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Sisters Of the Skates: KUA, Twin Valley Teach Young Girls The Fun of Hockey

  • Kimball Union Academy junior Joanna Schafer, 16, middle, gives Storm player Autumn Kimball, 6, encouragement during a scrimmage with Twin Valley in Meriden Sunday, December 8, 2013. Schafer, a Meriden native grew up playing Twin Valley hockey and now works with the team through the Hockey Sisters program. At right is KUA senior Amelie Poirier.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Kimball Union Academy junior Joanna Schafer, 16, middle, gives Storm player Autumn Kimball, 6, encouragement during a scrimmage with Twin Valley in Meriden Sunday, December 8, 2013. Schafer, a Meriden native grew up playing Twin Valley hockey and now works with the team through the Hockey Sisters program. At right is KUA senior Amelie Poirier.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Players from the Twin Valley Flyers hockey program reach out to high-five Dartmouth College player Ali Winkel at the end of the Big Green's game against Colgate on Nov. 15, 2013. (Valley News  Tris Wykes)

    Players from the Twin Valley Flyers hockey program reach out to high-five Dartmouth College player Ali Winkel at the end of the Big Green's game against Colgate on Nov. 15, 2013. (Valley News Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Surrounded by members of the Kimball Union Academy girls' hockey team, the Storm hockey team and her Twin Valley teammates, Natalie Achilles, 11, prepares to blow out the candles on a birthday cake following the Hockey Sisters event in Meriden, NH Sunday, December 8, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Surrounded by members of the Kimball Union Academy girls' hockey team, the Storm hockey team and her Twin Valley teammates, Natalie Achilles, 11, prepares to blow out the candles on a birthday cake following the Hockey Sisters event in Meriden, NH Sunday, December 8, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jack Gardner, 9, of Norwich, left, and Spencer Lawe, 9, of Hanover, right, shout advice to Lawe's sister Julia, 6, from behind the bench at Kimball Union Academy's hockey arena in Meriden Sunday, December 8, 2013. The boys were spectators at an event for the girls of the Twin Valley and Storm youth hockey programs to work with the KUA girls hockey team. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jack Gardner, 9, of Norwich, left, and Spencer Lawe, 9, of Hanover, right, shout advice to Lawe's sister Julia, 6, from behind the bench at Kimball Union Academy's hockey arena in Meriden Sunday, December 8, 2013. The boys were spectators at an event for the girls of the Twin Valley and Storm youth hockey programs to work with the KUA girls hockey team.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kimball Union Academy junior Joanna Schafer, 16, middle, gives Storm player Autumn Kimball, 6, encouragement during a scrimmage with Twin Valley in Meriden Sunday, December 8, 2013. Schafer, a Meriden native grew up playing Twin Valley hockey and now works with the team through the Hockey Sisters program. At right is KUA senior Amelie Poirier.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Players from the Twin Valley Flyers hockey program reach out to high-five Dartmouth College player Ali Winkel at the end of the Big Green's game against Colgate on Nov. 15, 2013. (Valley News  Tris Wykes)
  • Surrounded by members of the Kimball Union Academy girls' hockey team, the Storm hockey team and her Twin Valley teammates, Natalie Achilles, 11, prepares to blow out the candles on a birthday cake following the Hockey Sisters event in Meriden, NH Sunday, December 8, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Jack Gardner, 9, of Norwich, left, and Spencer Lawe, 9, of Hanover, right, shout advice to Lawe's sister Julia, 6, from behind the bench at Kimball Union Academy's hockey arena in Meriden Sunday, December 8, 2013. The boys were spectators at an event for the girls of the Twin Valley and Storm youth hockey programs to work with the KUA girls hockey team. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Meriden

They take to the Akerstrom Arena ice in a swarm of colorful unis — some with a confident glide, others with somewhat more hesitant steps — most barely as tall as the sticks they carry.

They are from all over the Upper Valley, skating here at the Kimball Union Academy rink in a new program called Hockey Sisters, designed especially for this group of girls, ages 7-10. What makes it special is that the program is about more than just learning to skate and play hockey.

It’s about giving young girls positive female role models who — through the many on-ice hockey activities during the 90-minute session — guide the youngsters toward healthy self-confidence and future empowerment.

There are no speeches or heavy-handed rules of engagement. Instead, it is a sharing of time and smiles between older girls from the KUA hockey program and the youngsters from the Twin Valley Youth Hockey Association and, on this day, members of the Upper Valley Storm youth program.

It is gentle instruction without screeching whistles or criticisms. It is just an opportunity for young kids to pick up skills and meet new friends at the same time. And if you look around the sideboards, up in the stands, or out on the ice, you can see by the comfortable smiles of the parents that it is a healthy and successful operation.

These little skaters have no idea of the ultimate girl power goal. They are too busy having fun playing hockey.

All around the ice, you see kids skating in small groups while handling the puck — some learning shooting techniques, others working on their passing skills. Up in the stands, fathers crowd around the railings, offering encouragement over good plays and sympathy over quick tumbles.

But even when they go down, the little ones hardly miss a beat; they are so swaddled in padding. Plus, how far can a 7-year-old, barely 4 feet tall, even fall? They’re off the ice and back on their skates without a hint of concern.

The program started this fall as the brainchild of Meriden’s Kara Toms . W hile hockey is the reason these girls are on the ice, there is more going on here.

“Hockey girls don’t see a lot of kids that look like them — either in coaching or out on the ice,” said Toms. “With the mentoring program as a big piece of the operation, we give these youngsters a chance to see older girls taking the lead, being successful and talented. That’s something important for these younger girls, to see themselves being that way.”

The under-10 team was formed, in part, because studies have shown that roughly 50 percent of girls stop playing hockey after Mites (ages 7-8). Plus, girls are unlikely to begin playing the sport once they are 8 y ears old if there is not a team available.

“We were able to get a grant from Claremont Savings Bank to help start us off,” said Toms, whose group of Twin Valley girls now numbers 16. Of that group, at least half have been outfitted from head to toe with equipment.

“You can see the girls really grow in their self -c onfidence,” said Toms. “To see them around the older (KUA girls) is empowering.”

Little Maggie Sharkey is out on the ice, making her way tenuously around the arena while her parents, Don and Lauren, from Plainfield, take in the activity from above the grandstand.

“I love it,” says Lauren. “It gives her a chance to experience something new without any of the pressures that go with these kind of activities. She can just focus on having fun. And she feels so proud when she accomplishes some of the harder skills.”

Lauren knew they were onto something when 6-year-old Maggie drew a picture of herself playing hockey and skating with one of her coaches. “She loves coming here,” says Lauren. “And it’s big to get to know some of these KUA girls as mentors.”

The KUA girls offer encouragement at every opportunity. As the little ones skate by, there is a pat on the top of the helmet or a little stick tap to a small backside. Everything is in constant motion — the key to keeping little hands and minds active and involved. And it also gives the young skaters something to strive for as they get older. Perhaps they, too, would one day work as a mentor, following in the footsteps of these older role models.

A few weeks ago, the group attended a Dartmouth women’s hockey game. At the conclusion, the college girls took the time to sign autographs, share high-fives and takes pictures with the Twin Valley kids.

O bviously, parents and teachers are the driving force in their growing process at this age. But to see another girl just a few years older than they are, in a leadership role, praising them and teaching them, is an important message.

It isn’t lost on a parent like Eric Russman, whose 7-year-old daughter, Svia, attends Plainfield Elementary when she’s not skating for the Hockey Sisters program.

“Girls need older girls as role models,” says Russman. “This is a big piece of the (social) puzzle. This hour is just girls, and that is really a special time. It’s an important feature of her hockey experience.”

And while the younger ones might not notice or realize today what impact these events might have on their lives later on, it is — to Russman and many of the other parents on hand — an important connection for their young daughters.

“They get a chance to see opportunity for women. And they notice older girls as role models in much the same way boys get to see older boys as role models,” Russman added.

Once finished with drills, the girls are broken up into teams for 90-second games. Like the big kids, they come scrambling off the ice and into the bench area, banging their sticks on the boards to encourage teammates on the ice.

The mixture of levels of competence on the ice keeps things loose. One of the young goalies was having trouble stopping the puck. When a coach came over to show her how to use the stick, she toppled to the ice. It became apparent that she was using the stick to hold herself up, rather than to stop pucks.

It was like that all over the ice. Then, when it is all finally over, the kids meet at center ice, touching gloves down the congratulation line, just like the big kids do.

After a post-practice snack with the KUA mentors, everyone grabs their hockey bags — which might weigh as much and be as big as some of the little ones — and it’s off until next week’s practice.

Cheryl Achilles, of Windsor, has come to watch her 11-year-old daughter, Natalie. One of the older girls in the program, and more accomplished on the ice, Natalie enjoys the camaraderie of the all-girl component after skating on a coed team the past three years.

But, according to her mother, she really likes the off-ice activities, too. “The girls do things together, just fun things where they can relate outside of hockey,” said Achilles.

“It’s great to see. It’s a wonderful and caring activity. And the best part is that she can do this for the rest of her life.”

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.