Nine-year-old Jesse McKay began his ice hockey career in London, Ontario, a part of Canada where many toddlers learn to skate on frozen ponds and where the sport is a favorite pastime. But, ironically, it was his move to Leesburg last summer that has given McKay the opportunity to compete in one of the most prestigious youth hockey tournaments in North America.

Beginning Friday in Pelham, Ont., just a couple of hours from his hometown, McKay and seven other boys from Leesburg and Ashburn will play for the Reston Raiders Squirt (ages 9-10) Silver team in the North American Silver Stick finals. The event was inaugurated in 1963 and is designed to bring together qualifying champions from across the United States and Canada for three days of competition.

Teams from nontraditional hockey areas are becoming more common at Silver Stick as the sport's popularity spreads, and McKay is confident the Virginians will make a good showing in hockey's homeland.

"Canadians are probably thinking that we probably don't play as good, but hockey is a little more competitive here," the feisty little left wing said. "Our team works more as a team. They don't just depend on one player. They depend on each other."

Squirt Silver won its qualifying tournament with victories over three Maryland teams in Columbia in October, and it is one of an unprecedented five Reston Raiders teams of various ages and competitive levels that will compete in Silver Stick this year. That success is another sign youth hockey has grown in the Washington area.

"There's definitely not a hockey culture here per se, partially because it's so spread out, but I think hockey has grown quite a bit here," Squirt Silver Coach Mike Lorenz said.

The numbers back him up. According to club President Jeff Schlagenhauf, whose son Taylor skates for Squirt Silver, Reston boasts more than 900 members who play in travel, in-house and skill development programs. Since the Raiders added ice time at the new Ashburn Ice House in November 1998, interest from Loudoun County families has surged. Schlagenhauf said there is a strong Loudoun presence on almost every Reston Raiders team.

"When we first started playing, there weren't five kids in Loudoun who played," said team manager and mother Ellen Oliver of Ashburn. "But since the opening of the Ashburn rink, kids started to shoot over."

The Reston Raiders are one of 18 clubs in the Capital Beltway Hockey League (CBHL), which organizes competition among youth travel teams of various ages and skill levels (A-C) in Maryland, the District and Virginia. Clubs usually host teams at each level. Squirt Silver is Reston's B team.

The travel programs are rather fluid from year to year as some players move up an age group or skill level and others come in. Consequently, Lorenz wants to give Squirt Silver as many games together as possible. Like some other Raider teams, Squirt Silver competes in the CBHL and the Delaware Valley Hockey League, an A-level outfit based in Eastern Pennsylvania. This arrangement can mean four games in a weekend--and a lot of travel. Squirt Silver is just 1-16 in the DVHL but is 6-2 in the 20-team CBHL and is well positioned to qualify for the playoffs.

"There's a pretty big commitment--the time, the travel, the money--especially in this area," Lorenz said of his effort to develop his players. "Here, even in our own league, we have to go to Easton, Md., which is a two-hour drive. We have to go to Richmond and Hampton Roads. It's a pretty wide range."

Now Squirt Silver will travel 300 miles to Pelham to see whether that preparation and commitment has paid off. They leave for Canada tonight and will play four first-round games over the next two days.

Last Sunday, Squirt Silver played its final game before Silver Stick, losing a tough, 1-0 contest to the visiting Montgomery Blue Devils. Afterward, some of the Loudoun-based players gathered to talk about their upcoming trip.

"It's a really big tournament. It's famous," center Jayden McGrath, 10, of Leesburg said. "It's a great opportunity to prove we're a good team and to learn from good teams. We've been practicing since October, so I think we're ready."

"When you're here at Reston or at Ashburn, it's like, 'Oh, we're playing here again,' " left wing Ryan Newell, 9, of Ashburn, added. "But when you go to Canada, it feels like you're really good. There's more adventure."

Goaltender Zack Vinson of Ashburn will be thinking of his classmates as he faces Canadian opposition. "My entire class thinks that it's great that I'm going up there. They think I'm representing Virginia."

And as hockey continued to expand into the warmer climes, representing Virginia may become something to be proud of.

"We've got a pretty balanced team, and they know how to count on each other," Lorenz said. "We can fool a lot of teams, especially the Canadians. They will say, 'You must be kidding, coming from Virginia.' But I think they'll be surprised."

CAPTION: Ryan Ellis is part of Reston youth hockey team that will play in North American Silver Stick finals in Pelham, Ontario.

CAPTION: Montgomery player Ryan Davenport, left, skates up ice as the Reston Raiders' Colin Trissler gives chase. Reston is one of five area teams competing in the three-day Silver Stick finals.