Kurtz, Gardner blazing trail as LAKHSHL female goalies
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There is a pair of goalies thriving in the L.A. Kings High School Hockey League this season, and until they take off their masks, you wouldn’t know anything is different about them compared to all the other netminders in the league.
Elsa Kurtz of the East County Outlaws and Emma Gardner of the South Bay Stingrays are the only two female goalies in the league, and their presence among their male teammates is notable at an age level when girls often shift their focus to playing with their own gender due to disparities in size and strength that become more prevalent in high school.
Kurtz grew up in the hockey hotbed of Minnesota, playing the game since she was six years old. When she relocated to California in the last year, she signed on to play for the Outlaws as well as the California Wave’s 18U AA boys team. She considered playing for the Anaheim Lady Ducks but felt that competing against boys would help her advance her skill development more quickly.
“I had the option to try out to play with the boys – fortunately I made it, and it has all worked out,” said Kurtz, a senior who attends a charter school in Simi Valley called Opportunities for Learning. “It’s great, because I’m on the ice multiple days a week – I get a lot of practice and game time in.”
Kurtz so far this season has split time between the pipes with Ethan Murphy for the Outlaws, appearing in four of the team’s first 10 games and registering 78 saves. She recently committed to continue her hockey career at Grand Canyon University, an ACHA Division I program, after being recruited by a number of other schools.
“There were a lot of reasons for choosing GCU, but the biggest one was the potential of a young program,” Kurtz said. “Natalie Rossi was Coach of the Year, and the campus is amazing.”
Until this year, Kurtz played on girls teams throughout her youth hockey career, typically playing one age level up. She said that playing with boys has challenged her every day, but she knows it’s a great way to get better fast.
“The biggest difference I have found is that girls pass a lot more and make crisper passes because they can’t check each other,” Kurtz said. “Boys use their size and strength to snap off much harder shots, so the game is much faster paced, which is fun for a goalie.”
Gardner is a 15-year-old sophomore who attends West Torrance High School. She started playing hockey about seven years ago, beginning in roller hockey, but not in goal. A friend of her dad’s introduced her to the net and gave her some used equipment, and she was instantly drawn to the pressure and responsibility that the position brings with it.
“I played with a girls program for a while, but I realized that if I wanted to keep going with hockey and get better, and reach my goals, I’d have to go back to playing with boys,” said Gardner. “I chose to go back and play high school hockey this year, and I’m also playing with the Bay Harbor Red Wings on their 16U team.”
Through mid-November, Gardner had played in six of the Stingrays’ seven games. She had registered 107 saves.
Gardner hopes to prove herself with the Kings league and the Red Wings this year and make the jump to hockey powerhouse Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota next year with hopes that can serve as a springboard to playing college hockey in the eastern half of the country.
“I didn’t really know what to expect in my first year in the Kings league, but the coaches are great and include me in everything just like all the other players,” Gardner said. “It has been a great experience.”
— Greg Ball
(Dec. 2, 2019)