Graphic novel 'Kicking Ice' showcases girls' quest to belong in hockey

"Kicking Ice" features Bella, right, and her friend Skye on a quest to show they belong in hockey. Artwork by Lee Moder, graphic design by Phil Smith

There's a new hero in the comic book world. She doesn't have superpowers, an arsenal of high-tech weapons or a team of caped sidekicks. Instead, her "weapon" of choice is a hockey stick, and her "sidekicks" include players in the National Women's Hockey League.

Meet Bella, the protagonist of "Kicking Ice," an upcoming graphic novel to be published by Ominous Press about two young girls on a co-ed hockey team. Inspired to take up the sport after attending an NWHL game, Bella and her best friend, Skye, must overcome bullying by male rivals and their own lack of confidence to prove that they, too, belong on the ice.

"Kicking Ice" is written and created by Stephanie Phillips, and features ink by Lee Moder, art by Marissa Louise and Jamie Jones, and lettering by Troy Peteri. A comic writer and former college club hockey player, Phillips is currently getting her PhD in rhetoric and composition at the University of South Florida. As an undergrad at the University of Tampa, which did not have a women's hockey team, Phillips approached a science professor who ran the men's club team, which allowed her to dress for practices and scrimmages.

"I don't know what I was thinking in doing that -- I just thought, 'I'm going to go to your office hours and tell you I want to play on your hockey team,'" she said.

Phillips, a Tampa native and a Lightning fan, grew up a huge comic book fan -- "anything Batman" -- and has since branched out into reading indie comics as graphic storytelling has finally started to be taken seriously as a legitimate form of literature.

With this book, Phillips set out to write what she knows, having previously composed comics in the horror genre. "Kicking Ice," which will be available in August, marries her two loves of hockey and comic books in a fictional story that's informed by some of her experiences playing hockey as a woman. While she said she was heartily welcomed by the men on her college club team, and continues to play recreational hockey with some of them to this day, she certainly faced her share of sexism and bullying from male opponents.

She recalls her time on a co-ed team before college: "There was this one guy that would always single me out," to the point where she didn't want to play in games against his team. Instead, she borrowed a teammate's jersey with no name on the back and tucked her ponytail into her helmet. "Thanks to hockey gear, you can kind of hide yourself," she said. As a result, she was no longer targeted for being the only woman on the ice. "The game went fine when I was able to use the equipment to disguise my gender," she said.

In "Kicking Ice," however, Phillips and her team of artists made it a point to bring the characters' gender to the forefront. The image of a friend's daughter sitting on the bench with her braid coming out of her helmet particularly stuck with her. As a result, Bella is drawn on the ice with her braid whipping back and forth through her helmet.

The central conflict in the book revolves around Bella and a male rival, Derek. While Derek's bullying isn't physically aggressive or intimidating toward Bella, "it does shake her confidence, that there's somebody out there who has singled her out for no reason other than the braid on the back of her helmet," Phillips said. She stresses that while Derek isn't meant to be "this conniving villain" -- he's not cartoonishly evil or violently threatening -- but rather he shows the less overt, still damaging forms of sexism that remain pervasive in male-dominated spaces.

"He's just echoing a lot of those sentiments that those of us who are women who have played or worked around hockey have heard in some way. The idea that, 'Oh, she's good -- for a girl.' That kind of afterthought where you always have to qualify that she's different because of her gender."

Last year, Phillips met the editor-in-chief of Ominous at a comic convention, mentioning a project she had been working on about girls playing hockey and telling him about the NWHL. From there, the process snowballed. After her publisher came on board, Phillips reached out to the NWHL, which embraced the opportunity to increase the league's profile. The NWHL granted access to logos and players, several of whom appear in the book, and the league will receive a portion of the book's sales.

"When Stephanie and the team behind 'Kicking Ice' approached us, the easy response was, 'Yes, yes, absolutely and what else can the NWHL do to help?'" Dani Rylan, commissioner of the NWHL, wrote in an email. "We're a new league looking to advance the game and share our players' stories, and Stephanie is a uniquely-talented person who loves the sport."

The entire "Kicking Ice" project has thus far come together in a little more than six months and has received an outpouring of unexpected public support. A Kickstarter Phillips started with the initial fundraising goal of $17,000 has nearly doubled that mark, aided by cooperation and promotion by the NWHL.

In addition to its focus on the NWHL, "Kicking Ice" will feature a section devoted to the history of women's hockey, which dates far back beyond the NWHL, the CWHL and college. "We want to give a little bit more context, and representation for those other outlets where women are playing hockey," Phillips said.

Much like the hockey world, the comic book world is notorious for being insulated to men, with male writers, artists and editors filling the pages with strong male characters and traditionally weaker female characters in skin-tight costumes meant to appeal to the fantasies of their mostly male readers. But just as in hockey, the comic book industry is changing. "It's amazing that the current reflection is so much more diverse," Phillips said.

This diversity is reflected in the book's protagonists. Not only are Bella and Skye girls playing among boys, Skye is a young, black girl playing a heavily white sport. The sport of hockey itself is striving to increase minority interest and participation, while the NHL continues to struggle with racism directed at black players, most recently when fans taunted Washington Capitals right wing Devante Smith-Pelly. But the on-ice presence of Smith-Pelly or Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban on the men's side, and Metropolitan Riveters defenseman Kelsey Koelzer on the women's side matters now more than ever. And as pop culture slowly but surely embraces the idea that representation matters, having a black, female character for readers to identify with is crucial, and demonstrates the book's commitment to inclusivity.

"Representation on the ice is really important for these characters to really be able to see themselves and identify that this is something that they can do, whether they look like Bella or Skye or anybody else who's on the ice with them," Phillips said.

While Phillips says she doesn't address LGBTQ issues in this book, her hope is that "Kicking Ice" will generate enough interest for a second volume, where she can add more characters and expand the message of inclusivity.

Having navigated both the hockey and comic book worlds, often as the lone female voice -- not to mention being a Muay Thai instructor to a class full of men -- Phillips is uniquely positioned to tell the story of girls playing hockey. "I'm very used to male-dominated spaces," she said. "Whether it's me and all guys, I'm going to fight the best, play the best hockey, or write the best story I can. ... It is born from my own experience."