By Al Mattei

The teams have names as varied as Montreal Axion, Calgary Oval X-treme, Beatrice Aeros, and Minnesota Lightning. The players aren't paid; one athlete, having no rent money for a pricey urban apartment, slept on the floor of an attorney's office for two months.

This is the life at the top level of women's ice hockey in North America. Two leagues -- the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) and the Western Women's Hockey League (WWHL) have scattered the concept of women's pro ice hockey across the snow belt almost like a hopeful farmer scattering seeds across inconsistent farm land.

In the winter of 2006, a dozen franchises exist: five in the WWHL, seven in the NWHL. Both circuits have ambitions of being the one league that benefits from any publicity, interest, and sponsorships that the Torino Olympics may generate.

But for the years leading to Torino, the NWHL has provided valuable experience to players looking to improve -- from the teenager without a junior team to play for to the Olympic veteran looking to sharpen her skills in a place other than an empty rink.

Take, for example, Winny Brodt. The former Ms. Minnesota of high-school hockey and Minnesota Gopher became an instant hit as a member of the WWHL's Minnesota Whitecaps. She kept her skills up after college and almost made the 2006 Olympic team.

The leagues also help shape the USA's mainstay players, such as Angela Ruggiero of the Montreal Axion of the NWHL.

"I was living in Boston, and I decided that I had to go to Canada in order to improve since it was only a year to the Olympics," Ruggiero says. "It's a touch decision to make, whether you're going to go up there or not."

That's because the style of play in the pros is radically different from that found in the college game.

"Checking isn't allowed, but my first couple of games you wouldn't have known it," Ruggiero says. "In that league you're going to see the most hitting, most grinding, most clutching, most grabbing, and that's their style of play. It's more NHL-style, where you can use your body to advantage the puck. There are going to be hits, and a lot of times, they're not going to call it."

And even though the NWHL website trumpets a style of hockey that is "virtually fight-free," there are plenty of antipersonnel fouls such as spearing and misconducts that skews the penalty to minutes ratio away from that 1:2 mark found almost uniformly in the NCAA ranks.

"They let a lot more go up there, but it shows the fans that that, although we're women, we're pretty feisty and intense," Brodt says. "There's no checking in our game, but there's a lot more hitting that goes along with it."

Once the Olympics end, the challenge truly begins for the NWHL and WWHL. Sponsorship and funding become a concern for the teams and the leagues, despite a reasonably successful history. Beatrice Foods was the title sponsor of the Aeros franchise in the NWHL since the league's inception in 1999-2000, and the well-funded team won the league championship the first three years.

But as the general economy goes, so went the sports economy. Beatrice withdrew in 2003. A team sponsored by a hockey equipment company went out of business altogether in 2001.

These days, the surviving hockey teams get by on the good will of the community and off-ice jobs -- pretty much the model of women's leagues like soccer's W-League.

But it is anyone's guess as to what will get pro ice hockey on a financial foundation similar to that of the WNBA. Yes, it is virtually guaranteed that a North American team will win the gold medal at Torino 2006, but it the way in which the medal is won that could very well determine the level of sponsor commitments for NWHL or WWHL expansion or unification.

"Right now, we're just focusing on getting a good player pool," says Julie Chu of Team USA. "From there, we're going to have to get some teams in the States. The more teams we can get playing each other, the more excitement is going to build around the sport. A lot of possibilities can go up."

"After these Olympics, we hope to generate the kinds of sponsorships and opportunities that this sport needs," Brodt says.