Skaters rally for a big win

Ozaukee Women’s Hockey League players can be fierce competitors, but when one of their own was diagnosed with cancer, they were one big team
Ozaukee Press staff

The Ozaukee Women’s Hockey League was started four years ago to teach and play the sport. Participants ran the age and skill gamut from young adults to senior citizens and former college players to newcomers to the sport.

While the concepts of icing and slap shots may have been new to the beginners, team effort and sportsmanship were aspects of the game everyone already had down pat.

So when league cofounder Elissa
Elser, a young mother with two daughters, learned she had a potentially life-threatening disease, the players instinctively rallied to her cause.

“She told her team and the league she had been diagnosed with breast cancer,” league cofounder Robin Bilsborough of Cedarburg said.

“It’s very emotional. As a woman, you know it’s very real and very personal — that feeling of you’re going to know somebody or be touched by somebody who goes through this is present all the time.”

Elser had to take last season off from playing, but still managed to be league commissioner.

“She did all the communications and emails, getting everybody where they needed to be,” Bilsborough said.

The rest of the league’s players knew where they needed to be and what they needed to do.

“The biggest thing is we were all trying to rally around her and give her emotional support,” Bilsborough said.

On the ice, skilled players are encouraged to support those still learning the game. The league doesn’t play full-contact hockey — there aren’t any checks.

The biggest rivalry, Bilsborough said, is to “see which team can be the most fun.” One year, someone crocheted crowns for her teammates. Another one made key chains.

New teams are formed every year, so new friendships are forged every Friday night at the Ozaukee Ice Center.

“It’s really one team,” Bilsborough said. “It’s a fun league.”

The league quickly established a support system for Elser, who created a CaringBridge page to keep teammates updated on her progress. Players drove her to appointments and dropped off meals in a cooler on the porch of her Mequon home. Since the league’s acronym is OWHL, players put an owl on top of the cooler to let Elser know something was put inside.

Bilsborough led an effort to go beyond that.

She organized a team in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Milwaukee last October.

The team’s name is the Hockey Hooters and includes an owl on their white and pink jerseys. They raised more than $8,000 for Elser.
Bilsborough said she remembered the event as being a good time.

“We were a pretty big group when we showed up at the Summerfest Grounds,” she said.

Wisconsin’s American Cancer Society executive director Laurie Bertrand described the team as “a ball of energy. When they arrived, you knew it.”

Elser wasn’t the only beneficiary. Tina Timm, who took a learn-to-play hockey clinic at the Ozaukee Ice Center before joining the league, couldn’t play because she also got breast cancer, and she didn’t have insurance. The

Hockey Hooters sold their jerseys and gave Timm the money.

After treatment and surgery, Elser and Timm have both been cleared by doctors and are cancer free.

In March, Elser served as the keynote speaker at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer kickoff and cited her teammates’ support.

“My friends and family carried me through cancer. I didn’t fight alone,” she said.

“One particular group cheered the loudest and that was the OWHL. We aren’t just about hockey. We’re about each other. Last year, I was the one who experienced the OWHL love firsthand. The Hockey Hooters arrived to the

Making Strides Walk by school bus. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.”

Elser was able to play late last season and is back this year.

“We had a very big celebration when she was able to come out and skate,” Bilsborough said.

This year’s walk, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is a virtual event. The Hockey Hooters have raised more than $2,000.

“We as a team just continued to do our online support,” Bilsborough said.

This season, the teams in the league have fewer members to allow for social distancing on the bench.

Bilsborough still runs clinics in summer for anyone interested in the sport and league. The season runs from October through March.

She wanted to play hockey after growing up watching the sport and then watching her four children play.

“It took one time out on the ice. It was so much fun that I was hooked,” she said.

Playing hockey, she said, provides a one-hour escape from reality.

“When you’re a mom you’re constantly multi-tasking,” she said. “When you’re playing hockey, you can’t concentrate on anything else.”

Beyond trying to put the puck in the net as a wing, Bilsborough realized she became part of something bigger.

“It’s an amazingly strong community,” she said.

For more information on the OWHL, visit

For more information on the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk presented by Kohl's, visit



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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