Leagues of their own: Girls' hockey thrives

The women's hockey team, which plays today, can select from a pool of top talent.

Four years ago, Jessi Waters thought her hockey life would now be nearing an end. She would hang on with the boys' teams for as long as she could. Then, inevitably, she would turn to other sports, other interests.

Instead, the seventh grader isn't slowing down. She's been elected tri-captain of her boys' team - and she has no intention of taking down her hockey posters anytime soon. First, she'd like to be on one herself.

What happened was the 1998 Winter Olympics. When the women's hockey team won gold, they forever changed a sport in its infancy - as well as the dreams of a generation of young girls.

In those four years, the number of women playing organized hockey has grown by more than 50 percent, and girls in states best known for cattle ranching or cotillions have supplemented lipstick with stickhandling.

Now, the United States Olympic team, which plays its first match of the 2002 Games today, can choose from the deepest and most competitive pool of talent in the world - and girls like Jessi can keep playing for as long as their talent will allow them.

The '98 Olympics' effect

The 1998 Olympics "raised girls' and women's hockey to a whole new level," says Chuck Menke of US Hockey in Colorado Springs, Colo. "It gave girls a goal to reach for."

Before the 1998 Nagano Games, Jessi didn't know such a level existed. Living in California's Bay Area, she had grown up playing with boys - girls' hockey was either unknown or seen as largely a novelty outside the Northeast and the Upper Midwest during those early days. Nagano changed that, though.

"After the Olympics, I got interested in a girls' team which hadn't been developing very much," she says. "When I saw that the women's team had changed their goal, I wanted to play for them, too."

There's still more developing to do. She says she still prefers to play on the boys' team (where she is the only girl) because it's "more intense and challenging." But she has a new focus: "If I keep playing with the guys, I think I could play with the [women's Olympic] team."

Maurice FitzMaurice has heard the story before. As director of the Connecticut Polar Bears, one of the nation's top girls' hockey programs, he has seen girls struggle to find first-class competition for almost two decades.

Throughout the 1980s and up until the eve of the Nagano Games, they found it only in a few dozen clubs located hard against America's northern border.

Last year, however, his annual tournament had 155 clubs from half of the states, including California, Maryland, and Georgia. While he agrees with Jessi that the level of competition in those places has not yet reached that of the Northeast and Midwest, some are beginning to develop premier players.

When coach Kimberly McNanama looks to recruit players for her team at Choate Rosemary Hall, a boarding school in Wallingford, Conn., she now looks at prospects from as far away as Texas and California. In addition, the profile of the whole sport has been raised. Recently, the school paid for her to make a recruiting trip to Minnesota. "Ten years ago, no one would have cared enough," she says.

Now in public schools

Much of the growth in women's hockey during the past four years has been at the high-school level, spreading out beyond the few select private schools that pioneered the sport in the 1980s, she and others say. "So many public schools are coming out with women's hockey teams," McNanama adds. "Before, you never used to see that, because they never had the facilities. Now, they're finding a way."

Nationwide, the rolls of women hockey players have swelled from roughly 25,000 in 1997 to 40,000 last year, with more than 60 percent of that growth coming from kids aged 15 or under. While the raw data suggest that hockey didn't receive the same kind of kick from the 1998 Olympics that soccer did from the 1999 Women's World Cup, officials and players are quick to note that hockey started from greater obscurity, and takes a greater commitment of time and money.

Exponential growth

"I just see the difference in four years has been incredible," says Olympic coach Ben Smith. "We're growing at every level, and we'll keep growing."

What's more, for more and more girls like Jessi - who usually plays no fewer than three games a week and sometimes travels around the country - hockey has become a passion, not just a fun way to spend the afternoon.

"The level has come way up because the best kids in the country are competing against each other," says FitzMaurice. "They've put so much into it. They're out on the ice four to five times a week."

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