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Ice Creme de la Creme

Stowe's North American Hockey Academy give a puck about girls' athletics


Published October 2, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Hockey practice at Jackson Arena in Stowe: The coach points his stick in one direction, the goalie dives right. The coach points at the goalie's knees, the goalie drops forward. The coach points his stick to the left, the goalie lunges, clambers up and dives, then goes back up and down again.

Not an easy maneuver, especially when you're tricked out in fully padded regalia. The goalie's ordeal is just one of the grueling drills performed by the two dozen top female teenage ice hockey players who spend four months at the North American Hockey Academy (NAHA) in Stowe.

NAHA is the only school in the hemisphere dedicated exclusively, and zealously, to girls' hockey. The school's A team, the Winterhawks, finished the 2001-2002 season with 27 wins, 22 losses and six ties. Not too shabby, considering many of those were match-ups against top U.S. and Canadian college teams, including a draw with North-eastern, the nation's number-two-seeded Division I team. Young women from all over the continent convene at NAHA to get what they can't at home: a top-of-the-line girls' program and cutting-edge competition.

"White skates with shiny blades, we don't go there," says Bill Driscoll, who founded NAHA three years ago. A Massachusetts import, he picked up his first hockey stick when he was 2 and later played for Colby College in Maine. But nine knee operations dissuaded him from pursuing the sport any further.

That is, until his own kids picked up sticks. "My son got into it first," Driscoll recalls. "My daughter did by osmosis, but there wasn't much hockey for her." So he got involved with Vermont all-star programs and became certified as a Master Level coach by USA Hockey, the governing body that selects the Olympic team.

At NAHA, Driscoll has assembled the cream of the crop from New Mexico to Ontario to Pennsylvania. Four members of the 2002-2003 team are Vermonters who commute to practice and training sessions from home: Alison Graddock, a senior from Stowe; Rutland senior Emily Grant; and juniors Kari Furlani of Colchester; and Kara Leene, from Waterbury.

The 32 out-of-staters live and go to school together at the academy's home base on the Moun-tain Road in Stowe. Their quarters are a puck slinger's paradise, complete with a well-equipped weight room, sauna and lounge with an enormous fireplace and wide-screen TV, tuned perpetually to ESPN and CBC.

"The hockey's awesome," gushes Sonny Watrous, 16, from Albuquerque. "The girls play so well; we just click. We fit in together and the level is so high. We're going to play 50 games."

Ice hockey is one of the fastest-growing sports for females. After the U.S. team's brilliant showing in the 1998 Olympics, Cammi Granato sparked the imagination of legions of little girls who wanted to skate to fame.

"Growth is at the grassroots level," Driscoll remarks. "As that increases, the whole pyramid expands -- the number of prep school and college teams. It wasn't true 10 years ago, but now it's very popular. You see as many pigtails as buzz cuts out on the ice."

The United States and Canadian teams' domination in Salt Lake City gave the women's game another boost. Granato inspired Watrous, who's exhilarated at the prospect of a busy schedule playing prep school and college teams even as she keeps up with her class work.

The Winterhawks face an array of challenges. Sixteen-year-old Lauren Pierce, from Westport, Connecticut, has completed all the tests for gold in figure skating in field and freestyle. She's not the only NAHA girl who actually does go for white skates with shiny blades. The big difference for Pierce is the camaraderie hockey offers. "Figure skating is pretty lonely," she points out. "Here, you have a team, you have other people to depend on. You don't have to be so proper all the time."

For many of these girls, the paucity of propriety is one of hockey's main attractions. "I like that you have to be aggressive. I have a lot of fun doing it," says Anne Dean, daughter of Vermont's governor, and a Yale freshman and NAHA alumna. She's played hockey for 10 years. "I was very excited," Dean adds, recalling what it was like to play for the Winterhawks. "I'd never played that level of hockey before."

Like virtually all the other Winterhawks, Dean's entree onto the ice was from the male angle: Her brother played. Lots of Winterhawks got their start on coed teams -- or, more precisely, on male teams on which they were the lone females. And every girl in NAHA has stories of getting iced out by the male hockey world.

On the other hand, some of the girls do have good things to say about sharing the rink with the opposite sex. Some have brothers or fathers who coached and supported them.

In New Mexico, which has no female team, skating with the boys was the only option for Watrous. She admits the experience helped her. "It's more competitive. The skill level's higher. It's a keep-your-head-up game. There's checking," she explains.

Boys' and girls' rules are basically the same, except for checking; heavy physical contact is against girls' rules.

The girls' game has its own attractions, Watrous adds. "You can do pretty plays. There's more passing, more skill than brute force, a lot more finesse. I think checking breaks up the flow of the game. There's no body-checking into the boards, no open-ice hits, but that doesn't mean there's no contact."

Back at the Arena, Driscoll calls everyone in for a water break. "Get warm-ed-up, shooters, passing to each other in the neutral zones. Vary angles. Vary shots. Goalies, work on your angles."

NAHA's other coaches are women. At the blue line, one-time U.S. National Team member Melissa Heizman offers running commentary: "Challenge yourself. If you're a lefty, go on the right side. Three angles, girls, three different angles. If you're wide, stay wide." The girls skate furiously, red-faced and breathing hard.

NAHA academics are equally rigorous, overseen by the Mount Mansfield Winter Academy, an accredited school that built its reputation on educating skiers. Girls bring subject assignments from their home schools. On a typical day, residential students meet with their tutors during the morning. After lunch, they gather at the rink for an hour-and-a-half of practice. Then they head home for off-ice preparation: weight lifting, chalk talk, and critiques of the day's workout. The days end with dinner and mandatory study hall, then lights out.

"There is incredible demand for the program," says Driscoll. "We could have had twice as many kids here." This year, 36 girls will attend, up from 22 last year and 14 the year before that.

Besides the chance to play against the toughest competition, NAHA offers the prospect of continuing at the college level. College scouts don't just come see the students; the school takes the girls to the coaches. "When we go to the colleges, driving in, they give the girls incredible treatment," says Driscoll. "They give them a tour, interviews. They're actively recruiting them. They do everything they can legally do to get them interested in their school."

All this requires dedication from NAHA players, not to mention their parents' wallets. Tuition, room and board for four months, November to March, comes to about $15,000. Some girls' families pony up the cash, while others go to local businesses for sponsorships. The New York Islanders helped pay one Winterhawk's way.

Many families, however, figure the hefty price tag is a good investment in their daughter's future, says Leene. "This is high-level playing. It gives you great exposure. It's a great program to get you noticed."

Driscoll agrees that all this is part of the plan. "We try to give them opportunities to compete for a limited number of spaces. These girls are not going to go to the NHL. The end of the road for them will be four years of college. Our goal is to allow them to achieve their true potential as athletes. Some may make it to Olympic teams, but most will get scholarships, preferential admissions at colleges. We enable them to get there."

Case in point: Sarah Hol-brook, recently on the Winter-hawk roster, graduated from high school in North Dakota, then enrolled at St. Cloud State in Minnesota. When she decided the school wasn't right for her academically, she worked all summer and fall to earn tuition for NAHA. This year, she's a sophomore at Harvard.

The last 20 minutes of practice is a five-on-five match-up, with players rotating in and out on offense and defense. The Winterhawks display a remarkable level of strategy and teamwork, as well as speed and technical prowess.

Driscoll likes what he sees. "Make a pass with purpose," he calls out. "Yeah. Yeah. Right. Right. That's it."

"Nice shot. Who shot that?" queries Heitzman. "Was it you?"

"Don't act so surprised," replies a player, grinning behind her mask.

"I used to hate hockey," Graddock comments. "My brothers played, but I never wanted to go. But I got more serious about it once people told me I had talent, and what I could do."

These girls are realistic: They acknowledge that there will probably not be a WNHL career ahead of them. "Professional hockey? It's a possibility, but not for a while," Watrous admits. "But there are a lot of little girls coming up. We could be the coaches. Maybe we'll end up getting it all started."

Graddock's advice to those little girls coming up? "If you've not played before, try. It gives you an aggressive side."