Love of hockey keeps girl on ice

October 29, 2006|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,special to the sun

Kasia Brandes started her hockey career by playing in-line (roller) hockey in the Jewish Community Center's league in Owings Mills. She began playing when very young, usually being either the only girl or one of just a few who competed with boys.

But Brandes soon began to stand out. The combination of her smooth skating ability that often left other players in the dust and her booming slap shot made the skinny left wing a player that coaches enjoyed working with. She even won a playoff game on a 50-foot slap shot with two seconds left.

However, Brandes eventually grew frustrated in the JCC league. The games were played on a tennis court or in a gym, and she wanted something different. A teammate had tried ice hockey, so she did the same thing while in middle school. It was a change that proved to be a great move.

"It was more intense, and I like it a lot better when things are more intense," Brandes said. "I had more room to skate and actually make plays."

Brandes is now a senior at Pikesville High. She played soccer in two seasons for the Panthers, but chose to concentrate on hockey. She's not sure what will happen next year in college, but this year Brandes is playing for the Susquehanna Rapids, a new program that offers high-level coaching and competition for girls interested in a path that could lead to college hockey.

Hockey has changed in the past five years, especially for girls and young women. When Brandes played in the JCC league, she was either the only girl or one of a few. But hockey's popularity has grown among women, especially in larger areas like Baltimore County.

Sun columnist Dan Rodricks helped start the Susquehanna program, which will be based in Baltimore County. They'll play games at Mount Pleasant and draw players from all areas into their four teams (19-and-under, 16-and-under, 14-and-under, 12-and-under). The top Susquehanna teams are set to play in the Mid-Atlantic Women's Hockey Association's Red Division.

Others are going to play in the Mid-Atlantic's White division. The club's Web site said that it's a "full-fledged girls program with focus on skill and character development, confidence building, team building and fun."

Jason Smith is going to be an assistant coach of the under-12 team. He said that more girls are becoming interested in ice hockey. "More and more girls are coming in at the younger age," Smith said. "Plus, more girls have more of a chance to play with all girls at a younger age. There's a transition taking place."

Ed Slusher is the hockey director at Ice World in Abingdon in Harford County, but gets a number of Baltimore County girls coming to his programs. He said there's no question how much more interest girls have in ice hockey.

"It's just grown immensely," he said. "I think the biggest push still goes back to the scholarships with colleges. It's become a more notable sport with colleges. I think the Olympics did help big-time."

American women won gold and silver medals in the last two Olympics, raising the interest of girls.

"There's an acceptance level now," Slusher said. "Girls don't get treated differently any more."

Girls interested in ice hockey used to play on teams with boys where there was just one or two girls. But that's changing now - and fast, Slusher said.

Slusher said he sees the increased interest in this area, especially from girls like Brandes.

Jerry Brandes said it didn't take long to realize how much his daughter loved ice hockey compared with in-line. She's now been playing it for about six years.

"She loved the wide-open and larger [rinks]," he said. "She liked it right away and has come to the realization that she doesn't have to be a prolific scorer. She's an all-around player."

Kasia Brandes has played on several different teams since taking up ice hockey. She's met a lot of girls from Baltimore County and other areas and even had a shot at a college offer - but is more concerned about getting a good education.

However, even if the Pikesville resident doesn't play in college, she'll keep memories of the sport that more girls in this area are starting to play.

"I would rather stay with hockey because I played it since I was 5 1/2 ," she said. "I played it for so long, and it was something that helped me bond with my dad. It was our thing for 12 years."

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