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Former Wisconsin Ice Hockey Standout Reflects on Importance of Title IX

By Nate Perry on September 10, 2021 hst Print

As part of the NFHS’ yearlong celebration ahead of the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, High School Today will be featuring the three female inductees in the most recent National High School Hall of Fame class – Karyn Bye, Maicel Malone and Michele Smith. In this issue, Karyn Bye discusses how her high school athletic career set her up for lifelong success, and the role Title IX played in providing opportunities. Maicel Malone will be featured in the October issue, and Michele Smith’s interview will appear in the November issue.

Karyn Bye was a three-sport star at River Falls (Wisconsin) High School in the late 1980s and was a trailblazer for girls in the sport of ice hockey in the state.

Amazingly, Bye was a three-time all-conference and team captain of the boys ice hockey team at River Falls. With the formation of girls hockey teams still almost 20 years down the road, Bye became one of the state’s top players on the boys team. She also earned four letters in tennis and was a three-time state qualifier, and she was captain of the River Falls softball team and was three-time all-conference and all-state as a senior. She batted over .500 in both her junior and senior seasons.

Bye was the leading scorer all four years on the women’s ice hockey team at the University of New Hampshire and was team captain in her final two seasons. Bye was a member of the USA National Ice Hockey Team for many years and was Player of the Year in 1995 and 1998. She was a member of the U.S. Olympic teams that earned a gold medal at the 1998 Games in Japan and a silver medal at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

Question: Although Title IX was in effect, there weren’t many girls hockey teams in existence when you were growing up in River Falls. How did you come to start playing with the boys?
I started skating when I was four years old. But at the age of seven – my older brother, Chris, was nine at the time – and he was sick and couldn’t go to his hockey practice. So, my dad came up with the idea of dressing me up in Chris’s equipment and trying to fool the guys into thinking that I was Chris. I remember my dad helping me get dressed with the shin pads and the breezers, the elbow pads, the shoulder pads – everything; helmet, gloves, everything. And the last thing my dad said to me was, “don’t talk to anyone.” And I got out on the ice and started skating around, and after a little while they realized it was me underneath all that equipment, and not my brother, Chris. And I loved it. And at the end of the practice, I said, “can I play?” and my dad said, “absolutely.” So that’s kind of how everything got started.

Question: Even though your only option was to play on the boys hockey team at River Falls High School (RFHS), you were the beneficiary of opportunities to play tennis and softball on girls teams thanks to Title IX legislation. What are some of the benefits of girls participating in high school sports?
I think having girls being able to play (on their own) high school sports teams has been extremely beneficial for girls having that self-confidence and having to learn how to compete. I think sports in general just help boys and girls stay out of trouble because they have that sense of family, that sense of commitment, that sense of accountability. I think those things can really do a lot for their self-esteem.

Question: Did you have to jump through any legal hoops in order to play on the RFHS boys hockey team? What did others around you think at the time – your friends, parents, others?
Bye: I think it was my parents’ idea, but we decided instead of putting my name in as “Karyn Bye,” we’d use my initials. My name is Karyn Lynn Bye, but I went by K.L. So, in the program, I put K.L. Bye and then teams didn’t necessarily know there was a girl on the team because I also had short hair. Obviously, as we played the same teams year after year, they knew there was a girl on the team but not everybody knew.

Question: Did playing with the boys make you a better player?
It definitely made me better. It was a challenge every time to come to practice to prove to the team and to prove to maybe the parents and to prove to myself that I was good enough to play with the boys. Now, I don’t know if I was necessarily the best player on the team. My senior year, I was voted captain, which was a very nice honor. But I think I was voted captain more so for my leadership abilities. I was always on time, I worked hard. I just gave 100% effort on the ice and off the ice. And I think coach could count on me to be responsible, respectful. And I think those are some of the attributes that earned me the captain, the ‘C’ on my jersey, my senior year.

Question: What has your involvement in sports meant to you in your life after high school?
I think a lot of it has to do with – number 1 – accepting people for who they are. As you get older, you’re going to be working with people no matter what you do, whatever kind of job it is. And I think you need to learn how to accept people for who they are. You need to learn how to accept them as far as their work ethic, what their beliefs are, and especially if you’re on the same team in the working environment. I just think sport sets people up for success.

Question: The impact of Title IX has spread over the years and there are now girls hockey teams in many states. Do you feel like you were a trailblazer of sorts for those who followed your desire to play ice hockey?
There’s no question our 1998 (Olympic women’s hockey) team was the pioneer. I think we did a lot for not only women’s sports, but specifically women’s ice hockey. I think a lot of people didn’t even know women’s ice hockey existed. And after the ‘98 Olympics, it was an eye-opener; and at that point, I think a lot of young girls were like, “oh, look what they’re doing. I can go to the Olympics. I want to play hockey.” When I was eight or nine years old, I watched the 1980 Olympic team win the gold medal – the ‘Miracle on Ice.’ And it was at that point, I was like, “I want to go to the Olympics.” Now, there wasn’t women’s ice hockey in the Olympics at that time, but there was something there that said, “I want to do this. I want to be there.” And I was fortunate enough that in 1998 was the first time ever that women’s ice hockey was in the Olympics, and I was a part of that team.

Question: You are an assistant coach for the girls hockey team at Hudson High School now. What does it mean to you to still be involved with the game in that way?
I’m so lucky to be coaching. I’ve been able to give back to a sport that has given me so much, and it’s just been great for me to be able to share my story with these kids and teach them the things that all the great coaches that I had growing up were able to teach me. And I think that really has helped me have a sense of accomplishment and kind of brings it full circle. When you play, you were being coached and now the tables have turned and I’m able to coach these players and try to help them have a dream come true and help them find success in life. To me, coaching isn’t just the X’s and O’s on the ice or on the field or on the court. It’s more than that. It’s teaching these kids how to be a good person. It’s teaching respect and responsibility, and sportsmanship, teamwork – all of these things that are life skills. And I think as a high school coach, it’s really important to be able to share these with these young men and women.