When the U.S. women’s hockey team captured a silver medal at the Sochi Olympics this year, the girls of the Carolina Lightning hockey program eagerly followed along from home.
On Thursday, they met one of their hockey heroes, Olympian Megan Bozek, in their own Raleigh rink, after months of correspondence over social media.
The girls ran drills with Bozek, checked out her medal and soaked up her advice, reciting it as they left practice.
They know to hold their heads up when they race down the ice, when to keep the puck at the heel of their skate and to have fun rather than over-think the game.
They said the best part of Bozek’s visit was simply the chance to meet her and find out more about her successful career. Bozek, 23, played hockey at the University of Minnesota and won a gold medal at the 2013 women’s world championships.
She was selected second overall by the Toronto Furies in the 2014 draft for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
“It’s really cool because I want to go to the Olympics someday,” said Emily Petersen, 14, a ninth-grader at Millbrook High School.
Emily said she loves everything about hockey.
“You can just be free out there,” she said. “It’s good to be with your friends on the ice.”
The Lightning’s program for girls ages 19 and younger is the only one of its kind in the southeastern United States.
Other regional programs have a few female players scattered among their teams, or may pull together a girls’ team for a tournament or two. But the Lightning has a program just for girls, along with a program for boys.
The girls’ program has grown rapidly, from one team two years ago to four this season. Of the 250 total players in the program, about 50 are girls.
Teams practice at Raleigh Center Ice, the practice facility for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Bozek, who grew up outside Chicago, said she’s glad to see a program for girls develop in a market where girls’ hockey hasn’t been popular. She grew up during a time when hockey programs for girls were flourishing, which she knows made a difference in her career.
She wants to encourage the girls to keep playing and to know there’s a place for them in the world of women’s hockey if they work hard.
“It was a dream of mine to put on that Team USA jersey, so I want to encourage others,” she said. “If you want it bad enough, I think you can make it happen.”
Building a girls’ program
Many of the Carolina Lightning girls come from hockey families.
They’ve watched their fathers or brothers play and want to do the same, said Jennifer Saad, who has a son and a daughter who play for the Lightning. Her husband, Mike, is one of the program’s coaches.
Others find their way from roller hockey programs or because they’ve seen hockey on television and want to give it a try.
The Saads’ daughter, Meredith, was just a little girl when she started banging on the glass at a Carolina Hurricanes practice.
Meredith, now 12, was captivated by hockey and wanted the full attention of the players.
All that noise worked when Hurricanes player Zach Boychuk flipped a puck over the glass for her. Meredith was hooked.
“I want to do that,” she told her parents.
Absolutely, said the hockey-loving couple, originally from Detroit. But first they had to find a program.
“We had to find a home, a place that would give the girls a chance to play hockey,” Jennifer Saad said.
With a few other families, they formed the core of what became the Carolina Lightning girls’ program.
Don Schaap, president of the Lightning program, said it was an easy choice to welcome in the girls.
“You give them the ice. You give them the coaches. Then it just takes off,” he said.
Schaap said the girls are fierce competitors on the ice who want to see their friends succeed.
“They’re out there for each other,” she said. “They want to win for the team.”
The teams travel to play, often to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., or farther north on the East Coast.
They’ve had players scooped up by prep schools to play, and one of the teams took a trip to nationals last year.
Cindy Murphy, who heads the girls’ program, said that having a program dedicated to girls is critical, especially as they get older. Rather than drifting along as the lone girl on a boys’ team, they meet up with girls as committed to hockey as they are.
Girls’ teams create a pathway to higher-level competition, whether in college or professionally, Murphy said.
“People need to see that girls’ hockey is competitive as well,” she said.