While most girls her age might spend time on figure-skating lessons and wear frilly pink skirts, Julie McGuire shows up every week at the Fort Dupont ice rink, clad in a knee-length, orange football jersey and hockey skates, her long brown hair cascading from beneath her helmet.
"I like it because you get to play with the boys and chase them," said Julie, who is 8 and has been playing ice hockey since she was 5. She now plays right wing and defense positions, and says, "The boys don't hit you around so much as soon as you get to know them."
Most of her teammates have a hard time with skating, but when Julie does a 360-degree turn in full stride, the boys pay attention. They all play for the Capital Boys Hockey Club (CBHC) Squirts team. There are six teams in all -- mites, squirts, peewees, bantams, midgets and juniors (4-17 years old) -- and the CBHC is Washington's representative in the Capital Beltway League.
"Anybody who comes out [to the Fort Dupont rink] can join the team," said John Glennon, of Laurel, who is in charge of memberships. "There are no tryouts. We take kids at all levels of skating ability."
Julie's father, Ed McGuire of Fairfax, paces back and forth while she practices. "I didn't hesitate a bit when she asked to play," said McGuire, who sometimes gets up with his daughter at 4 a.m. to make it to an early-morning game. "Her older brother was playing, and it was just natural. I would like her to try anything she wants."
Coach Dwane Johnson says neither of the two girls playing for the club has any problems. "They are not intimidated," he said. In fact, the other girl, Nancy Bowman, 9, of Millersville, Md., was the only player to get the puck away from the coach during the practice season. She was rewarded with a Coke.
Removing her helmet and face mask to reveal a long blond braid and a flushed round face, Nancy, a student at Oak Hill Elementary School, smiled and said, "Sometimes they say a bad word at me, but I just skate them into the boards."
Because checking (body contact) is forbidden in junior league hockey until age 11, Nancy's father, Bob Bowman, also had no reservations about allowing his daughter to take up the male-dominated sport.
"I think she gets more out of this than six figure-skating lessons for $25," he said. "In this, the coach is concerned about each kid's progress. In figure skating if your kid doesn't get it the first time around then you can pay another $25 and take another round of lessons."
Bowman's 5-year-old son, Bobby, also is among the 22 miniature players on the ice. He is as tall as most "big" hockey player's sticks. It is hard to tell when he falls down whether it's intentional or not. As part of the practice, Coach Johnson has the team do a series of "up-down" exercises. The children are told to fall down on the ice, skid a bid and then get right back up.
This helps when you're playing and get in a big pile-up," said Chris Dyke Jr., 11, of Suitland, Md., who was watching his younger brother Brian, 9, work out as a goalie.
Chris Dyke Sr. contributes his time as assistant coach. Neither he nor Johnson receive any pay. "My only reward is an occassional win," said Dyke, 28, who plays in pick-up games for players his own age twice a week. "And I mean an occassional win." His team has lost its only two games.
Bowman considers the reward well worth the investment. He estimates the cost of equipment about $60 per child. "It depends on whether you buy new or used pads and helmets," he said, adding that club fees are $40 per month for one child and $60 for two children, to cover the costs of renting the ice and buying team shirts.
"That might sound like a lot of money to spend on a sport for your kids," Bowman said. "A new helmet can cost as much as $45, but they love it. And I'd rather do without something that might not means as much. These kids all have hockey in their blood, and it would be hard to deprive them of it."