"I'll play 'til I can't"

Bonnie Shea became the first girl to play organized hockey in Duluth in 1951. She’s still playing competitively today at the age of 78.

Bonnie Shea’s hockey career–like a hockey game–can be summarized in three periods:

Period 1

In 1951, when Shea was seven years old, she watched the boys play hockey from her childhood home across the street from Congdon Park. She wanted to join, so she got herself a paper route, bought some gear, tucked her hair up in her hat to disguise her gender, and became the first girl to play organized hockey in Duluth.

“I had a little difficult time because the boys tried to check me,” said Shea, “I certainly got black and blue, but never lost any teeth.”

As a girl, she had to work extra hard to prove herself. She practiced on her own before the rink would open, and quickly became one of the leading scorers on her team.

Recognizing her skill, the East high school coach asked her to try out for their team, but before she got the opportunity, the principal announced that no girls would be allowed to play on the boys hockey team.

Shea’s promising hockey career was over.

She was 15 years old.

Period 2

Bonnie Shae playing during a Northern Stars game
Bonnie Shae on the ice for the Northern Stars

Shea’s life went on without hockey, although the sport was still alive in her heart.

She attended UMD, earned a degree in elementary education, and went to work as a teacher at Piedmont Elementary, later becoming an elementary counselor before concluding a 35-year career in Duluth public schools.

In the midst of her new routine; however, Shea saw an advertisement on TV promoting the formation of a women’s club hockey team at UMD called the Lady Bulldogs.

The desire to play–long idling in her heart–was again ignited.

She was 40 years old.

Period 3

Bonnie Shea wearing a Bulldog Hockey jersey, holding a cup of coffee, and smiling while telling a story
Bonnie Shea at home (photo by Alex Messenger)

Shea joined the Lady Bulldogs, and for the first time, got to play organized hockey with all women.

The Lady Bulldogs played against men’s club teams until the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota (WHAM) league was formed, which they joined. They kept the Lady Bulldogs name until the current UMD women’s hockey program began in the late nineties.

In 2007, Shea was inducted into the Minnesota Women’s Hockey Hall of Fame. She still plays competitively today.

She’s 78 years old.

“Unless there’s some health reason … I’ll play ‘til I can’t,” said Shea.