Boston College hockey players crowded around head coach Katie Crowley as she explained the next drill.
“Alright? Let’s go!” she said as they head out on the ice. The players start taking turns going for the goal — passing the puck in a choreography that’s both graceful and aggressive — as Crowley skates around them, watching closely.
Five players she coached here at BC are in South Korea right now, playing for their country. And the Olympics is something Crowley knows about. She was on the team in 1998, the first time women’s hockey was ever an Olympic sport.
“Everything was brand new to everybody. And then we won the gold medal, so that just capped it off,” Crowley said. That win, she said, inspired some of the players she’s since coached. “You see kids who come through BC now who — well, now they weren't even born yet," she said with a laugh. "But, you know, we had some a couple of years ago they were like, ‘Oh, I got my poster signed by you,’ you know, and they still have it.”
Winning that first gold medal had a huge impact on the sport in the U.S. “You know, I just remember after that Olympics how many people were like ‘I started playing hockey because of that team,’” she said.
That was true of a lot of girls. Kevin Erlenbach of USA Hockey said the year after that gold medal win, they saw a 21 percent increase in girls age 8 and under playing hockey for the first time.
“The 97-98 season, we had just over 28,000 female hockey players of all ages," he said. "Now we're almost 76,000 this past year.”
Girls continue to be the fastest growing group of hockey players, Erlenbach said. To keep up the momentum, the weekend after this Olympics, USA Hockey is planning 400 try-hockey-for-free events around the country.
“Not too many years ago — I'm talking like three or four years ago — it was like one in five, or one in six kids coming through the door were girls," Erlenbach said. "And now, consistently the last three seasons, it's one in four. And we're actually creeping closer to actually one in three kids coming into a try-hockey event as a girl.”
And they expect that boost in interest will be even greater this year if the American women win in South Korea. After that first gold in 1998, Crowley went on to receive two more medals with Team USA — a silver in 2002 and bronze in 2006. “So, I have the whole set of Olympic medals,” she said with a smile. But the American women haven’t won gold since that first big one in 1998. They lost in overtime to the Canadians at the last Olympics.
“We want another gold medal in our country," she said. "And it happened 20 years ago, so what better time than now to get our second gold medal?” she said.
One of the players Crowley coached who’s now trying to get that second gold is Kali Flanagan.
“I think it would mean everything to our sport and to little girls in the USA and people looking up to us and, you know, wanting to be where we are one day," Flanagan said. "And I think it would just be an incredible moment for our sport."
One of the biggest signs of the boom in women’s hockey is the fact it’s a pro sport now. The National Women’s Hockey League launched in 2015. So far, there are only four teams in the pro league. But it’s been a home to top players who are no longer in college. Six players on this year’s U.S. Olympic team used to play for the Boston Pride.
At a Boston Pride game recently, a lot of the fans in the stands were girls wearing their own hockey jerseys and cheering for their favorite players. Thirteen-year-old Molly Hudson was in the stands at Boston’s Warrior Ice Arena to see the Pride play the Metropolitan Riveters from New Jersey. She’s been playing hockey since she was 5, and this year she’s on her first all-girl team.
“It's way better because I have more friends to talk to," she said "And they're, like, nicer, I think.”
Hudson says she’s hoping for an American gold medal, to inspire more players to join her. “Yeah, I would like to see more girls playing,” she said. But Hudson’s looking even further into the future as she watches Team USA. “I want to be on that team, but I have to try really hard.”
And if the American women do win gold this year, it could inspire even more competition to get on the team for the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing.