CENTRAL PARK — On a December night, it’s not unusual to see the ice at Lasker Rink filled with young hockey players. But these days, some of the players at the Central Park rink might surprise you.
You see, hockey isn’t just for the boys.
“I wanted to do this, but an opportunity like this had never really presented itself,” said Karolina Kocica.
Kocica is one of about 150 girls who joined the Junior Rangers Girls Hockey League for the inaugural season.
“My family is a line of Ranger fans, and so I went to my first game when I was 3 or 4 maybe, and I’ve been a fan ever since,” the 14-year-old said.
The Rangers started the program after noticing the interest from hundreds of girls who attended their “learn to play” clinics. But when they looked at the statistics, they found that just 13% of youth hockey players are girls.
“We want to get it to 50%, it’s very simple, that’s why we’re doing it,” said Kristin Bernert, Senior Vice President of Business Operations at Madison Square Garden.
Bernert says there were just too few opportunities for girls to join a team: either they had to play in a co-ed league with the boys, or find specialized, expensive travel teams.
“The interest is there, it’s just giving them the opportunity and the accessibility to the sport,” Bernert said.
“Growing up, I actually played mostly with all boys, I was one of two girls,” said Coach Samantha Siciliano.
As a kid, she participated in the Rangers camps and went on to play club hockey at Penn State. So when she learned about the all-girls league, she jumped at the chance to coach.
“I think just getting to be around other women who are doing what you’re doing and a reminder that this is your sport too is so important,” Siciliano said.
In it’s first year, the Junior Rangers fielded 10 teams across the tri-state area. Zelia Zika has been figure skating since she was three years old.
“I asked my parents to do hockey, but my mom was like, ‘figure skating!’,” Zika said.
But her love of hockey never faded.
“You’re allowed to throw the puck on the boards and body tackle anyone,” she said with a big smile.
“I mean, she wants to go to practice more than she wants to go to school, more than she wants to do anything else, so she loves it,” said her dad, James Zika.
By introducing young girls to competitive hockey, there’s no doubt the sport will benefit from reaching a virtually untapped audience. But regardless of how long they play the sport, Bernert says the lessons they learn on the ice will stick with them forever.
“There’s such value in learning how to be a great teammate. These girls are learning it at a young age and they’re going to take it forward no matter what they do in life,” she said.