My daughter played her first hockey game when she was 11.

That was in 1993, and "girls hockey" was just exploding onto the scene -- the Minnesota State High School League would approve it as a varsity sport the next year. But hockey is hockey, whatever gender is carrying the lumber on the ice, and my daughter's first game looked like Old Time Hockey to me, the kind we used to play outdoors in St. Paul, back when all my pals had teeth missing.

When one of the other team's players yanked my daughter's hockey sweater and tried to keep her out of the play, my girl pirouetted on her skates (she was a figure skater until she put on hockey skates) and punched her opponent right in the face. Or the face mask, actually. But it rattled the other girl's cage, and my daughter's face lit up.

"Dad, did you see me hit that girl?" she asked after the game.

Yes, I saw you, Honey. You're lucky the ref didn't. We'll talk about it on the way home.

I helped coach in those days, and I will tell you what I learned on the hockey bench: Wearing ponytails or perfume or painting little stars on your fingernails does not make girl hockey players nicer than the boys. Some of the girls on my daughter's first team could peel paint with the language that came from their mouths, and when I benched one little sweetheart who was swearing like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," I thought her head was going to start swiveling.

You get all kinds on a hockey rink, which is why they wear helmets and have rules. And why alarms went off last week with word that a 15-year-old Moose Lake girl suffered a serious concussion in a goal-mouth brawl at the end of a game and had to be hospitalized, and that police were investigating.

The injured girl is back on the ice (although she hasn't been cleared to play in games yet). I didn't see what happened. But I think it's safe to say, despite an occasional incident, that girls hockey is here to stay, and that's a good thing.

Back in 1994, the State High School League almost made Dance Team a varsity sport, instead of girls hockey. No disrespect to Dance Team (it's varsity too, now), but this is Minnesota, and hockey is our game.

Girls just want to have fun. A lot of them play puck.

The league has 135 girls teams this season, and it will take skill, luck and pluck for the best of them to get to the Xcel Energy Center for the Girls Hockey Tournament, starting Feb. 20. Some teams will get there with superior talent. Some will get there by playing hard-nosed hockey.

No sport that requires mouth guards and suggests the athletes wear "pelvic protectors" is for the faint of heart.

Still, the great thing about girls hockey is that it is cleaner than boys hockey, without the constant mugging and checking that is meant to be intimidating. Bad things are rare. And good hockey usually wins.

Exhilarating - and physical

The game, for girls, is exhilarating, just like for boys. And it is physical, with collisions and bumping as players contend for the puck. As the girls have adopted the state game and adapted to its demands, they have grown stronger and faster. There is no going back.

"This [the Moose Lake incident] could've happened at just about any level of hockey, boys or girls," says John Wareham, a librarian here at the newspaper who coaches my daughter's old public high school team, the Minneapolis Novas. "You get a scrum near the goal at the end of a game and words, elbows and punches are all likely to be exchanged in that kind of situation. Girls aren't immune."

But they aren't goons, either.

"It is very uncommon to see a brawl in girls hockey," says Brano Stankovsky, coach of the Blake School Bears, defending Class A champs. "In order for the game to stay this way, coaches must keep the girls away from the hitting and teach the 'play' of hockey," while officials keep the games under control.

Still, it is inevitable that a few punches will fly. It's called hockey, not homeroom.

Stankovsky has coached for 10 years and says he sees more girls get their adrenaline pumping when the game gets rough. But he attributes that to the fact that the girls are working harder at improving their game, and their passion for hockey has become as strong as the boys'.

As the anthem of the Minnesota Wild puts it, "The game's in our blood, and our blood's in the game. Lay us down under a frozen pond."

That's right. And keep your dang paws off my jersey.

Nick Coleman •