BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — What's one of the best parts of hockey to Aliyah Adams?
The locker room.
"Because it smells bad and that means we're working hard," she said.
The Traverse City winger/defender is one of about 80 girls attending this week's Just For Girls USA hockey camp at Centre ICE.
The camp is led by U.S. National Women's Team players Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Erika Lawler and Molly Engstrom, along with other instructors, and is another example of the rising interest and involvement in girls hockey.
And about a decade ago, girls like Adams might not have had a whiff at playing the sport against their peers. Generally, if a girl wanted to play hockey, they had to play against the boys.
"When I think back to when I played, it was with the boys," said Duggan, the 2011 winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top female college hockey player. "There were no girls programs anywhere. I did all camps with boys. It's exciting to see just in the last 10 years where women's hockey has gone. It's good for us to see all these young girls, because they are the future of the program."
The TC camp is one of only two such events run by Canadian Hockey Enterprises in the United States.
The Traverse City youth girls hockey season starts in October, and the program has a "Try Hockey For Free" event slated for Aug. 1 at 6:30 p.m. at Centre ICE for any girl ages 5-14 who wants to give the sport a shot. Gear is provided, and more information is available at www.tcgirlshockey.com.
"We get to kick the boys around," Stella Warnes, a 10-year-old from Traverse City, said laughing.
The program received a grant from USA Hockey for 20 full sets of gear for youth players.
"We really keep the costs down," said U-10 team manager Kim Visser, who added that beginners can go through a season for as little as $150 a player.
All-girl leagues use no-check rules.
"Even for me, when I was (their) age, I had to play against boys up until I was 14," said Shiann Darkangelo, an instructor at the camp who plays for Syracuse. "Even with camps, it was mostly guys. A lot of these girls have been to other camps, which is really good. The camp is starting to grow year after year because more girls are getting into it."
Girls hockey has been consistently growing over the last decade. High school teams are popping up, as well as collegiate squads.
Currently, only two Michigan universities have women's hockey — Adrian and Finlandia. Both of those programs had a player from the TC area on their roster last season. TC's Allison Lee plays at Finlandia, while Indian River's Jenna Corbin is at Adrian.
Minnesota is loaded with over 100 girls high school teams, and states like Wisconsin, Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts each have more than 20. North Dakota has enough teams that its hockey association picks a girls all-state team.
Eighty-six colleges now offer women's hockey, including 34 at the Division 1 level.
Girls hockey in Traverse City is also progressing quickly.
A former Junior A player, Kraig Visser started up the girls program four years ago with one 12-player team. The squad didn't win a single game, but ended the year with 16 players.
"So many people do not even know we have a program here," she said.
Now the program has developed into four teams — U-10, U-12, U-14 and U-19, all named the Traverse City North Stars.
"I like how hard you have to work and how fun it is and everything," said 11-year-old Josie Visser, who has been in the program since the start and is entering her fourth year of hockey.
"I like the game because it relates to soccer for me," Adams said.
Devyn Fitzhenry came from Gaylord to be on the U-19 team, and is now on her way to play at Adrian College. The 18-year-old has been involved in hockey for 16 years already, 10 of those on boys teams.
"Then they started getting really big and intimidating and my parents didn't want me to play with them," Fitzhenry said.
That's when she tried out for the Gaylord Enforcers, where she scored the game-winning goal in overtime to secure the state championship as a teammate of Corbin's. Fitzhenry later added another state title with the North Stars.
"It's expanding hugely," Fitzhenry said. "People where we're from didn't even think there'd ever be girls hockey, and now there's high school teams. I didn't have that and Traverse City doesn't have that, but there's a lot of downstate teams that have girls high school teams instead of just boys. Each year I come here, there's more girls and more girls. People say girls can't play hockey, but I guess we'll prove them wrong."