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Pandas on Ice: The story of America's first women's college hockey team

In the first episode of The Herald’s new podcast series “Pandas On Ice,” former Pembroke Pandas tell the story of how the first intercollegiate women’s ice hockey team in the country came to be.

Jacob Smollen

It’s an unseasonably hot late October evening, but inside the Meehan Auditorium, Brown University’s ice rink, it’s still freezing.

Game Audio

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The music before the puck drop (1:05)

Jacob Smollen

It’s Oct. 28, 2023 and the Brown Bears are facing the Harvard Crimson — their third Ivy League conference matchup of the season.

Stadium Announcer

Fans, welcome to the ice: Your Brown University Bears!

Jacob Smollen

The game is also part of the team’s alumni reunion, commemorating 60 years since the women’s hockey program began at Pembroke College, Brown’s coordinate women’s college, in 1963. The Pembroke Pandas, as they would later be named, were then the first, and only, intercollegiate women’s hockey team in the country.

Game Audio

Fans, please draw your attention to the area in front of Brown’s bench, as Brown University athletics proudly welcomes back the alumni and founding members of the earliest Brown women's ice hockey teams to tonight's game.

Jacob Smollen

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Tonight, the team honors several of the players from that original team, and the iterations that soon followed. They line up in the tunnel as the current players head onto the ice, giving out fist bumps and high fives that bridge hockey generations.

Stadium Announcer

“Kay Greisen, 1968; Cappy Nunlist class of ’70; Marcia Hoffer, class of ’71 Anne Brewer class of ’71 and Susan Waldrop, class of 1972…”  

Jacob Smollen

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Nancy Schieffelin, dubbed the of Brown women’s ice hockey by the Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Fame, drops the ceremonial puck. 

Game Audio

Jacob Smollen

Then the current decade of Brown women’s ice hockey takes center ice. Behind a late third-period go-ahead goal, the team earns a two-to-one victory with former players from across the last 60 years looking on in the stands.

Jacob Smollen

I’m Jacob Smollen, podcast editor and metro editor, and this is Pandas On Ice. 

In this podcast series, we’ll explore the beginnings of the Pembroke Pandas — the first intercollegiate women’s hockey team in the United States — and everything that happened afterwards. In this episode: Nancy’s story. A disguise and a men’s practice — and what happens when a gym class goes varsity without a budget.

Jacob Smollen

Nancy Schieffelin grew up playing pretty much any sport she could with the boys in her neighborhood — baseball, football, tennis, basketball. She described herself as “a huge jock.”

Nancy Schieffelin

For the longest time, I never even thought I'd go to college. I thought, ‘Oh, college, I just want to do sports. Seriously.

Jacob Smollen

Hockey had always stood out as one of Nancy’s athletic passions.

Nancy Schieffelin

I had played hockey with boys since the time I was about seven or eight on ponds. And then I got into a peewee league and that was on artificial ice. It was very primitive. But, we played hockey and my highlight as a kid was when I was about 12. I got on the all-star team, and we played in the Hobey Baker Rink at Princeton. That was a big deal.

Jacob Smollen

Nancy continued to play club hockey into her late teens, but soon, the increasingly physical nature of the game became an issue. She also said eventually things became awkward socially as the only girl on the team. She decided to give hockey up.

Jacob Smollen

When Nancy arrived at Pembroke in 1963, Meehan Auditorium, home to the Brown Men’s Ice Hockey team, the Bears, had opened just a earlier. At the time, Pembrokers were required to take a gym class. In the fall, Nancy had played field hockey for credit. But in the winter…

Nancy Schieffelin

I thought, well, Jesus, the rink is so beautiful. I'm going to skate.

Jacob Smollen

She joined the class and started skating around. Eventually, that got boring.

Nancy Schieffelin

I couldn't stand it just skating. And so I asked the gym teacher who had been the field hockey teacher, I asked her, “Can I bring out a stick and a puck?” Because that’s what I was used to handling. 

Jacob Smollen

Sarah Phillips, who with the Pembroke gym department agreed, and Nancy hit the ice with gear in hand, including her own hockey skates. But things still weren't right.

Nancy Schieffelin

Well that was kind of boring, too, because there was nobody else.

Jacob Smollen

Nancy says that at one point or another, then-Brown men’s varsity hockey coach Jim Fullerton saw her fooling around on the ice by herself and came to her with a proposal. He told Nancy that the men’s team had been doing poorly — in fact, they’d just lost to Boston College 4-1 — and in Nancy’s words, he wanted to “make them work.” 

According to a Providence Journal from a year later, the phrasing had been a bit different: “Fullerton felt his team needed a laugh after losing a tough game.” 

Nancy agreed. She told me that at the time, the thought that such an offer was sexist didn’t even cross her mind.

Nancy Schieffelin

I was excited I was gonna get to play hockey, my God, you know, I hadn’t really played hockey since 16 or 17. I had the uniform on and all that, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to skate.

Jacob Smollen

There was no women’s locker room at Meehan. Instead, Nancy changed in the women’s bathroom before heading out on the ice for drills with the team. She was wearing a helmet — she’s not sure what kind, only that it wasn’t a hockey helmet — and was even given a men’s uniform as a disguise. 

She said that only the team captain, along with Fullerton, knew her true identity. She told me that the men’s players quickly figured out she wasn’t part of the team, but that didn’t matter. She was just excited to be playing hockey again.

The experience inspired her.

Nancy Schieffelin

Once I got on the ice with these guys, that's when I realized we got to do this for women. After that, I said to the field hockey coach slash gym teacher for ice skating,

Jacob Smollen

That being Phillips.

Nancy Schieffelin

I said, “Can we make a team?” I mean, I was so excited to be in this beautiful arena.

Jacob Smollen

Phillips, once again, agreed and the pair worked with physical education director Arlene Gorton to form a team. Soon after, Nancy started with recruitment, hanging notices on bulletin boards to spread the word. The player pool was mostly drawn from field hockey players and figure skaters.

Nancy Schieffelin

That’s kind of how things started. The field hockey players played with their field hockey equipment, so the goalie had her field hockey pants and shin pads. We didn't have anything. And the figure skaters didn't know anything about team sport, but they were very good skaters. So we had a very motley group of women out there, and it was a lot of fun.

Jacob Smollen

I asked her if it was hard to recruit new players, but she said it wasn’t.

Nancy Schieffelin

Some of them had played pond hockey, you know, they’d skated around, some of them knew how to skate. The figure skaters were just curious, I think. And they were really the better skaters initially. But sometimes they didn't know quite what to do with the stick or the puck. But it didn't take too long for them to get the hang of it.

Jacob Smollen

The team practiced 10 to 11 p.m. on Monday nights, according to the Providence Journal. They sold rule sheets for men’s hockey for 25 cents to raise money for equipment, including hockey sticks, which were $1.50. Shin guards went for $4. Initially, the team functioned as a gym course for credit, and they mostly scrimmaged amongst themselves.

Jacob Smollen

Yet the team’s founder did not stick around for long.

Nancy told me that at some point that year, she saw a poster in Pembroke Hall, not unlike the ones she put up to recruit potential hockey players, to teach in a in Mississippi, a program created by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to educate Black Mississippians during the summer of 1964. 

She decided to travel down south to participate. As part of the SNCC’s , Nancy worked to set up a school and a library, as well as register people for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Growing up in a suburban upper-middle-class New Jersey community, the experience was startling for Nancy. White men with rifles periodically roamed the neighborhood of the family she was staying with. 

Nancy Schieffelin

I'd never seen anything like the poverty and the kind of oppressive sense that people here had no opportunities. And it was extremely dangerous, just for them to have me in their house or in that neighborhood. They were risking their lives.

Jacob Smollen

She came back to Pembroke the following year, but it just wasn't the same. She struggled to readjust — previously a dean’s list student, she was now only just squeaking by academically.

Nancy Schieffelin

I did try to come back. The campus at the time. It seemed such a contrast to what I had been through and what I was dealing with that I, it was like surreal. This was just so safe, and rich, and I grew up in that kind of environment.

Jacob Smollen

Hockey in particular seemed irrelevant.

Nancy Schieffelin

I was thinking hockey, you know, at that point, I just, it didn't compute for me, I didn't want to. It just seemed so frivolous and unimportant.”

Jacob Smollen

Following her sophomore year, Nancy decided to leave Pembroke. Before the Pandas would play an official game — before they were even the Pandas — their founder was gone.

Nancy Schieffelin

As a sophomore in college, I didn't know what I was up to. It threw me for such a loop. And then I the only place that I really felt like I could do stuff, and where I could make some difference was in a community of, you know, less advantage. And I had come from, every, every advantage possible

Jacob Smollen

But even without Nancy on the ice, the puck was already in motion.

Jacob Smollen

Linda Fox ’68 took over leadership of the team as it evolved beyond just a gym class in the mid-60s. Teammates described Fox, the team’s co-captain, as a star — one of the few players who had played hockey before arriving at Pembroke.

Fox’s hockey experience, like Nancy’s, started young. Fox told me she grew up in a town outside Boston where the boys always took the good ice. She decided to learn how to play ice hockey so she could play on the good ice too.

But when this passion continued into her college days, she said that her parents weren’t thrilled.

Linda Fox

I came home from college my sophomore year and told my parents I wanted hockey skates for Christmas. I can't say that my mom was delighted because she somehow thought that by my coming down here and going to college here, maybe I would give up some of what I used to enjoy. 

So asking for ice hockey skates for Christmas did not thrill her. My mom then would come and watch us play games and mostly cover her eyes. She kept thinking that I should figure skate or something.

Jacob Smollen (during interview)

And what did you tell her?

Linda Fox

It wasn’t as much fun.

Jacob Smollen

But the team’s progress wasn’t linear. 

During her first year at Pembroke, Linnea Gillman ’67, then Linnea Stewart, used to figure skate at Meehan during lunchtime. It was there, she said, that she must have seen the flyers advertising the nascent team at the rink.

But Gilman’s passion for the ice, if not hockey, began before college.

Linnea Gillman

In high school I went down to the ice rink every chance I got, it was figure skating. I did jumps and spins and ice dancing. I’d never seen a hockey game or heard of ice hockey. But I loved to skate.

Jacob Smollen

Gilman said that in the early days, the team needed a lot of work.

Linnea Gillman

When we hit the pucks, some of us would all slide into the cage instead of the puck going in. I played defense because I could skate backwards better than most of ’em. 

Jacob Smollen

Just picking up the sport, Gilman said that she was nervous during her first practices and games — mostly because she didn’t know the rules.

Linnea Gilman

Every time I hit the puck, they'd stop play because I'd done something wrong. And I kept doing it over and over. But I didn't know what I was doing wrong. And they finally explained to me what icing was, but it was just so much fun that I got over being nervous.

Jacob Smollen

For those that don’t know hockey, the definition of icing is largely unimportant here, the point is that it’s not allowed.

Lynn Owens ’68, then Lynn Plaut, was a year below Gilman and a with Fox during her time on the team. Owens shared similar sentiments about the team’s level of experience.

Lynn Owens

We were terrible, most of us. I had never held a hockey stick, maybe a field hockey stick. You know? This is going back to the days when there pretty much were no women's sports. We had no clue how bad we were. We had no clue. I mean, we'd seen the men play. And the one thing we knew is like, I could skate backwards as fast as the men could, so I figured that we weren't terrible, but we didn't know passing, we didn't know strategy. I don't remember us spending a lot of time practicing trying to shoot the puck into the goal.

Jacob Smollen

The team, although inexperienced, also struggled with inconvenient ice time, as well as a lack of equipment and financial support from the college. In 1966, The Herald that the team was only able to practice during University free skating periods.

Here’s Marcia Hoffer ’71 P’08, class of 1971, talking about the team’s adversity in a pre-Title-IX environment:

Marcia Hoffer

We had to coach ourselves. We had to raise money, we had to do everything ourselves.

Jacob Smollen

And here’s Beth Bowman Smith ’74, class of 1974.

Beth Bowman Smith

And we had no locker room. We did manage to commandeer a closet in Meehan to huddle up in and put on our gear. But we didn't have lockers or anything like that. That was much too extravagant.

Jacob Smollen

Little funding often meant used equipment.

Linnea Gillman

Most of us just had figure skates, a few of the ladies had hockey skates, but I never got those. We had no money, we weren’t a part of the sports program at the school.

Jacob Smollen

Here’s Bowman Smith again:

Beth Bowman Smith

Well, freshman year, you know, they gave us shin guards and some elbow pads, and they gave us “protectos” which were these hard plastic things that we were supposed to stick in our bra, so we didn't get a puck to the to the boob I guess. That was it. Sweatpants, shin guards, figure skates, sweatshirt with elbow pads underneath. And that was, that was pretty much it. Helmets. There were no face masks then. Helmets and mouthguard.

Jacob Smollen

During Bonnie Bethea ’69 P’91, P’92, then Bonnie Falkof's time on the team in the late 1960s, she said those mouthguards were pretty much the only piece of equipment that seemed to matter to the Pembroke administration.

Bonnie Bethea

The only thing the school was concerned about was that the women wore mouth guards. So we had these funny-looking mouth guards that were attached to helmets. 

Jacob Smollen

Uniforms were also informal, at least early on.

Bonnie Bethea

We wore knee guards, which I don't know where we got most of the leftover equipment, but it was probably leftover from a freshman or JV team. So we had knee guards that we wore over our khaki pants, we wore black turtlenecks, we wore regular gloves just our wool gloves and helmets and teeth guards and that was no padding, nothing.”

Jacob Smollen

Bethea was one of many players who did eventually make the transition from figure skates to hockey skates. But the switch wasn’t easy.

Bonnie Bethea

I remember being out there in my figure skates the first couple of times and then someone gave me a pair of hockey skates and I just remember it being totally the first time you go out in them and they're you don't even realize that you're so used to stopping with those toe points. That the first thing you do is you go for them and they're not there. You know and you fall over.

Jacob Smollen

The yet-to-be-named Pandas struggled to find teams to play against. With no domestic collegiate competition to be found, the Pembroke squad played two games against one team in 1966: the Walpole Brooms, a women’s community team linked to the Walpole Sweepers, a men’s team in the Massachusetts Hockey League.

Janet McClendon ’68 said that she remembered playing against the Brooms because she had been given a penalty during one of the games for high sticking.

Janet McClendon

I had my hockey stick between this poor young woman's legs and the umpire was Joe Bennett. He was on the freshman men's hockey team. And he said he wouldn't have given me a penalty. But I looked up at him and looked quite guilty so he had to.

Jacob Smollen

I asked if she disagreed with the call.

Janet McClendon

Oh no, I knew exactly what I’d done.

Jacob Smollen

Owens remembered being physically outmatched by Walpole, something which would become a theme in many of the team’s early games.

Lynn Owens

They were built like it were built like hockey players. They were they were strong and solid and built like, there was one of the the men's hockey players that we called “Tank,” and they were built like Tank, you know.”

Jacob Smollen

The team lost both games against Walpole, one away and the other at home. In an editorial following the second loss, an overtime thriller at Meehan, The Herald said that the team had “come of age” and was in need of a name. The editors said the name could not “be too masculine,” suggesting the Pandas for its alliteration, bear similarity and, misogynistically, their cuteness.

Fox and Owens accepted the team’s name on behalf of the Pandas in a letter to the editor in the following day’s paper.

And, officially, the Pembroke Pandas were born.

Jacob Smollen

That’s it for this week’s episode of Pandas On Ice. In the next episode we hear about the Pandas' rise from Nancy’s “motley group” of figure skaters and field hockey players to a post-Title IX hockey powerhouse. From a national championship appearance to a trip to the Olympics, the Pandas make it big.

But first, they take a trip to Canada.

This episode was produced by me, Jacob Smollen, and Finn Kirkpatrick. Reported by me, Jacob Smollen, Finn Kirkpatrick, Maya Kelly and Tevah Gevelber. With additional help from Tom Li, Amanda Sun, Carter Moyer, Christine Okulo, Annabelle Kim, Megan Wang, Jaanu Ramesh, Rohey Jasseh, Sonya McNatt, Hayal Lily Karakus, Talia Sherman and Julia Gallent. 

The script for this episode was written by me, Jacob Smollen, Tom Li and Anson Nguyen. This episode was edited by Liana Haigis, Amanda Sun and Rohey Jasseh. If you like what you hear, subscribe to Brown Daily Herald podcasts wherever you like to listen and leave a review. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.


Jacob Smollen

Jacob Smollen is a Metro editor covering city and state politics and co-editor of the Bruno Brief. He is a junior from Philadelphia studying International and Public Affairs.



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