When Eileen Murray was substitute teaching in Carroll County in the spring of 1994, the subject of hockey often came up.
Murray and her family had just moved to Eldersburg from outside Buffalo, and her children loved hockey and wanted to play. Although not sure why, Murray found herself telling students that she wanted to start a hockey team.
The kids soon began calling her "the hockey lady."
Murray soon started putting together a hockey team -- called the Carroll County Cougars -- that took the ice for the first time last winter. Now in their second season, the Cougars are getting stronger but fighting through some growing pains.
Putting together a hockey program is not an easy task, and Murray has been the driving force. She began by putting fliers in the high schools, ads and press releases in the newspapers and making numerous phone calls trying to drum up support.
Murray said she found plenty of interest, but the cost hurt. Each child must pay $275 to play. That entitles the player to two jerseys and socks, but an additional $250-$600 could be dished out for equipment.
Murray spends five to 10 hours a week doing administrative and other behind-the-scenes work for the Cougars.
"She dedicates a tremendous amount of time to the team," said coach John Neiswender. "She's at almost every game, every practice. She's a wonderful woman."
The question is -- why all the effort?
"I feel very strongly that if you keep kids busy, they stay out of trouble," said Murray. "I think that hockey is a really good means of learning life skills such as commitment, teamwork, discipline and competition. It's a microcosm of society."
The Cougars participate as a developmental team in the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League. They can't take the name of one school because they don't have enough players from one to field a team.
The Cougars have players from Liberty (11), North Carroll (three), South Carroll (three) and Westminster (two) -- 19 overall -- and should have some from Francis Scott Key next year.
They struggled last season, losing all 10 games, but new coach Neiswender has some hope for this year's team.
Neiswender said the Cougars have plenty of hockey knowledge and play well enough, but practice time has been nearly impossible to get.
"They need ice time," said Neiswender, who has played the game for more than 20 years, including three years at UMBC. "They need it badly to help them improve. You can't build a program with no ice time."
The Cougars do most of their practicing in Frederick, at side-by-side indoor and outdoor rinks. But in addition to being very difficult to find, ice time is expensive -- $180 per hour. Neiswender said the Cougars have practiced just twice since Thanksgiving and have yet to enjoy a full-ice workout.
Neiswender said he has looked everywhere for practice time, and the Cougars have skated in Baltimore, Columbia and at Piney Orchard (the Washington Capitals' practice rink in Anne Arundel County). But they need more practice.
Practice also will help the team be ready for competition. The Cougars, as a developmental team, play a 10-game schedule and are ineligible for the playoffs. They lost their first three this season -- one a 6-5 decision to Wilde Lake in which the Wildecats scored with two seconds left.
"I kind of look at it as baby steps," said Murray. "Just the progress the kids have made is phenomenal. Kids who couldn't skate at all are not only skating but playing."
Neiswender said the Cougars have gotten help from Brice Murray, Jason Cloutier and Chris Makibbin on offense, while Russ Mosley and Brian Tolle stand out on defense.
For the whole program to improve, however, everyone agreed that more players and more money are needed.
Both Eileen Murray and Neiswender said the Cougars would take any type of sponsor to help in any way.
Fourteen of the MSHL's 30 teams are from private schools and often receive financial support, while the public school squads are club teams and don't get money.
The Cougars also need more depth. Murray and Neiswender keep scouring the area in search of youngsters interested in hockey.
"We need people who have experience working with hockey on and off the ice," said Brice Murray. "If we have enough experience, it'll get better."