Only seven years ago, Kati Vaughn first laced up a pair of hockey skates. Now, the tall 14-year-old plays on an elite team, the Connecticut Polar Bears, and dreams of skating for the US Olympic team.
"Hockey's my life," she says after a game.
This winter, at rinks across the nation, it's increasingly common to see other Kati Vaughns with pony tails sprouting out of helmets.
There are now goalie schools for girls and at least one academy in Vermont whose main aim is preparing girls to play college hockey.
Some high schools are now adding girls hockey to their list of varsity sports and universities are recruiting the best players with full scholarships.
Yes, instead of donning tights and trying double axels, young girls are learning how to sprint down the ice after a frozen piece of rubber. A sport, best known for its National Hockey League fisticuffs, is now attracting girls and women who love the competitive rush.
Over the past two years, there has been a 50 percent increase in girls and women registered with Hockey USA and a 40 percent increase in all-female teams.
Some of the increased participation is the result of the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where the US women's team upset the Canadians to win the gold medal.
"We hope it led to the growth of the game," says Ben Smith, coach of the US Olympic and National Team.
Some of the girls interviewed say they are drawn to the sport because of its speed, the importance of teamwork, and the work ethic.
Says Kati, "My favorite thing about hockey is that you get to work really hard in one shift and then do it all over again a couple of minutes later."
Although there is plenty of contact in the girls' games, the female version relies more on precision passing and teamwork.
"The sport really teaches you a lot about teamwork," says Bears player Hadley Cameron, a teen who has been playing for eight years.
Some got started because of their families. That's the case with Becky Zavisza, whose father and older brother played. By age 3, she had a hockey stick in her hands. Now, at 14, she's the captain of the Bears and sees herself playing for a prep school and college. "I love the competition," she says.
Minnesota spends millions on ice
In one of the hotbeds of hockey, Minnesota, girls teams received a direct boost from the state when in 1995 the legislature set aside money for communities to build new hockey rinks.
"In the early '90s it became clear we had an extreme ice-time shortage," explains Barclay Kruse, associate director of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission. "Girls or women used to get ice time at midnight or 1 a.m."
Over a number of years, the state spent $17 million for new ice sheets. With the new rinks, both boys and girls could get equal time on the ice.
Now, the state has 175 teams and 10,000 females playing ice hockey, the most in the nation.
However, the sport is spreading beyond the snow belt.
Smith is keeping his eye on girls from Arkansas to New Mexico to Seattle. As the NHL has spread as far south as Tampa, Fla., the interest in hockey has spread right along with it.
"You will see a sport where great population densities and affluence will give kids opportunities," he says.
The growth of girls hockey has caught the attention of college administrators, who are building new hockey rinks and starting NCAA teams.
For example, next year, the University of Connecticut will upgrade its women's hockey club to a Division 1 team, and its coaches are armed with 18 full scholarships.
"Coaches are in need of players," says Bill Driscoll, director of the North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, Vt.
The academy, whose sessions run from November through mid-April, is an attempt to fill some of that need for quality players. Girls study in the morning and then play hockey and lift weights in the afternoon.
"We're trying to allow girls to reach their full potential," Mr. Driscoll says.
The academy, now in its second year, is novel because, in the past, most of the top female players either had to attend a prep school or join an elite team. These clubs have intense schedules, sometimes playing two games in one day.
Lacing up at an early age
"It's really important to start playing by ages 9, 10 or 11," says Carl Gray, director of the elite Assabet Valley program in Boston. "As the girls are growing, you want them to be doing really good skill work so their eye-to-hand coordination improves."
In some ways, teaching girls hockey skills is easier, says Elmer Laydon, who has coached both boys and girls for many years. "They listen," he says.
For example, during practice sessions he does not want players whacking the puck up against the boards while he instructs.
"I have to remind boys each time," recounts Mr. Laydon, a Bears coach.
"But with girls, I only have to say it once, and they don't do it again."
There are still plenty of hurdles. Moe Tarrant, coach of the Connecticut Southern Stars, observes that it's an expensive sport. The equipment runs up to $800, and it costs a family $800 to $1,300 for a daughter to join a team.
That's not counting travel expenses, such as gas and motel rooms.
It's also tough for girls or women to see themselves playing hockey beyond college or the Olympics.
In the US, there are no professional women's leagues (although the NHL has accepted female goalies in the past). But the Canadians have begun a women's professional hockey league.
"Now we need more fans to get out and watch the games," says Andria Hunter, a former member of the Canadian national team who plays in the league.
"I think it has the potential to be a crowd-pleasing sport."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society