By Al Mattei


USA Hockey has estimated that participation in ice hockey and in-line hockey amongst girls and women has increased anywhere from four to 10 times since 1998, when the United States won the gold medal at the Nagano Olympics.

The participation has not taken the form of more girls coming out to play on established boys' teams. Rather, the number of whole girls' teams has increased sharply, both on the club and scholastic level. Minnesota and several New England states now have enough teams to sponsor state championships.

But more and more, participation in girls' ice hockey has exploded on the youth level. Like the world-famous Assabet Valley league in Massachusetts, age-group travel teams are becoming more and more important in preparation for the next levels -- varsity, college, and beyond.

One can see much of this in a league game held on one weekend in New Jersey.

The Lehigh Shooting Stars of the Delaware Valley Hockey League are making only their second road trip of the 1999-2000 season. In the parking lot of the massive Lavino Field House at The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School, you can tell that there is a game of some importance being played. Pink placards are in the back windows of numerous cars in the parking lot, each saying "Lehigh Valley Shooting Stars' Girls' Ice Hockey."

Inside the rink, the Shooting Stars are taking on the host Lawrence Ladybugs. From far away, the game looks pretty much like an ordinary youth ice hockey game. You have to look much more closely to see the subtleties that differentiate boys' and girls' ice hockey.

Some players have special helmets that have a hole in the back to allow a pony tail to be insered out the back. Other players have decorated their helmets with a kaleidoscopic variety of decals. A couple have chosen to show their individuality with their choice in hockey socks; one wears a different color on each leg.

The face of girls' and women's ice hockey has changed greatly since the games infancy in this country. The ice is now resurfaced after every period, not just after the first. The lengths of periods are pretty much the same in both genders. College teams are spreading throughout the Midwest, after being a pursuit exclusive to the Northeast.

The skills are much better among young players. Not so long ago, a youth player with a good slapshot was extremely rare; most attacks on the goal were wrist shots. These days, however, the players are more aggressive on the attack end.

In the mid-80s, schoolgirl players were often referred to as Weebles (because they wobble, but they don't fall down), but today's youth players are extremely strong on their skates. And you won't ever see any of today's players wearing figure skates.

The number of players wanting to play is such that the Lawrence team has a full roster of 20 players for this rematch of a tight game played several weeks earlier. As the game evolves, the intensity becomes more palpable. A couple of times, roughing minors are called when one of the bigger players reaches out to take the puck away from one of the smaller opponents.

The key matchup of the day is evident: the Ladybugs' first line of Jen Cohen, Nicole Forant, and Danielle Bugge against Shooting Stars' defender Sheris Smith. Each of them seem to tower over the rest of the players on the ice -- not only in terms of size, but skills.

The Ladybugs are able to keep consistent pressure on the Stars' goal, only to see Smith counterattack for a good scoring chance. Lehigh Valley is able to take a lead in this game, only to see Lawrence come back for a one-goal victory. It was the first loss for the Shooting Stars in the club's one-year history.

The Ladybugs are in their fourth year of play, and have been able to build some consistency within the team. It is the second season that Bugge, Cohen, and Forant have been on a line together. None of them have reached the 10th grade yet. Bugge and Forant are from nearby West Windsor, N.J., while Cohen is from Marlboro, on the other side of the state.

For Bugge and Forant, this is the only chance for them to play: the West Windsor school district has discouraged girls' ice hockey participation for some time.

"The north and south campuses have been trying to get a team for some time," Bugge says. "A girl has been trying to get the team going, but hasn't been successful. And the (boys') coach wouldn't allow the girls to play. He didn't allow her to play because he was afraid she would get injured from the boys checking and being very rough."

On the other side, the Smith is also very young: she is in eighth grade.

"I have only been playing ice hockey for one year, but I've been playing roller hockey since the age of seven," Smith says. "I have a couple of brothers who are really into ice hockey, so I joined them."

Bob Werner, the Shooting Stars' coach, is expecting that the team will eventually develop into a multi-tier program, grouped by age. Currently, the team has players as young as the age of nine on the roster.

"A lot of girls have just started out," Werner says. "A lot of the players have to play in the JV leagues (with the boys)."

It seem girls' ice hockey has a little ways to go -- but not as much as even five years ago.