Steamboat Springs It often starts with a woman nudging a friend: "Psst. Try this."
Sometimes the second woman hesitates: "Um, I don't know. I've never done that before. Is it really that great?"
The first woman urges her on: "Trust me. You'll love it. Once you start, you won't want to stop."
The second woman, wary but adventurous, agrees to take maybe just a small taste. And another Steamboat Springs hockey player is born.
For a town of about 10,000, Steamboat seems to have more than its share of female hockey players. The coaches snag 'em young: Alexa Pighini aims her recruiting at middle-schoolers. But it's never too late to hit the ice, and women in their 40s and 50s are a standard feature of Chix with Stix, the Edge and the Steamboat Storm.
As they lace up their skates, master the basics and face down the competition, these women are redefining the term "hockey mom."
What learning curve?
Kristi Brown grinned as she recounted her humble hockey beginnings. Sitting at a table at Cantina, which she owns with her husband, Brown described picking up that hooked hunk of equipment.
"I remember the first day when I showed up to practice," she said. "I wasn't sure whether I should have a right-handed stick or a left-handed stick - they both felt so uncomfortable."
And this was after Brown had taken an introduction to hockey and a skating class at Howelsen Ice Arena. But she's now in her third season as an Edge player and is part of the chorus of women who describe the sport as "addictive."
Brown's team is sort of the starter pool for Steamboat women. The Storm is a step up, and the Chix are the highest-level squad, players agreed.
Brown said learning the sport has been challenging.
"I think the first few times I went out in the game, I was trying to do things I couldn't do," she said. "I was trying to skate faster than I could skate, and I was on my rear end a lot. And it wasn't that way in practice. I was able to do things and then in the game I would be trying to skate really fast and just - whoop - wipe out. ... In the beginning, I would say, every time I touched the puck, I would fall - as a rule."
Brown and Chix player Val Dietrich said it was tough to pick up hockey as an adult.
"You have sports you've been doing your whole life," Dietrich said. "It's a constant learning thing, and when you're out there, you're not thinking about anything but what you're doing. It clears your mind."
The athletes pledged that the effort was worthwhile, and Pighini, who coaches girls and women and plays for the Storm, said skiers pick up the sport quickly. They make great hockey players, she said, because the sports require similar balancing and stopping skills.
Storm President Marie Winter said her athletic abilities transferred smoothly to the rink. Her 16-year-old daughter, Jaime, also plays hockey and other sports.
"I telemark; I have for 25 years," Marie Winter said. "My whole family's just huge athletes, and this fits right in there."
Winter said she loved the hard-core elements of hockey.
"It's just a great thing for women to do," she said. "I just think it teaches them teamwork. It teaches them strength - you know, how to be tough as a woman. It's an aggressive sport, and you learn to take a little bit of a beating."
The Storm has proved that its players have the mettle of winners. The team won the Mountain Division championship last year. That was its second first-place finish, said Kim Bonner, who founded the team about 13 years ago as the Ladies of the Ice.
Her husband, Dan, and their sons, Eric, Jace and Brad, also play. Kim Bonner decided to play after seeing how much other parents enjoyed parent-child games.
"Sometimes I'm called the founding mother of the team because I arranged the ice time and started inviting people that I'd see out walking or whatever," Bonner said.
That's how Bonner hooked Deb Rose. Rose was out walking when Bonner stopped her and asked her to play. Rose signed on. Ten years later, Rose still plays for the Storm. Her 12-year-old daughter, Olivia, also has picked up the sport.
Rose said she wasn't sure when the team dropped its Ladies of the Ice moniker.
"I'm not sure how that evolved to the Storm," she said. "We're far from a storm - more like a light rain."
Kids and complications
Edge, Storm and Chix members agreed that children and family come before hockey. For some players, however, they come right alongside it.
Bonner said her family supported her forming the team.
"They thought it was great," she said. "You know, when you have three boys and all three of them hunt and stuff, I'm kind of left out of the mix a lot because I don't hunt. I think everybody recognized that it was something that would bring the family together."
The Chix members on average are a bit younger than women on the other teams, ranging from about 20 to 50.
"The Chix started as a bunch of 20-year-olds who want to play hockey," Riley Polumbus said. The team is in its 17th season. "We've grown, and now that we've grown, we've become a family. We're all used to each other's kids being around, and we know them really well."
Dietrich has been on the team for about 11 years. Her son, Dylan, 5, and daughter, Amanda, 2, don't play yet. Dietrich said that it's gotten tougher to fit hockey into her schedule but that her husband, David, has been an asset.
"Of course, you can't play on a women's hockey team with young kids without a super-supportive husband," she said.
Pregnant Chix players stay involved by working the scoreboard, Dietrich said, and hockey can be an escape for moms with young children.
"You're not thinking about taking the kids to school, what you're going to make for dinner," she said. "You're thinking about what you're doing."
Other mothers said hockey was a great way to relieve the frustrations of parenting.
"As I've aged and I've done hockey, I have become more mellow," Rose said. "I felt like it's helped me to be a mom because I've gotten that energy out in a good way."
Some mothers, such as Brown, started playing after watching how much fun their children had. Others, such as Winter and Rose, played long before their children considered it. Now, Jaime Winter is "totally addicted," her mother said.
"My kitchen dining room area has two hockey bags in the middle of it with hockey stuff drying every day of the week," Marie Winter said. "My poor husband."
Jaime, who plays for a youth team Pighini coaches, said she digs her mom's involvement.
"I think it's cool that she plays," said Jaime, a Steamboat Springs High School junior. "She has a lot of friends on her team. : It's cool to have her come to my games and understand, and understand how excited I am when I play."
They want you. Really.
Players from every team enthusiastically encouraged women to join them at weekly practices at Howelsen Ice Arena.
"I don't know what it is about hockey, but it's the most addicting thing ever," Winter said. "I probably skated two or three times and was like, this is it."
The three women's teams are friendly with one another, scrimmaging, subbing on one another's teams and going to tournaments together.
"We're such a small community, even though we're growing, that you help everybody no matter what team you're on," Rose said.
Some women also play for the coed recreational teams in town, sometimes splitting positions with husbands or boyfriends. Pighini, who played Division III hockey in college, plays in the top men's league in Steamboat and coaches on a volunteer basis (in addition to her full-time nursing job). She and her husband, Rick, are driving forces behind girls hockey, Winter said.
The Chix, a B1 division team, travels to the Front Range more than the Storm and the Edge, both of which play in the Mountain Division. But sometimes the traveling is the best part, Winter said.
"You're all slammed into one hotel room in your PJs, and somebody's got the wine and the chips and salsa," Winter said.
She said her team was known as a fun-loving group.
"We're absolutely nuts," Winter said. "We giggle, we laugh, and we adore each other. We have been through everything in the world with each other - with kids, with husbands, with illnesses, with everything."
Steamboat's hockey community suffered a big loss last year. City Sports Coordinator Kit Rice, who played goalie for the Edge and the Storm, died suddenly in September.
The women remembered her fondly.
"She used to, I think, get a little frustrated with us about being too kind and polite out there," Brown said with a laugh. "And she'd say, 'Come on, this is big-girl hockey now.'"
Rice was a huge advocate of the sport, Winter said.
"She was a big force in women's hockey in this town," she said. "A great woman. Just a great, great lady."
Those times - the tough times - pull the women together, Winter said. The relationships drive women's hockey in Steamboat and keep people coming back, nearly every player said.
"It really helps to have that many women in your life to plop your bag down and say, 'Help,'" Winter said.
And, she said, everyone needs that support network.
"How does anybody make it without their girlfriends?"