This weekend young, female hockey players from across the country will rule the rink at Howelsen Ice Arena.
The sixth annual Girls Winter Carnival Hockey Tournament opens this afternoon, and though none of the members of Steamboat Springs' 14-and-younger team would say so, assistant Tony Walton said they are happy to host.
"I think inside they are proud that they have a stage to present women's hockey in an environment where they will be noticed," Walton said.
From today through Sunday, girls' teams from Colorado, New Mexico and Michigan will compete for championships in the U14 and U19 divisions.
Kris Stouffer has done a lot of work in recruiting the teams to Steamboat, tournament worker Dixie Eggleston said.
While the Steamboat teams aren't favored to win either title, they undoubtedly will play some exciting games and compete at a high level, both Walton and U19 coach Rob Hodnettt said.
"It's all no-check hockey, but that doesn't mean it's no-contact hockey," Hodnettt said. "That's why we do well. We have good natural athletes, and I think the girls' game translates into (having athletes) because it is about skill."
Nearly 45 girls are involved in girls' hockey in Steamboat, but fewer than 20 will play this weekend. The rest participate in the development program, which continues to grow and show promise. In places such as Michigan and Denver, tradition and more participants enables clubs to build stronger teams, but in Steamboat, girls as young as 8 or 9 will play alongside girls who are 13 and 14 this weekend.
On the U19 team, the age discrepancy is nearly as wide.
"The way this is working, from my experience, is this is more about having fun," Walton said. "Because we have such a wide range of ages, it's hard to standardize the mindset of the girls. What's important to a 9-year-old isn't necessarily important to someone who is 13 or 14."
However, Walton said, the team members get along extraordinarily well. There is always encouragement and never grumbling about a certain player or play, he said.
That is one of the bigger differences between coaching girls instead of boys, he said. Walton has done both, and he enjoys working with the girls, particularly because they listen to coaching and take direction better at a young age.
Another difference between the boys' and girls' programs is the attention given to the boys' teams, Hodnettt said. He loves coaching the U19 girls team and said he sincerely wants to see the sport flourish on the female side in Steamboat. Having an annual tournament for the girls during the popular Winter Carnival weekend is an important step to take.
"With all the sports here, the girls are doing lots of other things, so it's tough to make hockey a priority," Hodnettt said. "I'd like to build it up a bit and make it a little higher on the totem pole of activities list. We have so many young girls. The numbers have taken off with the developmental team."
Admission is free to all games today, Saturday and Sunday, and a concession stand will be set up. Large gift baskets also will be raffled to help raise funds for youth hockey.
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