Olympics Score Goals for Women's Ice Hockey

Today's gold medal contest helps spur more women in US to hone their slapshot.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even before the medals were decided, the Olympic US women's hockey team had scored gold with Bobbie Kramer, who took to the ice here on Valentine's Day to find out what it's like to pass the puck.

"I got tired of watching," says Bobbie, a lanky 14-year-old with a ponytail flowing from under her helmet. "I want to play, maybe in the Olympics some day."

It was "Give Hockey a Try" night in this San Francisco suburb. And the clinic here was a big success, so much so that the sponsoring Northern California Women's Hockey League had to turn away eager skaters when the rink ran out of rental equipment.

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"We've never had anything like this," said league founder Theresa Green, who offered a simple explanation: "It's the Olympics."

The number of girls and women playing ice hockey nationwide is small, but growing. There are 24,000 female players currently registered with USA Hockey, the national governing body. That compares with about 5,500 in 1990.

At times, it seemed as if they were all crammed into this small rink. The 50 or so able to rent or borrow skates, pads, gloves and helmets poured over the boards onto the ice in what looked like the largest, most chaotic line change in history.

Bobbie and her friend Jasmine LeDoux couldn't help but strut their stuff, using their experience as in-line skaters to glide around the rink. One of the less steady skaters they passed was Kathy Galgano, a San Jose mother of two. She had a date with her husband and daughter to spend Valentine's Day at the San Francisco Symphony. But she gave it up for a chance to do what she had always wanted to do as a girl growing up in Connecticut: not leave the ice when her brothers came on to play hockey.

"I've wanted to do this for so long. I'm a huge hockey fan, but I've never played," said Mrs. Galgano through her scratched-up face mask.

Women's hockey is much stronger in states like Michigan, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, where high schools have added girls teams, than it is in the West. Here, in-line hockey has come on faster. But that is changing.

The Mighty Ducks movie kicked it off six years ago. Now the Olympics will "blow it wide open," predicts Jeff Weil, founder of the southern California Team LA, which he claims is the only strictly girls ice-hockey club in the state. Most girls in this state, and in many others, play on boys' or mens' teams because the female-playing hockey population just hasn't been big enough to organize it's own teams and leagues. Mr. Weil and other hockey boosters say Nagano got the attention of America's teens, and just as important, made a favorable impression on their parents and would-be sponsors. The job now is to keep up the momentum, a goal helped by having the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

USA Hockey official Robin Willins says Salt Like City can provide "something tangible" for the sport to market around. A key issue, she says, is gaining corporate sponsorship for women's teams. "I think the Olympics has given legitimacy to the sport," says Ms. Willins.

Advocates of women's hockey often bemoan the sport's violent image. Even though there's no checking allowed in women's hockey, the pads and helmets are proof enough to most parents that the game is physical, and there is a lot of incidental contact. That's a deterrent for many.

So is the cost. Those pads are part of a uniform that costs between $500 and $1,000. And there are league fees on top of that to pay for ice time. The fee to play on a Northern California Women's Hockey League team is $275 for 14 sessions on the ice. Still, the number of those wanting to play is growing. As newcomers here tonight took turns scrimmaging, Galgano came off the ice beaming.

"It's great. After a while, you just forget about whether you can skate or not."

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