Closing the gender gap

Steamboat sees growth in girls, women's hockey programs

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Diane Dwire grew up in Southern California, where her only trips to ice rinks involved birthday parties and figure skates.

After she enrolled at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, however, Dwire quickly became familiar with hockey. Colorado College is a Division 3 school with a Division 1 hockey program.

"I played intramurals," she said. "By the time I was a senior, I started practicing with the club team at CC. Hockey is like high-speed, compact soccer. I really fell in love with the sport."

Dwire is one of many women and girls in Steamboat Springs who have developed a passion for hockey in the past decade. What once was a sport almost exclusively for boys and men has become a sport filled with female-only teams.

At 7:15 a.m. Thursday, nearly a dozen women skated onto the Howelsen Ice Arena rink, ready for practice in anticipation of a weekend tournament. The Chix with Stix, Steamboat's highest level women's team, competes in the A Division of the Women's Association of Colorado Hockey.

The team was born more than a decade ago, and Dwire is one of its original members.

"When it started, it was six of us skating together on the outdoor rink, and we had one game," Dwire said. "It was a short season because it was an outdoor rink. To see the growth of where it's come, not only with the facility, but with two additional teams and the growth of the league, is great."

The Storm and the Edge, B Division teams, are Steamboat's other women-only teams. They formed within the past 10 years and recently finished their postseason tournament.

"In a matter of 10 years, which isn't that long, it has grown immensely," Dwire said. "What started as one very, very small, unreliable and horrible team has grown to three really committed, good teams."

Stacey Foster, the ice rink's former manager, deserves a good chunk of credit for that. Ensuring that women and girls have the opportunity to play hockey was a mission of hers while at Howelsen Ice Arena.

Foster recently accepted a position as general manager of a sports complex being built in Park City, Utah. The resort town is building its first ice rink, much like Steamboat was when she worked here.

"I get to start all over again," Foster said. "There are only three girls hockey teams in the state."

Foster nurtured Steam-boat's girls hockey program from its inception to its current state, with three organized, traveling teams. The program started in 1996, when the indoor rink was finished. Foster grabbed some figure skaters and turned them into hockey players to form teams. Now, all three teams (U-19, U-14 and U-12) play in the Mountain States Girls Hockey League, a league Foster started.

And there is an array of talent levels. From recreational leagues where games are more fun than competitive to serious travel leagues that require commitment to a strenuous practice and travel schedule, female players have a range of options. Still, several Steamboat girls have opted to leave Steamboat to focus exclusively on hockey.

That they have to leave the Yampa Valley saddens some, but the notion that there are girls in the area talented enough to pursue hockey at an even higher level is a testament to the development of the female program in Steamboat, Foster said.

"Of course that was always my hope that girls would leave here and get scholarships and play hockey," Foster said.

Siara Atkinson and Carly Helm recently competed in the USA Hockey 2005 Girls National Championship in Denver, which featured the nation's top players. Both developed their skills in Steamboat. Atkinson, a sophomore, said she has reached a point in her life where she will move if she chooses to focus on hockey.

Kelly Smith already made that choice. After her eighth-grade year at Whiteman Primary School, Smith moved to Massachusetts to attend the Lawrence Academy, a prep school with a girls hockey team. Her coach is Laurie Baker-Mutch, a former U.S. Olympian and Lawrence Acad-emy alumna.

Smith, now a sophomore, also plays on the Assabet Valley club team.

Recently, Smith returned home to get her Colorado driver's license. She would have had to wait another year in Massachusetts.

"It's very fun being out there," Smith said. "I wanted the experience to do that and see how far I can take it. I want to put academics first, but if the opportunity comes to play college hockey, I'll take it. It's an awesome sport."

Smith said she owes much of her development to the programs in Steamboat, but the inability to get much exposure here warranted a move. While she was back in Steamboat, she took the time to walk the halls of Howelsen Ice Arena, chat with its employees and reflect on her time in Colorado.

She follows the progress of Steamboat's teams from the East Coast.

"The program has grown so much," Smith said. "The team has come a long way. We're getting better coaching and more ice time, but the coaching is the big thing. I owe a lot to the girls here."

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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