Hockey team inspires area girls

It’s tough for Claire Virkler to watch the Team USA women play ice hockey without feeling her own as

It’s tough for Claire Virkler to watch the Team USA women play ice hockey without feeling her own aspirations rise.

The 14-year-old member of the Clifton Park Eagles U16 girls’ team has skated since she was a toddler and hopes to play the sport at its upper echelons, maybe at a good Division III college or better. But with the success of the United States women at this year’s Olympics, she can’t help dreaming about following in their footsteps one day.

“It’s definitely a big dream,” she said Wednesday.

Fellow Eagles players Makala Foley and Meghan Gray haven’t been playing for as long as Virkler. Yet they’re every bit as excited over tonight’s finale between Team USA and their Canadian rivals.

“We talk about the games and the teams in the locker room,” said Foley.

“It gets us pumped,” said Gray.

And they’re not alone, either. Tonight’s gold medal game is drawing interest from a wide breadth of female hockey players across the Capital Region — from youth players to college all-stars.

Many of them have found inspiration for their own hockey careers in the mounting success of the American and Canadian teams. Both teams have secured a medal in each of the Olympics since women’s hockey was introduced at the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan.

The American women won the first gold medal in 1998 and then a silver at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City. Canada has won gold medals in 2002 and at the 2006 games in Turin, Italy.

The rivalry between the two teams has continued to build, which has not gone unnoticed by the girls and young women rising through the ranks. This year, Team USA is trying to avenge their bronze medal showing four years ago by vanquishing the hometown team, something that has caused a ripple of excitement among local players as the deciding game nears.

Most pundits consider the American women to be underdogs to the Canadians. But Union College sophomore Emilie Arseneault knows firsthand how tough they can be.

Last month, the 19-year-old forward was picked to represent Union on the Eastern College Athletic Conference women’s hockey all-star team, which faced Team USA during an exhibition game at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. The all-stars were handily defeated, 8-2.

“They’re big, they’re strong, they’re young and they have tons of character,” she said. “I think they’re going to be ready for the game tomorrow.”

That doesn’t mean Arseneault will be cheering for them. The New Brunswick native will be pulling for her fellow Canadians, including a few girls she knows on the team from her time playing hockey up north.

But during this game, she won’t be getting any support from teammates Nicole Bartlett and Molly Kate Devin. The two Massachusetts natives will be emphatically cheering on Team USA, a squad that includes several players they skated with during their high school years.

“It just shows how hard work pays off,” Bartlett said.

Saratoga Springs resident Madeleine Bonneville, the former coach of the women’s club team at Skidmore College, will be pulling for the Canadians when she watches the game tonight. The 29-year-old British Columbia-born player plans to celebrate her birthday watching the game with friends and fellow players —even if some of them aren’t cheering for the red and white.

“There will definitely be 20 of us with differing opinions shouting at each other in a public place,” she said.

But regardless of the outcome, Bonneville hopes the high level of play of the women will turn others on to the sport. She said the high-profile games expose the sport to more and more women every time the Olympics coverage begins.

“It really proves to the young girls watching that they don’t have to be figure skaters and that there are other options,” she said.

Darryl Coltey, the coach of the Adirondack Northstars girls’ hockey team in Glens Falls, has watched interest in the sport spike every time the Winter Olympics comes around. He said some of the girls trained with some of the U.S. Olympians during a hockey camp in Lake Placid, something that has created even more of a buzz among them as the big game approaches.

“They kind of take a personal interest because they’ve gotten to know some of these girls playing in the Olympics,” he said.

Of course, that interest means he’s going to have several dozen girls urging him to put the pedal to the metal this afternoon. The team is scheduled to travel more than three hours to Potsdam for a tournament, meaning he could have a few antsy teenagers in his midst come game time.

“We’re hoping to get up there early,” he said.

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