Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-20-2023 11:16 AM

Jay Campion was an employer at a women’s clothing store in Hanover in the mid-1980s, hiring several students from Hanover High.

Some of the girls who worked for Campion had boyfriends on the school’s hockey team and complained to him that it wasn’t fair for the boys to have a hockey team while girls did not have that opportunity. So Campion, who had coaching experience with the local youth programs, offered to help the girls start their own team.

In 1985, Campion became the first head coach of the Hanover High girls club team, which was not affiliated with the high school. Five years later, girls hockey became an official varsity sport at Hanover, the first for a public school in New Hampshire and among the first nationally to field a team.

“They had enough people who they thought would want to play,” Campion said. “We formed a club team that included high school-aged young women, but we had a couple of really good junior high school players. We also had players from Lebanon and White River Junction. I rented some ice, and we scrimmaged among ourselves to start off with. It was really, really fun.”

The program has grown into a dominant force since that inaugural 1990-91 season — the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association only began sponsoring a girls hockey tournament in 2008, but since then, Hanover has won 12 championships in 16 years, including 10 in a row from 2010-19. Even this winter, with the smallest roster current coach John Dodds has had in his 18 years leading Hanover, the Bears still went 16-4-2 and reached the state semifinals.

“(Dodds) keeps them cranking, interested, having fun,” Campion said. “That’s how you keep it going. I used to get out to games and my jaw would hurt from smiling so much, because these girls were having such a good time. You could hardly hear yourself think because of all the chatter on the bench in the middle of a game. He’s managed to maintain that high level of excitement and involvement.”

The early days

Before girls in the Dresden School District had a hockey team of their own, opportunities to play were limited, and the best option was often to play on boys’ teams. While playing with the boys may have been the most competitive hockey available to young girls in Hanover, Norwich and the surrounding towns, those who did so had mixed experiences.

Phoebe Manchester, a 1992 Hanover graduate and a co-captain as a senior in the girls’ second varsity season, was the only girl on a boys’ travel team in sixth grade, and her experience was so discouraging that she decided not to come back the next year.

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“It was pretty hard,” Manchester said. “You had to change in the bathroom at all the rinks; you don’t get to be in the locker room with your team. They would blame you for losing — ‘we lost because we have a girl on our team.’ It wasn’t all great.”

One of Hanover’s first varsity captains, Sarah (Howes) Nunan, had initially wanted to be the first girl on the school’s boys’ team. A member of the class of 1991, Nunan was teammates with Manchester on some of the Hanover youth co-ed teams, and she said their coach, Jon Tonseth, referred to the girls on the team as the “liberated women’s line.”

Nunan was first drawn to hockey because she wanted something high-energy — when she reached bantams, the top level of youth hockey before high school and the first level where checking is allowed, she broke her collarbone, and her father then stopped her from playing until she joined Campion’s club team.

Tonseth helped make Nunan feel welcome and encouraged her to keep playing, but Nunan recalled how much grit it took for her to be on the ice and in the locker room with almost exclusively boys.

“Coaches that went out of their way to make us feel welcome made a big difference. Jon Tonseth was one of the early ones,” Nunan said. “My goal was to play the best hockey I could play, and at that time it was boys’ hockey. We were the first girls that I know of coming through to play in the Hanover (youth) league.”

The club years

With no public high school teams to play against, the fledgling Hanover club team filled its schedule with prep schools in New Hampshire and beyond, many of which had established varsity teams by then.

Many of the players had male hockey-playing friends and were able to borrow used equipment, and Campion provided the pucks and a donated set of goaltender equipment.

Parents were responsible for driving to games against schools like Kimball Union Academy, Tilton, Holderness, St. Paul’s, New Hampton and Phillips Exeter, and even as far as Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts. The prep schools, by and large, were more than willing to play against Hanover just to get in an extra game.

Those prep schools had rosters chock full of experienced hockey players, while Hanover had a conglomeration of players who had come through the local youth programs and talented athletes who had played other sports but were new to hockey. Some had been figure skaters and were comfortable on the ice, while others had never been on skates before.

Kerry (Moor) Artman, a senior co-captain with Manchester in 1991-92, was a figure skater and played field hockey and lacrosse at Hanover but tried ice hockey for the first time as a sophomore on the club team. Now the executive director of the Carter Community Building Association in Lebanon, Artman was part of Hanover’s first two varsity teams and later played on a rec team at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst while attending nearby Smith College.

“(Campion) had the right balance of trying to teach us the game and the skills, he was excited and passionate about it, and he understood that he had a team that had all varying levels throughout the different lines,” Artman said. “He worked with what he had, he made us all better, but he never made us feel like we couldn’t be successful. He was perfect for the time of that team.”

The club team continued to grow in both numbers and skill in the late 1980s, and eventually several of the players and parents began pushing for them to become an official school-sponsored program. Artman was one of the driving forces behind that movement, writing a column for the school newspaper and speaking at a school board meeting in support of a petition the players and parents had put together.

As Artman recalled, several of the boys were unhappy with the girls asking for varsity status and a budget from the school district because they were worried funding and ice time would be taken away from the boys’ program.

“We were trying to convince people that now was the time to create this kind of equity and fairness,” Artman said.

“It was not even close to the boys’ budget. We weren’t even asking for that; we just wanted some recognition and some ice time. We weren’t trying to impact the boys negatively; we were trying to add to hockey.”

The school board agreed to make the team official starting in 1990, and with that, public school girls hockey in the Granite State was born.

Becoming a powerhouse

Hanover’s first-ever varsity game was played on Dec. 12, 1990, at Campion Rink — the West Lebanon facility opened in 1988 and is named for Jay’s father, James W. Campion III — and the then-Marauders defeated Tilton, 4-1, led by two goals and an assist from Manchester. A Valley News story from the day before that fateful opener reported that the team would not even see its new uniforms until game day.

After playing 24 games in its final club season and practicing just twice a week, Hanover’s schedule was reduced to between 14 and 16 games, leaving room for four practices per week. Prep schools still made up the entirety of the team’s schedule, and as senior Rachael Babcock told the Valley News before the Marauders’ first game, “The way I see it, we’re already state champions. There’s no other team in the state.”

It’s unclear how many public schools in other states sponsored girls hockey by then, but Simsbury High School in Connecticut began playing in 1987, and nearby Glastonbury High also briefly maintained a team. Minnesota became the first state to sanction girls hockey as a varsity sport in 1994, and 24 teams from the self-proclaimed State of Hockey took to the ice that winter.

As far as the first Hanover players knew, Simsbury was the only other public school with an established team, so when the two schools played each other, they half-jokingly called it the national championship.

Hanover held its own against the prep schools in its first season — the Marauders won at KUA in early February, and the following week the team defeated New Hampton and Lawrence (Mass.) Academy before falling to Phillips Exeter in tournament play.

“You frequently had a team that would have one or two ‘golden girls,’ ” Campion said. “In some cases, they never left the ice. They moved from forward to defense, and coaches put pieces around them. They could just decide to turn it on, go down the ice and score.”

The legacy

Campion stepped away after two varsity seasons, handing the reins to assistant coach Dave Norton. Norton was later replaced by Harry Roberts, and Dodds took over from him in 2005.

Manchester went on to play at Dartmouth College, where she won two Ivy League championships for the Big Green under coach George Crowe. Hanover continued to churn out one college prospect after another, with Malaika Little (class of 1993) and Sara Nelson (class of 1995) also staying local to play for Dartmouth. Campion’s daughter, Ashley, graduated in 1997 and ended up at Yale.

“It was mainly young women who had played prep school hockey, was the main demographic on my (Dartmouth) team,” Nelson said. “A few of us had grown up playing boys’ hockey, but mainly it was girls from prep schools. And now it’s just such a difference. There’s just so much more women’s ice hockey.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence of public school hockey’s growth can be seen in the example of Matti Hartman, a 2016 graduate who then starred at Northeastern, a perennial national title contender. Hartman could have gone the prep school route, but instead won four NHIAA titles with Hanover.

After her time at Dartmouth, Manchester enjoyed a lengthy coaching career, with stops at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New England College and Pittsburgh’s Chatham University. She also coached with the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite club organization and, since returning to the Upper Valley seven years ago, has coached girls’ teams in the Hanover youth program.

That feeder program continues to sustain the high school team to this day, and the significance of those transition years in the late ’80s and early ’90s is not lost on Manchester.

“What we did was incredible, and it was way before its time,” Manchester said. “I go to some of the girls’ games now, and back then there were three or four of us who could really skate and play. … Now, up and down the roster, everyone is skilled. It’s just awesome to know that we contributed to that.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.

 CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had an incomplete list of head coaches for the Hanover girls hockey program. Harry Roberts was the head coach from 1999 until 2005.