Steamboat Springs When Taylor Leary first started playing ice hockey in 1991, there were days when players had to scrape off the outdoor ice rink at Howelsen Hill and parents watched the games from the warmth of their cars.
So it's not much of a surprise that when Leary talks about playing against the USA Women's Hockey Team in front of 700 fans sitting on the Howelsen Ice Arena's newly heated bleachers, it's with a sense of disbelief.
"Oh, I never would have imagined this," Leary said. "You hear about how they're coming to Steamboat, the little town of Steamboat, and it's like, 'How did we get our names in the hat?'"
The sophomore defenseman is among the amazed high school-aged boys Midget AA players that will get the chance of a lifetime when they play the U.S. team in a scrimmage next Sunday. The scrimmage will end a three-day visit by the hockey team on its last stop before heading to the Olympics.
While facing the best women's team in the world can be more than just a little bit daunting for Leary, it is nothing compared to the excitement of facing off with a team he watched win the 1998 gold medal and plans to follow as it defends its title in Salt Lake City.
"It's awesome. It's the coolest seeing those people on TV and seeing them in commercials and knowing you're going to play against them," Leary said.
The Midgets are not the only ones excited about the scrimmage. It took just five days for the 720 tickets to sell out, which will put the crowd at maximum capacity and standing-room only. Jim Gregoire, assistant manger at the ice rink, said ticket sales were slow for the first few days and then picked up on Thursday and Friday. With the upgraded ice rink sold out, this will be the largest hockey crowd ever gathered in Steamboat.
Although the Midgets have a week to prepare for a team that has been known to give the 18- and 19-year-old national team a workout, coach Jim Dingle said his team will be focusing on two important league games first.
Coming off four straight wins and a chance to stand at the top of their league, the Midgets will be concentrating on games against Vail and a Colorado Springs team that could put them into the state playoffs.
When the Midgets do face the U.S. Team, it will be under slightly different rules than the ones they are used to because of the no-checking policy of the U.S. Women's Team.
"I think (the biggest challenge) is going to be not hitting," Midgets captain Dusty DeGroff said. "That is our strength in hockey, pushing them off the puck."
The speed and strong passing of the U.S. Team is another thing that will test the Midgets.
"They're the best hockey players in the nation if you watch them work the puck," Dingle said.
For the Midgets, it might be more about the honor of being the last team to play the women's team before it heads to the Olympics than actually winning the game. And there are the tremendous lessons to be learned from the most highly skilled players DeGroff said he has ever played against.
"My goal is to just keep them from scoring the whole time I'm on the ice," the defenseman said. "And to learn as much as I can from them."
Learning from a team that has broken boundaries in a short amount of time might not be too hard for the Midgets, a team that has seen a tremendous growth in the town's youth hockey program since they started as peewee players. No longer are the days when DeGroff's practices are canceled because of six-inch snowfalls or when U.S. hockey player Karyn Bye has to use her initials to register to play hockey so parents would not object to a girl.
"It's just changed so much. It's amazing," DeGroff said of the local hockey program.
And, the same could be said for the emergence of the U.S. Team.