A league of their own is a goal now fulfilled

Hockey: From a fledgling idea to a full-fledged program, Baltimore's first girls-only youth squad has come a long way.

March 07, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Kristie Zeiler - tall, slender and a student of ice dancing and figure skating for 10 years - swept in from the ice at the Mount Pleasant Ice Arena yesterday morning. Blades flashing, she glided gracefully up to the wall, threw first one leg, then the other across the barrier and rolled over like a lumberjack clambering over a downed spruce.

It's not a move she learned in ice dancing. But then Zeiler, 19, of Rosedale, wasn't wearing her figure skates.

She and her sisters Megan, 15, and Allissa, 13, and 25 other girls were competing against eight other teams in Baltimore Youth Hockey's first all-girl "PonyTail Tournament," played at three area rinks. In their first game yesterday morning at Mount Pleasant, the 19-and-under Baltimore Stars whipped the Reading (Pa.) Jr. Royals, 6-0.

Outside the rink after the game, still bulked up by her protective padding and loose jersey, Kristie Zeiler said she enjoyed figure skating.

"But as you get higher, it's more competitive, and there's more politics involved. It just wasn't for me," she said. "I decided to play a team sport."

The program was launched a year ago by parents who had bonded over hot coffee, cold ice rinks and early-morning schleps to far-flung rinks to watch their kids play hockey.

They wanted to provide their girls with an ice hockey program separate from the traditional BYH coed teams. The project attracted more than 30 girls.

Months of practice and scrimmages led to the formation of two teams - under 19 and under 14 - and a "developmental" program for girls younger than 12.

It was a difficult building season for the older girls, some of whom had never skated before, and others who had never played hockey. They competed against girls from long-established hockey programs in Montgomery County, Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania, and finished regular league play with two wins and six losses.

"It seems like we lost a lot," said hockey mom Lillian Donnard of Baltimore, one of the program's organizers. But as time goes by, "the goal is to lose by less."

Girls have been a part of Baltimore Youth Hockey for many of its 41 years, Donnard said. But they have always played alongside the boys. It's fine while the boys are still young. As the lads begin to grow, however, the balance of power on the ice begins to shift.

"It gets to the point where the boys are too big and strong," Donnard said. Body checking becomes part of the skills mix, and "it becomes dangerous."

In the girls' program, body blows draw penalties. In its absence, the all-girl program offers young girls the space to improve and rely more on their skating and stick-handling skills.

At least that's the way the parents see it.

"I like playing with the boys," said Megan Zeiler. "It's a little rougher."

She likes the girls' program too, but for other, more social reasons.

"It's fun," she said, "and you get a lot of friends, and you can hang out with them in hockey and out of hockey."

Maybe it's because girls really are different. Or maybe it's because their parents expect them to be different. But girls' hockey is certainly different.

When the parents were first organizing the program last March, they launched it with a "Girls Night Out," complete with ribbons and balloons and snacks.

At the opening of the PonyTail Tournament yesterday, the girls from the Baltimore and visiting teams were each presented with "goodie bags" filled with candy bars, ribbons and colorful necklaces laced with little stars.

"You don't do that at boys' tournaments," Donnard said.

Teammate conversation even sounds different, said Donnard, who also has a son in the BYH program.

"The boys talk about hockey," she said. "The girls talk about what they're wearing to the game."

Don't get the wrong idea, she said. "It's not the cliche, `Oh! I broke a fingernail.'" But the girls did get together and decided to have matching T-shirts made up for the team. The shirts showed a fierce-looking, but pony-tailed hockey player and read: "Invented by boys. Perfected by girls." And everybody signed one another's shirts.

Coaching girls is different, too, said head coach Lisa Stratton, 34, of Dundalk.

"Girls are more emotional, obviously," she said. "They tend to take every teeny criticism to heart. ... It's a personal attack. You can't be as hard on 'em. You can be a lot rougher with the boys."

With girls, on the other hand, she said, "it's easier to coach them because they listen a thousand times better than boys do."

And where boys rely more on physicality and intimidation in their game, girls rely more on skill. "Our best player is this big," Stratton said, holding her hand less than 5 feet off the floor.

No one would call Allissa Zeiler intimidating. The third Zeiler daughter is an eager splinter of a girl still aspiring to reach 5 feet tall. She followed her older sisters into youth hockey and was alongside both of them yesterday, skating against a couple of Pennsylvania girls who seemed to be pushing 6 feet. And she was liking it.

"Because it's fun. It's challenging ... just going against other people and playing with the team," she said. "We all work together."

The PonyTail Tournament continues this morning. The Baltimore Stars play the Prince William Panthers at 8:40 a.m. at the Mount Pleasant Ice Arena at Hillen Road and Northern Parkway. The championship games follow at 11:55 a.m. and 1:25 p.m., also at Mount Pleasant.

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