Four years ago, Lauren Gray had to tuck her long auburn hair under her helmet and endure stares from her male teammates just to play ice hockey.
Not any more. Lauren is the youngest player and one of two skaters from Columbia on the Chesapeake Bay Lightning, a local ice hockey club composed entirely of women.
"I think it's great," says Lauren, 15, who lives in Columbia. "I started out with figure skating, but I'm just not very graceful. I thought it [ice hockey] was cool because of the physicalness."
Karen Robinson, 31, alsoof Columbia, is also happy to be playing.
"For women in my age group, this is something they never thought of doing," she says. "Many play soccer or tennis. This is something that doesn't even enter their minds."
The Lightning, which features two travel teams and an in-house development program of 60 players who practice at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel, is Maryland's only women's ice hockey team that competes in the Mid-Atlantic League of the Southeast District of the USA Hockey Girls/Women's National Championship.
The club consists of students, doctors, and dentists. One player who is a pediatrician even carries her pager to the ice.
This season, the Lightning has three wins against four losses and two ties. Last year, the squad went 11-12-6 on its way to the national tournament, but lost in the second round.
That's a vast improvement from the team's 1993-94 inaugural season when the club went 4-18-1 and once allowed 82 shots in one game.
Back then, Lauren Gray wasn't a member of the team. She got her first taste of hockey when her older brother Matt started playing.
"I had to get up early in the morning to go to his practices and there were never any girls there," Lauren recalls. "I thought it would be cool to play. My mom said, 'No way.' But my dad said, 'Let her try it.' "
For the most part, women's ice hockey is similar to the men's version. There's the same emphasis on solid defense and a strong attack.
Perhaps the biggest difference is a no-checking policy. But don't be fooled, warns Robinson.
"When they say there's no checking, that doesn't mean there's no contact," she says. "You can still ride people to the boards."
For the first time, women's ice hockey will be a medal sport at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Six teams, including the United States, will battle for the gold medal, with CBS and Lifetime Cable broadcasting several games.
The sport even has its own stars. Manon Rheaume, who became the first woman to play professional hockey in 1992, is the goalie for top-ranked Canada.
Team USA's Cammi Granato, whose brother Tony plays for the NHL's San Jose Sharks, is widely regarded as the best women's hockey player in the world.
To David Ogrean, executive director of Colorado Springs-based
USA Hockey, the international spotlight is another development in a trend that has been flourishing for the past two decades.
In 1980, USA Hockey held its first national tournament for girls, Ogrean says. Ten years later, the International Ice Hockey Federation staged its first world championship.
And since 1990, the number of female players registered with USA Hockey has jumped from 5,500 to more than 23,000 today.
Only 12 universities offer women's ice hockey on a Division I level, but others, including Maryland and Michigan, are considering forming teams.
Ogrean credits part of the trend to NHL expansion and development of minor-league ice hockey teams throughout the country.
"They're popping up everywhere," Ogrean says. "Wherever you have a hockey club plant itself, hockey emanates from there to the homes around it, and you get more girls and women involved. I think we'll see another good echo when you see hockey in the Olympics."
Mary Wood, a co-founder of the Lightning and the team's goalie, says the attitudes among the athletes have changed, too.
"I've heard girls say, 'I watched "Mighty Ducks." Why can't I do the same thing? I want to join a team,' " Wood says. "That tells me that a lot of people are interested in it."
But players and officials acknowledge that the sport has several obstacles to overcome before it can live off the success that leagues like the WNBA and ABL enjoy.
One is equipment suited for girls and women. Although major equipment companies like CCM and Louisville are introducing gear specifically for women, most are for men and boys. Robinson says she is forced to buy hockey gloves suited for 8-year-old boys.
Another is limited ice time. Although the Minnesota state legislature recently approved legislation that requires equal access time on area ice rinks for both boys and girls, other states have not recognized the problem, says Karen Lundgren, director of USA Hockey's Girls/Women's Section.
"You're already in the minority because you're a female and you're on a female team competing with 50 male teams for ice time," Lundgren says. "As ice time becomes available, we're going to have more participation from girls."
The final challenge is public awareness. Gray, who is spending part of the season concentrating on her schoolwork, says she is still surprised by the reaction she gets when she tells people she plays ice hockey.
"People say 'You do?' " Lauren says. "They call me Wayne Gretzky's little sister."
In many ways, Lauren is still your typical teen-ager. She does her hair and makeup before she practices or plays in a game.
Asked who her favorite player is, Lauren replies, "Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers. Because he's good-looking."
Pub Date: 12/14/97