On the blue rink at Pines Ice Arena, girls don’t come to skating practice in glittery leotards and sparkly ponytails. Rather they’re geared for hockey, complete with helmets, shoulder pads, shin guards, elbow pads, mouth guards and hockey sticks.
The Pines Ice Divas began competing in September as the only girls’ team in the rink’s recreational hockey program. They compete against three boys teams, all in the 12-and-under division of USA Hockey, though some girls are a bit older.
Many of the girls — from Broward and Miami-Dade counties — played on co-ed teams before the Divas. Their coach, Patrick Dray, encouraged them to play together and form their own team.
“In South Florida, there aren’t a lot of girls in the sport,” Dray said. “In-house leagues have four teams and a few girls, but not enough to make a team.”
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Some girls, like Dray’s daughter, Emily, 11, grew up at the rink, while others have just started playing hockey. Some had been figure skating at the rink and grew passionate about the sport after watching some of the other girls play. Others grew up with brothers who were hockey buffs.
“Most people would think that since we’re a girls’ team, we might not play just as well as boys’ teams,” said Divas goalie Stephanie Ibanez, 11.
That hasn’t been the case. The Divas are in second place out of the four Peewee teams, with a 5-6-4 record. The playoff season starts in February.
Rinks across the United States, backed by USA Hockey, have encouraged girls to join hockey. They let them try the sport for free, host pizza parties for prospective members and recruit sisters of hockey players, even if they’re on a co-ed team.
Female hockey players made up only 17 percent of registered players during the 2011-12 season, according to USA Hockey, thus making it necessary for most girls to play on co-ed teams.
“We love to see more girls’ teams, but there are definitely girls that want to go out and play and can’t find girls’ teams,” said Donna Guariglia, director of USA Hockey’s girls’/women’s section.
The under-representation of girls in hockey isn’t the only disparity. African-American and Hispanic women represent a small percentage of sports participants, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
The Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit organization that encourages girls to play sports, has made strides to increase Hispanic and African-American girls’ participation in sports. Its most recent initiative, Sports 4 Life, awards grants to teams and programs aimed at African-American and Hispanic girls between 11 and 18.
“We’re hoping that USA Hockey will start recruiting more minorities,” said Deborah Slaner Larkin, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
What the girls need is an opportunity to play male-dominated sports, said Larkin. Programs like the Divas encourage girls to stay fit through healthy competition, while still having fun.
“This is a sport and there are valuable lessons that need to be derived from sports,” Dray said. “And the girls really have fun.”
If you go
The Divas play their first game of the playoff season at 6 p.m. Feb. 2 at Pines Ice Arena’s blue rink, 12425 Taft St. Pembroke Pines, FL 33028. Cost is free.