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If you want to see the difference between a boys' and a girls' ice hockey game, stop by the Edge Ice Arena early on a Sunday morning. The building, part of the Foothills Recreation Complex southwest of Denver, is one of several erected in the metro area in recent years. Even these facilities can't keep pace with all the new skaters, however, and ice time remains a precious commodity. The center's two rinks are busy non-stop, starting at 6 a.m. daily and pushing late into the night.
On a recent Sunday, before church has let out and the boys with body-bag-sized athletic sacks arrive, both rinks are humming. An elevated hallway runs down the center of the structure, with doors leading to ice on either side. A boys' peewee team practices on the left. The session is loud and frantic. A half-dozen coaches blast whistles and yell, urging the ten- and eleven-year-olds through their furious paces. The team's practice jerseys project swagger and sacrifice. "No pain, no gain," they say on the front. "SWEAT in practice so you don't BLEED in the game" is on the back.
The girls practice on the opposite side of the aisle. There, a single coach patiently guides all three of them through the basics of wrist shots, slap shots and backhanders. "Nice job!" he calls. "Excellent!" The girls talk quietly between drills.
Still, an hour later, the difference between the sexes isn't as great as it might first appear. A girls' ten- and eleven-year-old A team takes the ice against a boys' B team. For a while, the action is fast -- and equal. The girls' goalie, Amanda Vandenberg, has skills. "We took her to an open skate, and she put on skates and just took off -- she loved it," recalls her mother, Barb. "We asked if she wanted to play hockey or figure skate. She said, 'Figure skating? Yuck. I want hockey.'"
Amanda started out playing on boys' teams, but as she got older, she found them less and less appealing. So this year, she gave in to the pleas of several girls' teams eager to have her minding their nets -- goalies are always in short supply -- and joined her own sex on the rink.
It felt like coming home. "In the locker room, the girls are loud and funny," she explains, "and the boys are acting stupid and trying to be cool." Besides, Barb points out, the girls' game does not permit checking. She points to a six-foot-tall boy hulking in the middle of the ice: "I don't want him hitting my girl."
The girls' team is missing three of its best players, who are home in bed with the flu. But Amanda is a wall, knocking away several clear shots, a couple of them breakaways. Eventually, a few sneak by. The game ends in a shutout, the boys winning 3-0. Still, the girls are satisfied. They say they win about half their matches against the boys.
Five years ago, when Walter Johnson's daughter told him she'd like to try playing ice hockey, he did what any parent would do: He started looking for a league or team for her to play on.
There wasn't one. "And I couldn't even get her through the front door of the boys' teams," he recalls. It wasn't that some of the boys' teams didn't have an occasional girl on them, or that the boys didn't like girls playing hockey -- although there may have been some of that. There just wasn't enough ice time even to accommodate all the boys who wanted to play, much less a new wave of girls.
Alexis, who at ten was just a novice, would have to compete for a spot directly with boys, many of whom had already been playing competitively for years. "The coaches told us that the likelihood of her making any team was next to impossible," Johnson remembers.
Luckily, Johnson stumbled into the University of Denver, one of only a handful of places at the time to support a girls-only team. Today Alexis is fifteen, and her father coaches the team.
When he lived back East, Johnson coached boys' hockey. The difference, he adds, is immense. "Girls are better sportsmen," he explains. "They play for the enjoyment of playing. They also become teammates and bond; it's a social thing. They're better at losing. The boys want to beat you into the ground -- and sometimes their own teammates, too. The girls care about the other kids."
They're also getting a lot more interested in the game. Quietly, girls' hockey has become the fastest-growing segment of the sport. In 1991, USA Hockey, its Colorado Springs-based sanctioning body, listed 6,350 registered female players. This year the number is about 45,000 -- a sevenfold increase. Karen Lundren, director of USA Hockey's Girls and Women section, credits both Title IX, the law demanding gender equity for athletes, as well as the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team victory over Canada in the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, with raising the profile nationally.
In more frozen parts of the country, of course, girls with pucks are old news. Minnesota, Michigan and New England have long traditions of girls' hockey. (Isabelle, daughter of Lord Stanley -- the man who donated pro hockey's iconic trophy -- played hockey in Canada in the late 1800s.) But players with pigtails are more unusual here.