The Puck Stops Here

(Photo by Duane Zehr)

Matt Hawkins
March 19, 2018

This story appears in the Winter 2018 Hilltopics issue

A 12-year-old Laurie Cox ’21 fixed her eyes on the goaltender the first time she attended a minor-league hockey game. Even though a fierce-looking helmet and heavy pads obscured his steely gaze, she wanted to be him — alone, yet the most important player on the ice.

From that first experience, the psychology major from Downers Grove, Ill., worked her way through junior hockey leagues with a singular passion, challenging herself at each level, often starting at the bottom of clubs’ depth charts. Eventually, Cox landed a spot as the first woman on her hometown high school’s inaugural hockey team.

“(My) coach hit me with the fastest shot I’d ever seen,” Cox said. “I’m glad he did that because it showed me I had a lot to learn.”

The 5-foot-2 Cox quietly committed to improving at a position normally filled by players a foot taller. She asked coaches for critiques and kept a notebook of her flaws. By her senior year, Cox made the conference all-star team and at Bradley, she is the first female goalie in the club team’s 50-year history. Cox is on the club’s Division III team.

Matt Cipra ’21, her teammate in high school and at Bradley, credited Cox’s work ethic for improving both teams, whether or not she was a starter.

“She works for what she wants and doesn’t feel entitled to things,” he said. “(Laurie) always puts forth effort and leads by example. We see her working and want to push ourselves harder.”

That drive led Cox to Bradley when she looked at colleges. When other club coaches laughed at her dream of playing professional men’s hockey, Cipra and Bradley coach J.P. Fitzgerald saw a player eager to prove herself. Fitzgerald wanted to expand club hockey opportunities on campus and launched a second squad for the 2017–18 season as the club grew from 12 players in 2014 to 35 this year.

Cox also fit his long-term goal of adding a women’s team. Though women are rare in men’s leagues, Fitzgerald noted a few women typically play youth hockey in Peoria. Beyond local leagues, the Rivermen, Peoria’s minor-league hockey team, signed Canadian gold medal Olympian Shannon Szabados in 2016. If Bradley adds a women’s club, the university would join a wave of women’s hockey teams at the NCAA and club levels.

“Laurie provides evidence there are young women out there looking for the opportunity to play hockey as part of their college experience,” Fitzgerald said. “Having Laurie join as the first woman is icing on the cake to our growth. Not only have we kept the hockey tradition alive on campus for 50 years, but we’ve also grown in numbers and diversity of students we’ve attracted to Bradley.”

Choosing Bradley meant Cox would have to fight for playing time. When Fitzgerald told her she would be the fifth goalie on the squads, she seemed totally unfazed. “She told me she competed with boys her whole life and was confident she could do that at the college level,” he said. “I knew right then that her tenacity and competitiveness would be a big addition to our program.”

The first-year student hopes to work her way up the depth chart and earn attention from professional scouts who follow the American Collegiate Hockey Association. If National Hockey League dreams don’t come true, she sees a future breaking barriers as a woman coaching men’s sports.

“I want to make a statement that there is more to hockey than body type or gender,” she said. “Hockey is a beautiful sport because you don’t need anything special. I’m 5-foot-2 and was out of shape when I started. Here I am because I earned it.”