A South Florida hockey club carves out a space for women on the ice
Karen Ota-O'Brien is the founder of the Fort Lauderdale-based Lucky Pucks, a women's ice hockey club made of girls and women of all ages. This year, she's getting recognition for her decades-long work in bringing women's hockey to South Florida.
It’s been a good year for ice hockey in South Florida.
This past summer, the Florida Panthers swept the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference playoffs and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 27 years.
But at a stadium just north of where the Panthers play, there's another team that has found success on the ice.
It's the Fort Lauderdale-based Lucky Pucks — an ice hockey club made up of girls and women of all ages. They swept the state championships on every level this past year. The division for women over age 40 won gold for the National Championships with USA Hockey.
The team's biggest legacy, however, isn't the trophies and accolades. It's the generations who continue to pass on their love of the sport.
And it all started with one woman.
A league of their own
When she's not skating coast to coast inside the Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, Coconut Creek resident Karen Ota-O'Brien, 58, works in office furniture sales.
On the ice, she's better known as K.O. — the initials of her maiden name, Karen Ota.
Ota-O'Brien started playing hockey when there was no women's program. In fact, she started playing in the men's league. So, she formed a team of her own out of necessity.
"That's how I came over those hurdles," Ota-O'Brien said. "'You don't want me to play on your team? Then, O.K., I will start my own team.'"
By the mid-90s, she had carved out her own space for women to play hockey in South Florida. It took years for Ota-O'Brien to finally, and officially, form an all-women tournament team.
Before becoming the Lucky Pucks, the team over the years went through some name changes: First they were the Fort Lauderdale Freeze, then The Beaches, and finally The Lucky Pucks.
A tournament team, though, wasn’t enough for Ota-O'Brien. Over a few drinks with friends at a bar, they formed an entire state league.
“I wrote a bunch of notes on a bar napkin and from there we contacted other cities [in Florida], said, ‘hey, we're thinking, do you have a hockey team you want to play in?’ And that's how that started in the early 2000s,” said Ota-O'Brien.
The year was 2002, and she co-founded the Florida Women’s Hockey League (FWHL).
A total of 11 teams kicked off the league’s first year in existence — from cities as far north as Jacksonville, to as far south as Fort Myers.
The FWHL now consists of 14 teams around the state.
“We all just have that same passion for just chasing that black puck around for an hour,” she said. “Your worries and concerns and your bad days that you might have had that day, you forget about it."
Creating a sisterhood
Ota-O'Brien said it's become a sisterhood that now spans generations. Hockey moms who used to watch their kids from the sidelines wanted to get on the ice themselves. And the players who joined the team as young women have now become mothers.
Maria Law was one of the first people to join the Lucky Pucks. She was then 19 years old. That's when she turned over her inline roller blades for ice skates — and never looked back.
"I love how we've been able to support each other through the years. We've all been able to be around them and see them weekly and really just create a sisterhood — a bond that you can't really replicate anywhere else," Law said.
She's now 36 years old, and the mother of two kids, who also share her love of the sport.
After a recent scrimmage, the Lucky Pucks stripped off layers of padding and second-hand gear held together by rolls of Velcro and tape. Laughter and chatter bounced off the locker room walls. The players traded horror stories over hockey gear that festered too long in their massive duffel bags.
"I leave [the bag] at the entrance when I get home, and my daughter opens the bag and she's like, 'Mommy yuck,'" Law told the whole room, which erupted in laughter.
Hockey has become popular in the Sunshine State, including South Florida, because of the large number of transplants — people who typically move from up north, Law said.
"We're not like a typical hockey market down here. Most of the people that are here are from all over,” said Law. “We've got friends that are from Canada, friends that are from Switzerland, from, you know, just all over the states. And of course, everyone comes here for our nice warm weather, right?"
Ota-O'Brien is among the many transplants.
She grew up on a cattle ranch in 100 Mile House, British Columbia, a small community where frozen hayfields served as her first skating rink. She wouldn't actually start chasing pucks until she moved to hot, sunny Florida.
“When I was younger, there was no time for any extracurricular events,” Ota-O’Brien said. “I had to get up on the bus, go home and feed the cows.”
South Florida, she said, presented many opportunities for sports, even as an adult. But choosing this place was not intentional. She came to Florida on a whim. The idea of alligators and swamps didn't appeal to her.
Ota-O’Brien had a week-long vacation planned for St. Thomas with her boyfriend and a friend.
"And they didn't get their act together and I did it," she said. "So, I had one plane ticket, and I remember being in the Vancouver airport crying, thinking, 'what am I doing?'"
Those five days in the Caribbean turned into a nine-month stint as a stewardess on a private yacht. Because of her heritage — her mother is Native American and her dad is Japanese — she was able to legally work in the United States.
"Me and this other steward said, ‘why don't we go to Florida and be freelance stewardesses?’ So that was in 1989 and I'm still here," Ota-O’Brien said.
Fast forward to today — she was recently recognized for the decades-long work she’s done for women’s hockey. Ota-O’Brien was a finalist this year for the prestigious Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award with the National Hockey League. She also won Adult Player of the Year with USA Hockey.
Ota-O'Brien called it a full-circle moment. It’s been almost 30 years since she started a team with just a handful of women.
“Back in the 90's, I didn't start this program or even dream that I would … actually be given an award by USA Hockey. That wasn't the reason why I started this program,” she said. “But man, it sure was nice getting recognized for it.”
The Lucky Pucks now have three different divisions for experience that ranges from true beginners to fast-paced collegiate level.
The club also has three national teams — for different age ranges. Until recently, the youngest was the division for women over 21 years old. There’s also a team for women over 30, and for women over the age of 40.
Every week, the Lucky Pucks even host a ‘Girls Nite Out,’ where women and girls can just play — no experience needed. Tuesday nights in Boca Raton; Thursday nights in Coral Springs.
An 'absence of hockey' for girls
"There she goes, Go, go," said Jeff Jabick who sat in the stands, cheering for his 11-year-old daughter Hannah Jabick who zips across the ice in bright red socks. She's one of the youngest, and by far the smallest, players on the team.
Instead of summer camp, he said Hannah wanted to play ice hockey with the Lucky Pucks.
"I'm surprised that she wants to play with the big girls," he said. "There's no reason in today's day and age to hold her back from anything and whatever she wants to do."
Hannah started playing hockey when she was just six years old. She's used to being one of the few girls on her recreational teams, but with the Lucky Pucks she doesn't worry so much about getting hit.
Thanks to Ota-O'Brien, Hannah is just one of the many girls and young women who now have a safe space to play hockey— and, in some cases, she's inspired some girls to start their own teams for their age division.
The Lucky Pucks have added a junior national team made up of girls between the ages of 14 and 16.
Madison Eckler, 15, helped realize this dream after she grew tired of making a three-and-a-half hour drive to Orlando just to play on a competitive level.
"There's kind of an absence of hockey for teenage girls, especially in South Florida, and so I got a couple girls together," she said. " We realized we had nowhere to play. And just with Karen's help kind of spread from there, we had an idea and Karen helped me make that happen."
Now Eckler wants to continue playing hockey in college.
"The community in ice hockey is so good," she said. "You'll always have someone to lean on. It's amazing. The people you'll meet, the friendships you'll make, they're life long."
*An earlier version of this story misspelled Jeff and Hannah Jabick's name.
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