In a southern state like Virginia, playing ice hockey takes perseverance.
The state's relatively mild weather means players must use indoor skating rinks and ice time is limited and expensive to rent.
But such limitations don't daunt hundreds of Northern Virginia ice hockey players. At 5 a.m. on any given morning, in fact, it would not be unusual to find groggy-eyed kids spinning and turning on the slippery stuff at one of Fairfax County's two indoor rinks -- Fairfax Skating Arena and Mount Vernon Sports Complex.
Most of the ice hockey action for Northern Virginia young people centers on the Fairfax and Mount Vernon Hockey clubs -- there are no high school ice hockey teams in Virginia. The clubs provide more than 300 players younger than 8 and as old as 19 playing time and instruction. The teams are part of the Capital Beltway Hockey League, which includes more than 2,000 players on 11 teams from the Washington metropolitan area, Maryland and York, Pa.
These teams play an average of 40 games a season, beginning in mid-September and ending in March. All the clubs in the league have at least one team in each of six age divisions, beginning with the Mites (9 and under) and progressing to the Juniors (17- to 19-year-olds).
The idea behind the Mount Vernon program, according to Susan Scott, the club's president, "is to provide an activity for kids to have fun and to learn a sport and to compete at it. The competition is last. We try to teach them a skill and sportsmanship."
"The kids here have to view this as a recreation, a thing to do, not a feeder to the pros," said Robert Kelleter, 45, president of the Fairfax Hockey Club, which formed in 1972. "Even if there is a success, that's one in a million. When they get to the age when they realize that, it becomes just a recreation sport . . . what they basically hope for is to play Division II or III up north (these are college athletic programs which are less competitive than Division I teams and are not allowed to grant scholarships for sports).
But for those who want to make hockey a professional career, the fact that there are no high school teams makes their chances slim because high school programs bring increased competition, everyday practice and higher visibility to college scouts.
"The odds aren't good for an area hockey player to make a Division I team even if you are a good athlete," Kelleter said. "Those athletes are in the proven sports in the area, like baseball, basketball, football. For the most part, the super-athletes do not play hockey."
Then what drives these youths to practice in the early morning hours and late into the night when, for most of the players, the closest they will get to playing in the National Hockey League is the Beltway league playoffs at Capital Centre?
"Most of the people on my team moved here from up north, like Canada or up north in the U.S. , and we just want to keep playing," said David Gagliano of Falls Church, who plays goalie for the Fairfax Midgets. Gagliano, 16, moved from New Jersey and has played for Fairfax for three years. "Sure we would like to play college hockey. A lot of kids could play Division II or III. Division I would be tough to make because there isn't enough ice time here."
Those who want more competition than the two clubs offer try out for the Washington Americans, a metropolitan-area all-star team. Many players from the Fairfax and Mount Vernon clubs make the team.
The Beltway league is classified by the Amateur Hockey Association as A-level league, while the Washington Americans team plays a more competitive brand of hockey called AA. Because there are no other AA teams in the area, the Americans must play their 60-70-game schedule against teams in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey as well as Quebec. Almost every other weekend, the players, as young as 9, travel north for games.
"It's AA hockey another level of commitment by the kids and the parents," said Scott, 35, whose 16-year-old son Douglas plays for the Mount Vernon club. "I don't know if it's good or bad. It's a good opportunity to have."
"It's think it's crazy," said Kelleter, who has sons age 19, 16, 11 who play on his club's teams. "I think the hopes of the kids that play AA are unrealistic. There was a guy who played for the Washington Americans about 10 years ago. He then played junior hockey in Canada, then played for Buffalo. The kids who are 19 in the NHL didn't play for a league like this; they played junior hockey in Canada. It's like a guy in Winnipeg hoping to play professional basketball in the U.S.
"One father has been flying his kid up north every weekend to play on a team in northern New Jersey," Kelleter continued. "Next year, he plans to move to Boston and will take a pay cut so that his kid can play high school hockey as a freshman up there."
The game costs a high-school age player about $500 a year in club dues for either Northern Virginia club, and $500 for the skates and equipment. A large part of the dues pays for ice time ($95 per team per hour at Mount Vernon and $125 at Fairfax). Each player is responsible for travel expenses.
Aside from the expense of the sport, the time and effort of the travel and the play is a high cost to pay for the players who try to beat the odds and shoot for the pros.
For those older players who don't go to Division I and don't make it to the pros but still want to shoot the puck around, ice hockey in Northern Virginia continues with adult leagues playing out of the Fairfax and Mount Vernon rinks.
"Our teams are thin on 18- to 19-year-olds because most of the kids have gone off to college," Kelleter said, "but a few go to NOVA (Northern Virginia Community College) and George Mason and stay around. They have lots of pickup groups, like basketball pickup games. That's basically their future."