When Virginia (Nell) Coogan was a hockey crazy kid growing up on Martha’s Vineyard, she played youth hockey with the boys, the same as youth hockey is structured on the Island today. Except there weren’t nearly so many girls on the ice. She played through every youth division, even when more physical play and checking was introduced. But when she got to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, she had to hang up her skates.

“It was all boys,” said Ms. Coogan. “I wanted to. I was a freshman, my brother was a senior. I was 90 pounds soaking wet, and he told me I would get killed. So I didn’t.”

Thanks to Ms. Coogan, and dozens of other youth hockey volunteers, girls in pads on ice is no longer an anomaly on the Island.

Nell Coogan is giving young girls something she didn't have, an opportunity to keep playing hockey. — Jeanna Shepard

“Now it’s a normal thing, the idea of putting on pads,” she said.

It is getting normal for a lot more young girls according to Ms. Coogan, who has had a hand in revitalizing the Osprey program, a free youth hockey program for girls preschool through eighth grade.

Last Friday evening at the Martha’s Vineyard Arena, Ms. Coogan watched her own two girls skate in a scrimmage among younger Osprey players, while the older girls suited up for a tournament with a visiting team from York, Me.

“It’s such a fantastic opportunity when a team like York comes down to be on the Vineyard,” said Joe Mikos, president of Martha’s Vineyard Youth Hockey. “These girls are ambassadors of not only hockey, but the Vineyard.”

Ponytails flowed from under hockey helmets as the players zipped around the ice at the arena, the younger girls shooting at miniature unguarded nets. One skater was so tiny she looked like a moving hockey sweater, her jersey completely covering her shorts. The spectacle put smiles on a lot of faces in the stands.

Free program starts with preschool kids. — Jeanna Shepard

In general, the Osprey team does not travel off-Island for games. The program allows girls to play without the more time consuming and more expensive element of traveling, though about half of the girls also play on co-ed travel teams.

It’s also a way to keep young girls invested in the hockey programs until they get to high school, where there is now a competitive girls hockey program.

“What we realized is we lose girls right around fifth, sixth grade,” said Ms. Coogan. “Some play because their friends play, but if their friends stop playing, they stop playing. I think because it’s a lot of boys. If they don’t have a core group of girls at that age then they decide not to stick with it.”

Ms. Coogan said the play also gets rougher and that is a deterrent to some of the kids. They drop out of organized hockey for a few years, then turn up at the high school hockey practice.

“Our trouble in high school is we have a lot of girls come try out who haven’t played in a couple years. The other hard part is when they get to Bantams, which is seventh, eighth grade, boys have checking. Some girls decide at that point they don’t want to stay with it. We don’t check in girls hockey. It’s very physical, but there’s no straight-out checking.”

Ponytails on ice — nothing says fearless like hockey. — Jeanna Shepard

Mr. Mikos said the Osprey program helps bridge that gap. He has three girls that participate.

“The Ospreys is a great opportunity for them to maintain their skills, and increase their skills, yet play with all girls,” he said. “For my girls it’s been a huge ego builder for them because it really allows them to take ownership of their body and their sport. It’s been great to watch them grow and physically mature through this program.”

Adam Darack was one of the dozens of bundled up parents and grandparents in the frigid rink watching the play. He said he sees a transformation in his daughter when she straps on goalie pads and skates out to protect the net from opposing players nearly twice as big as she is.

“Nice work Bailen,” he yells as his daughter makes an impressive save. “She’s quiet, she’s shy sometimes, and you get her on the ice and she’s just fearless. All these girls are. They take the world by the horns when they’re on the ice.”

Ms. Coogan is making up for lost time. She coaches the Ospreys two nights a week and serves as an assistant coach on the high school girls hockey team. She said she was asked to join the high school team as an assistant coach during the 2010-2011 season.

“It was just so much fun for me,” said Ms. Coogan. “I remember that year being really emotional about it, because I never got that opportunity to play on a high school girl’s team. We made the state tournament.”