BreAnne Russell, sophomore forward on the high school girls’ hockey team, aptly sums up her love of the game by comparing it to a well-known circular food item.
“Playing hockey is like eating pizza,” she explained before practice this week while surrounded by her teammates. “When the pizza is good — when it has lots of toppings and it’s made just right — you eat it and say to yourself, ‘Wow, that’s great . . . that might be the perfect pizza.’ But even when you get an average pizza, or a bad pizza, you still eat it and say ‘That’s pretty good,’ because even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.
“That’s just like playing hockey . . . even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good, because it’s hockey.”
Russell’s proud declaration was evidently familiar to her teammates, who burst out laughing once she completed the simile. But soon it is revealed just why the entire team found the pizza story so funny — and it’s not because they dislike the comparison or questioned the logic behind it.
“If you’ve eaten as much pizza as we have you would understand why that’s funny,” said one player amid a chorus of laughter. “We eat pizza after every game . . . it’s like we’re special pizza friends.”
“We’re all pizza addicts,” admitted Russell. “I think we should go to meetings.”
The spontaneous silliness that ensues is the kind that can only come from a group of young women who have spent a lot of time together, whether at practice, during games, on countless boat trips to away games — or, of course, eating pizza. There is a familiar and comfortable dynamic to this group and clearly they like to laugh.
But make no mistake, when the puck drops this group is all business. They have an almost uncommon passion for the game, and every player agrees hockey is her favorite sport and a huge part of her life.
“It’s the best sport there is; you get on that ice and you’re just flying. There is nothing else like it,” said senior Meaghan O’Rourke.
“It’s not a girly sport, you can go out there and be aggressive,” said senior Sarah Sylvia.
“Even if I’m having a bad day I can look forward to hockey and it cheers me up,” said senior Nica Sylvia.
Junior Christina Wiley said she is drawn to the game because she is always learning something new.
“You can play your whole life, but you will never master the game. No matter how much you practice you never get it perfect, so you are always learning and getting better,” she said.
Girls’ hockey has one main difference from the boys version of the game. Body checking is not allowed, which actually places more emphasis on passing and puck control.
“It’s a faster game then [boys’ hockey]; it’s more of a finesse game. There is more passing and you have to play smart,” said freshman Gillian O’Callaghan.
The players on the team have a wide range of experience levels. Some have skated and played hockey since they were toddlers, honing their craft on youth and travel teams, while others have only picked up the game recently. “I didn’t even know how to skate before I joined the team,” admitted Sylvia. “I learned to move forward pretty quickly, but it took me about a week to learn how to stop.”
And despite the disparity in experience levels, all the girls share common traits and attitudes toward the game. They all would like to play hockey, in one form or another, after high school, and all seem to have an almost unwavering enthusiasm about the game they wear like a badge of honor. This is especially admirable when you consider that girls’ hockey is not exactly the flagship sport at the high school.
While other sports like football and basketball draw large crowds and generate the most buzz around the Island, girls’ hockey games are often played in front of small audiences and often warrant only a passing mention in Island newspapers. Even though they work just as hard and are just as dedicated as say, the boys’ hockey team, it seems at times as if they are playing in a vacuum.
“It bothers me sometimes, but that’s just the reality of the situation,” said coach Sam Sherman. “Girls’ hockey just isn’t a big spectator sport. But that doesn’t seem to bother these players.”
Coach Sherman said his team recently traveled to Boston to watch part of the annual women’s Beanpot, the longest-running women’s tournament in college sports. And while the men’s Beanpot tournament games are usually sold out months in advance, the women’s game they saw was played in front of an almost empty arena.
“They’re weren’t a lot of us there . . . but we were loud,” said junior Laura Jernagan.
Girls’ ice hockey is one of the fastest growing women’s sports in the world — with the number of participants increasing 400 per cent in the last 10 years. But still some people have a hard time warming up to the idea of girls playing the game.
Junior Sam Cooperrider said she recently had a frustrating conversation with someone during a trip off-Island.
“We were at Petco, and this guy saw my gear and he asked me who played hockey. So I told him that I did, and he just couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘You mean you play on a team, like in a league?’ And I said yes, it really isn’t that hard to believe. But he just thought it was insane.”
Despite the occasional nonbeliever, the girls say their friends and family have been supportive, even when they come home bruised and battered after a game or practice. It’s a tough road for these girls. Some will play in college. But for many, playing for the Vineyard team will be the pinnacle of their hockey careers.
And there is little instant gratification to be had this season; there will be no championship trophy to hoist in the air. The team record now stands at 4-10-2, and the team has already been eliminated from qualifying for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association tournament.
The reality is that for every moment of glory on the ice — a good pass, a goal scored, a defensive stand — there are hours of grueling practices and drills and countless aches and pains to recover from. But that doesn’t seem to matter to these players.
For them the reward is getting to share the ice with their teammates and play the game they love.
“We get emotional about hockey because it’s such a big part of our lives,” said Russell. “We don’t play in front of big crowds, but we don’t care, we play because we love it. We all have different lives, but when we get on the ice, we leave it all behind and play as a team. And it’s all worth it. It’s made a difference in our lives.”
For Coach Sherman, the losing record doesn’t bother him too much. Like his players, he said the real prize is being part of such a special group.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these girls and the way they played all season,” he said. “Even when they’ve been down, they play with this fire and intensity. You can tell they love the game. For me, the real reward is just getting to share all this with them.”
The girls’ hockey team plays their senior game tomorrow at 1 p.m. against North Quincy High School, which is also their final home game of the season. During the game seniors Nica Sylvia, Carol Mercier, Sophie Wiley and Sarah Sylvia will be honored.