The Winter Olympics in Turin has put the spotlight on women's hockey here in the United States, especially with the American women bringing home a bronze medal. And it's only going to get better, because the sport is growing by leaps and "strides."
Head to any neighborhood ice rink in the United States on any given weekend and chances are, you'll spot ponytails peeking out from under hockey helmets.
Thousands of women from all over the country are grabbing their sticks and hitting the ice -- from little girls who can barely stand on their skates to women well into their 40s and beyond, among them, Maria Moss of Los Angeles. She's a business administrator by day and a tough defensewoman by Friday night in a nearby women's league.
She took up the game about six years ago, when a hockey-playing relative talked her into it. "My husband used to say I'm obsessed," she laughs. "Now he says I'm possessed because I just love it! I just live hockey, hockey, hockey. I don't know what keeps me coming back. I just love it!"
Cindy Bailey loves it, too. She didn't step onto the ice until she was 43, trying to learn more about the sport as an athletic trainer for a college hockey team. She says it makes her feel like a young athlete again. "There's just such a sense of freedom to be able to run or to skate. And as you get older, you lose speed and you lose that sense of just being able to flow in a motion and in an activity. And when you're on the ice, it is just such a sense of freedom of motion. The better you are, the more you skate and the better you get at skating. It's just an amazing feeling."
But, Bailey admits, that feeling comes with lots of sweat and hard work. "You're skating as fast as you can or as hard as you can or you're pushing against someone else, even if you're not skating fast, you're trying to get the puck, so it's almost like arm-wrestling." She compares it to running a 400-meter race, sitting down for a minute and then doing it all over again for a full hour.
Still, she says, it's a bonding experience. "We're here because we enjoy it, because we want to do something with other people that's still competitive. And it's really nice to be on a team where you're very supportive of each other in the good times, as well as when somebody's having a bad day. And they might be an excellent player, but they're having a bad day, and everybody supports them and gets behind them and says 'Come on, we can do this.'"
More and more women are experiencing that hockey camaraderie. USA Hockey, the amateur governing body, says the number of female players in the United States has skyrocketed, from a little more than 10,000 during the 1992-93 season to more than 51,000 last season. Lawyers, librarians, engineers, stay-at-home moms -- you name it, they're on the ice.
Many took up the sport as adul, but goalie Christine Malazarte has been playing since she was a kid, when she was one of the only girls out there. She says compared to the men, women seem to concentrate more on finesse, teamwork, and fun. And as for the image of hockey as a 'brawl on ice'? "I've never seen women fight," she says. "I've seen a lot of verbal argument. But I've never really seen two women drop the gloves for a hostile reason. Of course, there's always the random, 'Okay, let's just drop our gloves at the end of this because it'll look funny,' you know, the play fighting at the end. With most of the women's leagues that I've been in, as soon as the game's over, it's like 'Let's just shake hands and have a beer!'"
Experts credit the spotlight on women's ice hockey in the Olympics and more high school and college women's hockey programs for the boost in its popularity. And USA Hockey expects women's ice hockey to score lots of new players, thanks to Team USA's bronze medal at the Turin Games.