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Pink laces, longer hair and significantly smarter: welcome to girls hockey

Avery Knueppel

Avery Knueppel, 13, was inspired to play hockey by her father and grandfather. She says boys were not "super kind" to her when she began playing but have learned to respect her. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Do girls play hockey differently than boys?

Yes, according to Jenny Fitzpatrick, who has both a son, Mac, 14, and a daughter, Caitlin, 10, playing youth hockey.

“The girls really play smart,” she said. “More brains, less brute.”

“Significantly,” added Forrest Knueppel. “I have a son that plays as well, and I’ve been coaching. For the longest time, I’ve said: If all kids were as easily coached as my daughter and all girls I’ve coached, our job would be a heck of a lot easier.”

“They listen better,” said Steve Holeczy, a coach of Squirt hockey—the levels are Mite, Squirt, Pee Wee and Bantam. “They mature a little better, so they’re not screwing around, when we ask them to do stuff, they’re very attentive. Skillwise though, it’s very, very equal.”

“The girls seem to have a little more solidarity as a team,” said Alicia Sharun, 14, who has played on both all-girl and co-ed teams. “I like girls better. I feel I can communicate more with them.”

Kyla Schneider

No. 26, Kyla Schneider, 10, listens to coach Steve Holeczy during a practice at the Glacier Ice Arena, in Vernon Hills. Like many girl hockey players, she was inspired to try the sport through family: her father, Eric, is general manager at Glacier. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Despite the growing popularity of girls hockey, people still assume hockey players are boys.

“The big differences are, whenever I talk to friends about it, they assume it’s a son, assume I have two boys,” said Fitzpatrick.

But girls do play hockey, which is why I stopped by the Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills to watch the Ice Dogs practice and to talk to the girls, their parents and coaches.

Only eight of the 300 players at Glacier are girls. Nationwide, the ratio is about one in seven: of 382,514 kids participating in USA Hockey last season, 60,983 were girls.

But over the past decade, participation of girls under 8 has increased 50 percent.

“We’re getting the word out there: girls play hockey too,” said Kristen Wright, USA Hockey’s manager of girls player development, who credits recent USA women’s team Olympic gold and the increase in college programs for popularizing the sport.

The girls I spoke to were all inspired by family members.

“My sister and my dad were playing it,” said Jessica Sharun, 10, Alicia’s younger sister. A fifth grader, she started to play at age 6. “It just looked kind of fun.”

“I used to play in high school,” said her father, Dwayne. “I didn’t push it on her.”

“My grandpa and my dad used to play it, so they encouraged me. I enjoy it,” said Avery Knueppel, 13, an eighth grader who now plays in a mixed bantam league where the rules allow checking; younger levels don’t.

“The first time she got nailed, she popped right up,” said her father, Forrest. “She was prepared for that.”

How do the boys treat her?

“When I first started playing on guys teams, they were not super kind,” Avery said. “But as I’ve started to play more I think I’ve gotten more accepted, and my team right now is being really kind to me.”

“At that age, there are two kinds of guys,” said Forrest. “One that is almost avoiding her; they don’t want to be ‘that guy.’ The other ones are trying to make a point: that this is a guy’s game.”

Avery’s mother, Kim, still remembers the shock of seeing her daughter play against older male players.

“She was on the ice with senior boys,” she said. “They were huge.”

Practice focused on skating drills, because it doesn’t matter how well players handle a stick if they can’t get to the puck. The same path that leads some girls to ice dancing leads others to hockey.

“Jessica started figure skating,” said Wayne Sharun. “She came off the ice after she figure-skated and said, ‘I’m bored. I want to play hockey.’ I said, ‘We have equipment that fits you.'”

“I liked skating, ” said Lily Aristodemo, 9, a fourth grader. She went to the rink to learn figure skating, but others were playing hockey. “I saw them play and wanted to play too.”

Seeing the girls being interviewed, Blake, a boy, drifted over to share his opinion about the best part of hockey: “Winning.” He was driven off by the girls with cries of “Leave! Leave!” and “Get out!” and “This is not for you; this is for girls only!”

No shortage of spirit here.

“A lot of people think hockey’s just for boys, but there’s no reason girls can’t play the sport,” said Holeczy. “It doesn’t matter, girls, boys. It’s a great sport.”

Kyla Schneider

With all the hockey equipment, it can be difficult to tell girl from boy players. But with Kyla Schneider, 10, the hot pink laces and long hair give a hint. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times