In matching gray sweatsuits, Washington Pride players walk through the cafe adjacent to the Rockville Ice Arena and into the parking lot. They start their afternoon together by juggling a soccer ball around a circle. Misplaced kicks are punished with a jog to the curb and back.
Soon more teammates arrive to add fuel to the conversation. School uniforms are mocked and the day’s classes are rehashed. Any parking jobs attempted near the warm-up are vulnerable to criticism from the group, but senior forward Erin Sistek confidently backs into a spot to rousing applause.
After a few more rounds in the circle, the group heads inside for an hour on the ice and another hour in the weight room. From September to April, this meeting takes place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, while the Pride spend many of their weekends traveling across North America.
“I was probably in the best shape of my life then, playing four or five games in a weekend,” said Haley Skarupa, a forward on the U.S. women’s hockey team in this month’s Olympics. “But I loved every second of it. My best friends are a lot of my teammates from those teams. The memories I have with them before practice or in some airport are some of my best hockey memories.”
In skill and commitment, the Pride are at the forefront of the D.C.-area’s growing girls’ hockey community. In 2001-02, 677 girls were registered with the branch of USA Hockey that represents D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. In 2009-10 that number was 985. Now it is 1,587.
The Pride are also the first and only local program that offers a path to women’s college hockey. Of the 119 girls to play for the Pride under-19 team and graduate high school between 1995 and 2017, 42 went to Division I ice hockey and 66 went to Division III.
“Back when I played with boys, I remember I saw the under-19 Pride team practicing once and I was just in awe. I worshiped them. I wanted to be like them so bad,” junior forward Mollie Dalbey said. “I think it’s important to keep showing younger girls that this is a girls’ sport and you can be from this area and be a college hockey player.”
Kush Sidhu, who worked as an assistant with the women’s team at Northeastern while he earned a PhD in Neuroscience, started the Little Capitals girls team in 1995, and in 2000 it became the Pride. Then, in 2007, Sidhu left his day job to co-found the Junior Women’s Hockey League, which now has 10 teams across the Northeast, Midwest and Canada. Teams take turns hosting a weekend full of games that double as gatherings of college scouts.
“When we started there just wasn’t many opportunities for girls to play hockey in this area, let alone at the level that would get you recruited,” Sidhu said. “We knew that we’re in Washington, so we don’t really have a choice. If we want to compete against the top level, we’ve got to get on the road and go play them.”
The area's first girls’ youth hockey league started in 1995 when Holton-Arms School and Chevy-Chase, Montgomery and Reston clubs started the girls division of the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League. In 2003, local girls clubs began competing in their own division of the Chesapeake Bay Hockey League, which is the region’s travel league sanctioned by USA Hockey. The Mid-Atlantic Girls Hockey League is in its sixth season as the area’s first high school girls league.
As access to youth teams expands both locally and nationally, college coaches are noticing a growing talent pool.
“There used to be a few blue chips that everyone wanted and then a drop-off. Now there are a lot more really good players to recruit,” Boston University Coach Brian Durocher said. “This generation of players coming to college now is the first generation that almost across the board didn’t always have to play with guys.”
Aside from Sidhu, the Pride’s coaches are all former players.
“It’s our big hockey family. I think coming to practice is my favorite part of the day,” said senior forward Allison Curry, who commutes from Kent Island, Md. “You don’t have to worry about school or anything, just hockey.”
After Pride players graduate to college teams, many return for the annual alumni game. This year’s reunion was able to celebrate an Olympian, but not without some logistical tweaking.
On Dec. 23, Skarupa’s flight from Team USA training camp in Fla. was scheduled to arrive at BWI Airport at 6:20 p.m. She checked her hockey bag, but still wasn’t going to make the 7 p.m. start.
So Sidhu called the rink and pushed the game back an hour.
“I wasn’t going to miss that game. I was texting Kush as soon as I landed, like, ‘okay, I’m going to make it,” Skarupa said. “I go to it every single year. It is so important for me to see so many generations of the Pride playing and how good the younger players have gotten.”