At 7, Haley Skarupa got the Christmas gift of her dreams: an ice hockey helmet. She wore it while watching her favorite hockey movies, "The Mighty Ducks" and "Miracle"; while eating dinner; and, of course, while playing in a Montgomery County youth league that would start her climb to the Winter Olympics.
When Team USA takes the ice in South Korea on Feb. 10, Skarupa, a high-scoring forward from Rockville, will be there, the only Marylander on a women's squad that will be looking to improve on a silver medal in the 2014 Games.
"It has been an incredible journey," said Skarupa, 24. Cut from the Olympic team in March, she considered quitting the game before being asked back for a second look and, ultimately, earning a berth in December.
"My path wasn't a conventional one, but it panned out," she said. "It feels so surreal. It hasn't sunk in yet; maybe it never will."
It's all Skarupa has wanted, from the times as a tyke when she tagged along to watch the hockey games of her older brother, Dylan.
"Haley would sit quietly, mesmerized by the game," said her mother, Penny Skarupa. "She never even asked for snacks."
Soon bored, other girls in the stands tried to coax Skarupa into playing hide-and-seek.
"I'd volunteer to hide first and then find a spot where I could watch the game and not be found," Skarupa said. "I just loved hockey."
But when she asked to compete, her mother balked.
"I already had my hockey-playing boy," Penny said. "There was a stigma attached to a girl playing hockey; I thought it was too dangerous. But I gave in when I saw it was her passion. I didn't realize how tough she was."
Skarupa played for a coed youth team, the Blue Devils, and quickly proved her worth.
"It was fun to watch her completely demolish guys twice her size," said Brynja Bogan, the other girl on the team.
"I wanted everyone to respect me," Skarupa said. "Boys were always there to challenge me, and I got better because they pushed me. I knew I could hold my own."
In high school, she played for both her coed team at Wootton High, in the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League, and the Washington Pride, an all-female college prep team out of D.C. One Saturday, their schedules clashed: both teams had playoff games 30 miles apart. Skarupa's answer? With her coaches' blessings, she played the first period with the Pride and scored two goals before lighting out for the Wootton game.
"Brynja's mom drove like a madwoman while I changed uniforms in the car," she said. "I got there just before the third period. My dad carried me into the rink because I still had my skates on, and we won the state championship. The Pride won, too. It was a crazy day, but worth it."
Skarupa honed her skills with the Pride, a program that readies high school players for college hockey. In four years, she led the Pride's U19 team in scoring three times; as a senior, she scored 148 goals (with 43 assists) in 57 games against top U.S. and Canadian teens.
"Haley is a really smart player who has a knack for scoring," Pride coach Kush Sidhu said. "The game just speaks to her. She's not flashy or imposing, and she doesn't have the hardest shot in the world. But she's imaginative, creative and sneaky good — and her work ethic is off the charts."
She blossomed at Boston College, scoring 115 career goals and, as a senior, helping the Eagles to an undefeated regular season in 2015-16. In the NCAA semifinals, Skarupa scored the winner in overtime against Clarkson. (BC lost the title game.) Meanwhile, she'd played for the U.S. women's national team, which won three world championships (2015 through 2017).
Accolades aside, Skarupa has never eased up in her training, friends said.
"Not a day goes by that she doesn't think she should be doing more," said Dana Trivigno, her college roommate. "The Olympics are always on her mind."
Even Skarupa's diet seems geared toward the games, Trivigno said: "I've seen her eat an entire bag of raw spinach at one sitting."
Imagine Skarupa's heartbreak in March when told she'd failed to make Team USA.
"Haley said, 'It's time to move on,' " her mother said. "She was going to give up hockey, but she took the summer to reflect on it."
Skarupa took a job walking dogs as she mulled the future.
"Finally I asked myself, 'Why am I trying to push hockey out of my life? It got me here,' " she said. "So I decided to sign with the Boston Pride (of the National Women's Hockey League) and to move on from there."
Soon after, she got the call: could she return for another Olympic trial? Skarupa did — and made the team.
"I cried for two days," her mother said. "This was my kid's dream."
It was just before Christmas when Skarupa got the news. For an instant, she was 7 again and opening her favorite gift.
"It's such an honor," she said of representing her country. "I don't know how much I'll play, but the team needs someone with lots of energy and positivity … and that's me."