EVERETT — Annie Johnson needed no words to indicate what she wanted to be when she grows up. When asked if she wanted to be a member of the U.S. women’s national hockey team, the 8-year-old from Brier nodded vigorously.
On Monday night at Xfinity Arena, she and approximately 40 other girls youth hockey players received a first-hand look at just what that would mean.
The women’s national team is in town as it prepares for the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Championships, and its presence is serving as inspiration for the local girls hockey community.
“This is a dream come true for us,” said Zoe Harris, a Western Washington Female Hockey Association board member who played an important role in bringing the national team to Everett. “It’s an amazing opportunity for the girls. It gives them role models. They may see them on TV or playing in college or playing in the Olympics, but to actually interact with their role models is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The Women’s World Championships begin Monday and continue through April 4 in Kamloops, British Columbia. The U.S., the reigning gold medalist, is in the midst of a seven-day training camp, which began last Friday at Xfinity Arena and concludes Thursday evening with a scrimmage against a team of local players.
A combination of Everett’s proximity to Kamloops, along with Harris leading a contingent from the Everett- and Shoreline-based Washington Wild girls youth hockey program to the Four Nations Cup in Kamloops in 2014, was key in USA Hockey choosing Everett as the training-camp site.
“One of our mantras with our national team is that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves,” said Reagan Carey, USA Hockey’s director of women’s ice hockey, who emphasized that Everett has been a great host. “It’s a chance to expose younger girls to the national team. It’s not that frequent that you get to see women’s hockey on television, especially in this area. For us to be able to bring that to different locations any time our national team is together is something we really strive to do, and our players get excited to be able to go and connect with the community.
“We’ve had a lot of people in the stands for practices, and hopefully that continues,” Carey added. “The players appreciate it, and at the same time I think it’s great for people to see what the highest level of women’s ice hockey is like. I think most people are surprised when they see how good our players are, and it’s exciting to see that light bulb go off for people.”
The team opened up all its practices to the public free of charge. Monday evening saw dozens of fans in the stands observing the national team’s practice, most with a gaggle of young girls in tow.
“It’s kind of new having so much support in the stands for practices,” national team star forward Hilary Knight said. “I know USA Hockey made our schedules available, but to have signs and stuff just for practice, that’s the big leagues. You definitely feel the support.”
Immediately following Monday’s practice four members of the national team — defenseman and alternate captain Kacey Bellamy, forward Kendall Coyne, defenseman Megan Bozek and goaltender Nicole Hensley — helped conduct an on-ice session with five Washington Wild teams. The young players were put through the paces for an hour as they skated around orange cones, controlled rubber donuts along the ice and hopped over hockey sticks — receiving encouragement throughout from among the best players in the world.
“Every time we get to do something like that, it’s kind of like we had our player face on, and then we switch to our role-model face,” Bellamy said. “I think it really goes a long way with the kids and they’re going to remember it forever. You just hope you help them have fun and make them smile.”
A second on-ice session with Washington Wild players is scheduled for Wednesday evening.
Girls ice hockey is a sport that’s growing rapidly, both at the local level, where Harris said participation in the Washington Wild has doubled in recent years, and at the national level.
“There’s been tremendous growth,” Carey said. “I think sometimes we’re so eager for it to keep exploding we forget to look at how far it’s come in a relatively short amount of time. If you look from 1998 to where we are now, at that time there was close to 20,000 players and now we’re closer to 70,000 females playing. That’s a pretty significant jump in a short amount of time. To look at the growth, not just in the number of (NCAA) Division I programs, but in the skill level and grassroots effort, I just think we’re in a really good spot for women’s hockey.”
Check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/seattlesidelines, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.