with a U10 girls' team at an out-of-town tournament, Hillstrom stood up in the locker room after a lopsided loss and scolded teammates more concerned with swimming at the team hotel. "In my family, it's known as 'The Dolphin Speech,'" Hillstrom said.
Protecting their goalie
In preparation for boys' hockey, Hillstrom consumed the game over the summer. She played with girls' teams and boys' teams alike. She attended two camps and received private instruction. Said Lavalier: "She has this drive to start every game. You don't see her as a girl anymore. She's our goalie."
Count the Hawks among the hockey teams going to great lengths to protect their goalie. In fact, their protective instincts are heightened by having Hillstrom in net. "I know I've taken some penalties this year that I wouldn't have taken last year, probably because she's a freshman girl and our starting goalie," Lavalier said.
Until recently, Hillstrom stood out for her beat-up, clashing royal-blue breezers. Four of the seniors chipped in to buy her a new pair in matching Cooper navy blue. She said the gesture "gave me chills" and affirmed her place on the team.
The Hawks face a showdown with Armstrong on Saturday. A 2-0 Hawks' victory last season was their first in the series since 1993, the year before many of the seniors were born.
"If I can get that game, I'll feel more like I belong than ever because that matters more than anything," Hillstrom said.
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574