O’Connell to field sole girls ice hockey team in Virginia

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Growing up, Grace Fisher loved skating on ice, but she didn't want to glide across it as a figure skater. She wanted to play the fast-paced and physical game of ice hockey like her dad and older brother. So as an 8-year-old, she began her career in the sport, eventually earning a spot on the competitive Washington Pride, a junior-league women's ice hockey team and the area's premier all-girls hockey club.

Now a junior at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Fisher was the sole girl on the O'Connell boys ice hockey team last season.

Starting next year, though, Fisher will be joined by about 12 other girls on the only female varsity high school ice hockey team in Virginia. Under the direction of coach Brianna Murphy, an interim girls team will play this winter before the inaugural 2015-16 season.

The new team is the vision of Flip Collins, director of the O'Connell ice hockey program and head coach for varsity boys ice hockey.

Hired last year, Collins knew he wanted to build the hockey program. But when he was recruiting for the boys team, he met a lot of families with girls who wanted to play hockey, as well. With no nearby playing options for the girls, parents would sometimes send their son to a local school and their daughter to a school in Maryland or Washington.

"Now if a family wants to send their children to a Catholic school, they can send both to the same one," said Collins.

The ability to field a full team reflects growing female interest in the sport. Since the first Women's World Championship in 1990, the number of females registered with USA Hockey - the governing body for organized amateur ice hockey in the United States - has grown from around 6,300 to more than 65,700 today. While USA Hockey does not include girls high school teams, the numbers show a trend.

Murphy grew up playing on a boys team in Buffalo, N.Y., because there were no other options; now there's an entire girls league. "There's definitely a growing interest in girls hockey, and I think in the next five years you'll have some more Virginia teams," said Murphy, who also coaches the boys varsity 2 team, similar to junior varsity.

According to Collins, there are two main challenges to building girls teams: limited ice time and cost. Unlike basketball courts and soccer fields that are tucked into most neighborhoods, ice rinks are harder to find and often full. The O'Connell teams practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, which costs $550 for an hour and a half. O'Connell has received some financial help from donors, but families have to cover most expenses.

The interim team began practices Nov. 24, with the first game against Georgetown Visitation Nov. 30.

Fisher will play with the varsity 2 team, as well as on the interim team and the Washington Pride. Four other players also will play on the two O'Connell teams and their traveling club teams.

"We are a complementary program to travel teams," said Collins, so the girls need not miss club practices or games. Yet a high school team offers seasoned players an experience travel teams can't, he added.

"Unfortunately no one watches girls hockey at the club level. Now they'll feel what it's like to have classmates and friends cheering them on."

Alongside the experienced players, novices will round out the new team, and practices will be geared toward them, said Collins. Fisher looks forward to playing with more girls and said a focus on game fundamentals will help her, too. "We'll get to work on things we usually don't get to," she said.

The inaugural team will be part of the Mid-Atlantic Girls Hockey League, which currently includes five teams from Maryland: Academy of the Holy Cross, Holton-Arms, Archbishop Spalding, Bryn Mawr and St. Timothy's.

Hockey is a unique sport in a lot of ways, said Collins. Along with athleticism and "hockey sense," you need a hefty dose of courage and determination. "You're going to get up on the ice, and you're going to fall down again and again and again," he said. "Every kid who steps onto the ice for the first time falls down. Some quit at that point because they are embarrassed. (To be good at hockey), you use that same determination that helped you pick yourself up to help you get the puck from the other team."

Fisher said she thinks the new O'Connell program will introduce more girls to this unique and "very fun" sport. "I hope it will help many more girls be interested in playing," she said, "and help them to see how great it is."

Find out more

Email coach Flip Collins or coach Brianna Murphy.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014