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Pandas on Ice: How the Pembroke Pandas became a national hockey powerhouse

In the second episode of The Herald鈥檚 new podcast series 鈥淧andas On Ice,鈥  podcast editor and metro editor Jacob Smollen speaks with former Pembroke Pandas to tell the story of how the first intercollegiate women鈥檚 ice hockey team in the country became a national powerhouse.

Subscribe to BDH Studios on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed. Send tips and feedback for the next episode to herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU. 

Jacob Smollen

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It鈥檚 1968 and the Pembroke Pandas, Pembroke College鈥檚 newly formed women鈥檚 ice hockey team, is still the only collegiate women鈥檚 hockey team in the country. They鈥檙e also still looking for potential opponents. 

The solution? A trip to Canada.

I鈥檓 Jacob Smollen, podcast editor and metro editor, and this is 鈥淧andas On Ice,鈥 a podcast series about the Pembroke Pandas 鈥 the first intercollegiate women鈥檚 hockey team in the United States 鈥 and everything that happened afterward.

In this episode: The Pandas make it big, from the Frozen Four to Olympic gold 鈥 but some things remain the same.

Jacob Smollen

After covering Brown and Pembroke鈥檚 campus in chocolate bars and black and white buttons in order to raise money for the trip, the Pandas traveled to Kingston, Ontario to play against amateur Canadian teams.

The team traveled by bus and stayed in local dorms. Here鈥檚 Bonnie Bethea 鈥69 P鈥91, P鈥92, talking about the team鈥檚 Canadian experience:

Bonnie Bethea

I know there was a lot of excitement because we were thinking 鈥淥h, this is great. We're playing a real team,鈥 you know. But I don't think we really expected great expectations of us. I just remember being thoroughly whipped.

Jacob Smollen

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For Marcia Hoffer 鈥71 P鈥08, the Canada trip was her first game as a Panda.

Marcia Hoffer

When we went to the rink before we got on the ice, the other team that we were playing was from an industrial league in Toronto 鈥 and they were huge. Before they went on the ice, they took their teeth out. So we might as well have just turned around, gotten back on the bus and gone back to Rhode Island.

Jacob Smollen

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Indeed, the Pandas did struggle against the foreign teams including the Humberside Omegas, 鈥渞eported to be one of the best women鈥檚 amateur hockey teams in Canada,鈥 鈥 a 10-1 loss 鈥 and the Golden Gals of Queens, a 4-1 loss. 

Marcia Hoffer

I guess it could have been worse than that. Nobody went to the hospital. So that was really good.

Jacob Smollen

But, for Marion Dancy 鈥70, then the team鈥檚 goalie, the trip included one of her hockey highlights.

Dancy was one of the many Pandas on her first-year hall who was recruited by Linda Fox 鈥68. Prior to joining the team, she said she鈥檇 figure skated but did not know how to play hockey.

Marion Dancy

They said, 鈥淥h, who wants to be the goalie?鈥 I said, 鈥淪ure. I'll be the goalie.鈥 I figured I'd wear a lot of pads and the cage mask and all that other stuff.

Jacob Smollen

We spoke over Zoom and I mentioned finding her name through The Herald and Pembroke Record articles about the Pandas. I shared my screen as she read aloud the of the Panda鈥檚 trip in The Herald and, unbeknownst to Dancy, her own performance.

Marion Dancy

Display of teamwork and a small contingent of Panda fans who made the trip 鈥 Although Pembroke represented somewhat less 鈥 Filled this numbered more either 鈥 Among the stars, was goalie 鈥 I was a star! My gosh, that is awesome. That's awesome. I love it.

Jacob Smollen

In February 1970, the Pandas again traveled to Canada, this time to Montreal for matchups against McGill and Loyola. The team improved since their last international adventure, crushing Loyola 8-0 before losing to McGill 3-2 in the tournament final. But according to The Herald鈥檚 archives, that still made the Pandas the 鈥渟econd best team in North America.鈥

The trip was one of several over the following years.

Here鈥檚 Judy Govalet 鈥74, then July Gilman, who had figure-skated her whole life before attending Brown, describing one such trip.

Judy Govalet

We played a no-checking game. But there was always a little bit of leeway in that. 鈥淥h, I didn't really mean to do that,鈥 you know, smash. But you know, we didn't we weren't very we weren't completely rough, but things happen in hockey. Sometimes you can't stop yourself. We weren't all professional skaters.

Jacob Smollen

Govalet鈥檚 recruitment to the team was much like any other in the early days. 

Judy Govalet

We had girls dorms, boys dorms, and somebody was going down the hall saying 鈥淒oes anybody skate, does anybody skate?鈥 And we had no idea what they were talking about and they came out and said 鈥淲ell, we鈥檙e looking for girls to skate on the hockey team.鈥 And I said, 鈥淲ell, I can figure skate 鈥 but I have picks on the end of my skates to help me stop, I don鈥檛 know about all of those shushing stops that the hockey team does.鈥 And they said, 鈥淒on鈥檛 worry, we鈥檒l teach you, we鈥檒l teach you.鈥

Jacob Smollen

She said that during her time on the team in the early 1970s, they began to improve. Allison McMillan 鈥74 and Martha Schmitt 鈥76 arrived from Minnesota, both of whom later served as captains for the team.

1972 also brought the passage of Title IX, which required schools receiving Federal funding to provide regardless of sex in sports. This includes, , equality in participation, scholarships, equipment, practice times and locker rooms.

Here鈥檚 Beth Bowman Smith, class of 1974:

Beth Bowman Smith

By junior year, we had full hockey gear, and at least we looked like hockey players. Whereas before that we were pretty much a ragamuffin crew. 

By senior year, we weren't selling candy bars anymore. I think we were, we actually had a little bit of a budget. So whether that was Title IX, or what it was, I'm not quite sure.

Jacob Smollen

Cornell and Colby were among the next schools in the U.S. to form women鈥檚 hockey teams, and according to , both Cornell and Colby became frequent opponents of the pandas in the following years. 

But even post-Title IX, some things just didn鈥檛 change. Here鈥檚 PJ Hamel 鈥75, then Peggy McKearney, talking about the lack of support the team was given during an early trip to Colby, with audio courtesy of the Pembroke Center Oral History Archive:

PJ Hamel

We went up to Colby and we stayed in an unheated, empty classroom building 鈥 we had all brought sleeping bags 鈥 and lay on the hard floor in our sleeping bags, freezing 鈥 I mean, freezing 鈥 to death. It was the most uncomfortable night I had spent and I just thought, "Can't we do better than this?" I mean, do the boys, when they went on their hockey trips, do they lie in an unheated classroom in sleeping bags on the floor with not even a pad underneath them? Come on!

Jacob Smollen

Hamel, who said she was the team鈥檚 starting goalie throughout her four years at Brown, also had to use dirty equipment from the men鈥檚 junior varsity team to practice.

PJ Hamel

I was putting on sweat-soaked equipment that was disgusting. It smelled. It was cold. It was wet. And these leg pads that would be just absolutely soaked from sweat on one side and ice on the other side and they were really heavy because they were so soaked with sweat and ice and water. And thinking, 鈥淲ow! What if I had my own gear! Wouldn't that be great? That would be so nice.鈥 And I don't know if I ever did get my own gear in four years here because Title IX was enacted in 1972, so that was after my freshman year, and it really didn't start to be taken seriously 'til about 1975,

Jacob Smollen

Starting in the 1974-75 season, the Pandas had a non-volunteer head coach for the first time, Steve Shea 鈥73. The next year, Brown hosted the first-ever Ivy League tournament, to Cornell in the final 3-2.

In 1981, the Pandas would finish on top of the Ivy League for the first time 鈥 kinda. The team shared the title with Cornell after the head coaches, Shea from Brown and Bill Duthie from Cornell, called it quits following a fourth overtime in which the teams remained tied.

Patty Nawrocki Murphy

The Brown Pandas were very low on the totem pole in terms of their ability to potentially win the tournament. But we were able to put it together and one by one started to knock teams off. In order to get to the finals, we had to beat Princeton. We beat Princeton and then the championship game was against Cornell. Cornell had won every single Ivy championship before that day 

Jacob Smollen

That was Patty Nawrocki Murphy 鈥84 talking about the game, which occurred her first year at Brown

At one point during her time on the team, Nawrocki Murphy remembered getting new jerseys, but unlike the men鈥檚 varsity team, there were no names on the back. Nawrocki Murphy鈥檚 not sure why there weren鈥檛 鈥 but regardless, the team decided to do something about it.

Patty Nawrocki Murphy

Since my parents鈥 house was just over half an hour away, we piled in some cars, went to my parents鈥 house. And I had a sewing machine. So we went and bought all the letters to spell all our names, I ripped out the sewing machine and we ended up making our own names and velcroing them to the back of the jerseys.

Jacob Smollen

Nawrocki Murphy said that during her junior year the words 鈥淲omen鈥檚 Varsity Ice Hockey鈥 were finally put in letters on the locker room door.

Patty Nawrocki Murphy

Prior to that, it only said 鈥淢en鈥檚 Varsity Ice Hockey.鈥 So that was just almost like, 鈥淥h we鈥檝e kind of made it鈥

Jacob Smollen

The Pandas would finally make it atop the Ivy League 鈥 this time alone 鈥 during the 1984-85 season, and again the next year. But the team struggled in the following years. Little did they know the change that was on the horizon.

Jacob Smollen

This is Digit Murphy:

Digit Murphy

Ok, so uh鈥

Jacob Smollen

Murphy grew up in Cranston and played hockey for an all-girls team at her high school. She was good 鈥 good enough to be recruited to play hockey in college by a number of schools 鈥 not including Brown, something which would bother her for years. Murphy ended up playing hockey at Cornell. 

In fact, Murphy was the star sophomore on the Cornell team that tied with the Pandas in 1981. In an article from the Brown Alumni Magazine in March 2017, Murphy said that she was disgusted that the coaches had decided to end the game in a tie: 鈥淭here was some thought, I guess, that women couldn鈥檛 handle it. It was ridiculous.鈥

Digit Murphy

I was always mad when I went to Meehan, and I'm like, 鈥淲hy did they not pick me?鈥 You know, because I'm like, I'm right here. Because, you know, you grow up around Brown so you want to go to Brown.

Jacob Smollen

After graduating from Cornell, Murphy worked in retail and with computer systems in materials and inventory control. But she said that got boring. She left her job and went back to school to be a physical education teacher. 

One day, she decided to call up Shea, who was still the Pandas鈥檚 head coach.

Digit Murphy

And I said, 鈥淗ey, Steve. 鈥 Do you remember me?鈥 He鈥檚 like 鈥淥h yeah, I remember you.鈥 I'm like, 鈥滸ood.鈥 You know, I said, 鈥淚'm back in town. If you ever need an assistant coach, give me a call. Take my number.鈥 And he did. 

Jacob Smollen

Murphy said that after two years as an assistant coach, Arlene Gorton 鈥 yes, the very same Arlene Gorton who approved Nancy鈥檚 team in 1963 鈥 hired her to lead the Pandas. 

Murphy got right to work. She said when she took over in 1989, the team was struggling and had little money for recruiting. 

Another part of the team鈥檚 revamp? A name change. No more Pandas, Murphy said 鈥 the team would be called the Bears.

Digit Murphy

I remember going to battle a little bit with the alums and kind of telling them why I thought we should change the name because, quite frankly, we weren't very well respected in the league back then. We had these uniforms that were pretty ugly and my whole shtick was look good, feel good, play good. We got all new equipment, we got new helmets, we got new pants, we got a new image, we kind of rebranded. Now they would call it rebranding, I just called it yeah, we're getting rid of that Panda soft, cuddly kind of image 鈥 and like kind of dumpy and fat 鈥 and we're gonna go with bears who are ferocious.

Jacob Smollen

Still, according to Murphy, within the team, players continued to call themselves the Pandas.

Digit Murphy

Which I kind of liked, right? They didn't lose that piece of the history. But they bought into what we were doing. We were building a championship team.

Jacob Smollen

Under Murphy, the team did start to improve. In her first year as head coach, the team finished 11th in the Eastern College Atheltic Conference. Starting in the 1994-95 season, the team finished 1st three years in a row. 

The Bears soon found success at the national level as well. In the 1997-98 and 1999-2000 seasons, the Bears lost in the national championship of the American Women鈥檚 College Hockey Alliance, which hosted a post-season tournament for collegiate women鈥檚 ice hockey prior to the NCAA.

Only a couple of years later, the team played Minnesota-Duluth in the second-ever NCAA national championship, ultimately falling just short once again.

Still, the Bears were a powerhouse, a far cry from their humble beginnings.

The team even won the Bean Pot 鈥 a tournament typically held between Boston College, Northeastern University, Boston University and Harvard 鈥 when Boston University did not have a team in the tourney in 1993. The Bears are the only team not from Boston to ever win.

Digit Murphy

They were like, 鈥淥h, let's get Brown. They're close. We'll beat them.鈥 And we ended up the joke being on them because we had Kate Presbrey 鈥94 鈥 she was a really good goalie 鈥 and we ended up winning the Bean Pot. And then the year after they didn't invite us of course.

Jacob Smollen

Part of that success was Murphy鈥檚 coaching style, which, as she herself described, was tough.

I met Christina Sorbara 鈥01, who played on the team during their run of dominance, at what else 鈥 a Brown women鈥檚 ice hockey game.

Christina Sorbara

Ohhh, come on, get rid of the puck.

Jacob Smollen

She told me about her experience playing under Murphy while the current Bears scored a goal.

Christina Sorbara

Yeah she was intense. And she was willing to try anything. Even when you achieve the goal, she wanted more. I remember one weekend, maybe it was going to Cornell. And we went up there and we won both games, we thought 鈥淲e did so well.鈥 We drove the bus back. We took out you know, unloaded our bags, and she鈥檚 like 鈥淕et dressed, get on the ice.鈥 What did we do? We just won games, we had a great six-hour bus ride back or whatever it was and it鈥檚 like 鈥淵ou guys won. There鈥檚 still more. Go.鈥 And we had to do, we skated lines or something. You know, and it was intense.

Jacob Smollen 

Yet, Sorbara said that Murphy was so much more than just a hard coach.

Christina Sorbara

She always pushed us. And even if you weren鈥檛 getting better at hockey, you are getting better at life.

Tara Mounsey

Digit Murphy is a fierce competitor. She played the sport herself, she coached the sport and she really had a way to get me to compete to the highest level that I could.

Jacob Smollen

That was Tara Mounsey 鈥02.5, one of several Olympians who played under Murphy during her time as head coach.

In 1998, women鈥檚 ice hockey debuted as an Olympic sport at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Men鈥檚 ice hockey had been an Olympic sport for prior. Four Brown women鈥檚 ice hockey players carried the legacy of the Pandas with them to Japan in 1998: Mounsey and Katie King 鈥97 for the U.S., Becky Kellar 鈥97 for Canada and Chie-Chie Sakuma 鈥94 for Japan. 

The U.S. went on to upset Canada 3-1 to take home the first Olympic gold medal in the sport. 

Game Audio

Jacob Smollen

But Mounsey said the gold wasn鈥檛 what was most important to her.

Tara Mounsey

The most important part for me of that year was the impact that it had on the sport and young girls. It gave them another sport to try and then also have heroes to look up to, and rather than 鈥 you know, I had to look up to the Bruins. I wasn't gonna play on the Bruins, right? I鈥檓 not big and strong enough, I鈥檓 not a man. And so it really, women's ice hockey grew exponentially and it continues to grow since 1998. And so that's really special when you can show up at the arena. And you see all these young boys and lots and lots of young girls that want your autograph. And they are just so happy to be at the rink. That is what it was all about.

Jacob Smollen

Murphy left Brown in 2011 after a decorated 22 years as head coach. At one point during the 2006-07 season, she was the winningest coach in Division I women鈥檚 ice hockey. But before she did, Murphy said that when the men鈥檚 hockey coach left in 2009, she鈥檇 for the men鈥檚 head coaching position.

She didn鈥檛 get it.

Digit Murphy

I was more successful than the men's coach at that point and they just would not respect our program to even think about slotting a woman in that spot. I definitely wanted to do it, because I wanted to make history. I wanted to be a person that my players looked up to.

Jacob Smollen

Murphy said that the reason why she was passed up for the job goes back to her role in a Title IX case filed in 1992, Cohen v. Brown University. In the case, Amy Cohen 鈥92, then the co-captain of the women鈥檚 gymnastics team, and other plaintiffs argued that by demoting four varsity sports, including women鈥檚 volleyball and gymnastics, the University was not providing 鈥 for its female athletes.鈥 

Murphy testified against Brown as part of the which Brown ultimately lost, causing the of the teams.

Digit Murphy

It was wrong that Brown, with all the resources they had, chose to cut women's sports instead of adding money and adding resources for opportunity.

I testified against my employer. Pregnant. And, I mean, for me, I'm very aggressive, and I kind of don't care. But it was it was kind of maddening. It was maddening.

Jacob Smollen

During her time as coach, Murphy said in addition to the Title IX case, that the women鈥檚 ice hockey team was given game and practice schedules that prioritized the men鈥檚 team.

Despite progress, the team and Murphy were still facing the same misogyny that had constrained earlier iterations of the Pandas.

Digit Murphy

I don't think there was a lot of malice with the way that our program went through those Title IX hurdles. I think it was the times. _eople just weren't thinking that way. And as a progressive thinker in the women's space in sports, you're kind of treading on resources that weren't there. Right? So now it's like, 鈥淗oly crap, what do we do?鈥 because you're challenging the system. 

I think Brown was better as a result of our program existing, because the Pandas challenged the norms back then when they actually existed as the oldest program in the country. 

Jacob Smollen

That鈥檚 it for this week鈥檚 episode of Pandas on Ice. In the next episode, we take a trip back to the reunion and reunite with Nancy. What is the legacy of the Pandas today?

This episode was produced me, Jacob Smollen, and Finn Kirkpatrick, and edited by Hayal Lily Karakus and Megan Wang. The episode was reported by me, Jacob Smollen, Linus Lawrence, Tom Li and Amanda Sun. The script was written by me, Jacob Smollen, with additional help from Carter Moyer, Christine Okulo, Annabelle Kim, Megan Wang, Jaanu Rah-mesh, Rohey Jasseh, Sonya McNatt, Hayal Lily Karakus, Tevah Gevelber and Julia Gallent.

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鈥檒l 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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