When Erika Valentine tells new friends about her two hockey-playing kids, they often assume both are boys. But Valentine’s 10-year-old daughter, Blake, is a star goalie for a coed travel team based at Ion International Training Center in Leesburg.
“It’s one thing for [girls] to play hockey, which is super cool, but when you throw goalie into the mix, it’s like wow!” Valentine said.
Girls hockey is on the rise. And Ion’s Loudoun Knights travel hockey program is planning to field at least one and possibly two all-girls teams for teens this fall.
For now, Blake Valentine loves playing with the boys. But she said as she gets older, she wants the option of the camaraderie and community of an all-girls team. So, girls hockey coming to Loudoun is great news.
Craig Desjarlais, hockey director for the Loudoun Knights program at Ion, said girls often thrive on coed teams in the elementary and early middle school years, but many want the option of an all-girls team once they reach the teen years. He said Ion is looking at both a U14 and U19 girls team for the upcoming season.
“This is the year where we kick this girls program off the ground in hopes that it gains a lot of momentum and a lot of interest during this first inaugural season, then we’ll push towards adding more teams next year and beyond,” Desjarlais said. “I felt there was a great opportunity to start a girls program. Hopefully within a few years, this really takes off and we’ll have a fully functional girls program from 10-years-old through high school.”
The club already is attracting female players of all ages and skill levels from around the region with Wednesday night all-girls pick-up practices.
Sunday, June 6, Ion will live stream an exhibition match between a Loudoun Knights team and the well-established Mason-Dixon girls hockey team.
Hockey is a growth sport around the country, and girls hockey is on the rise big time.According to USA Hockey, girls’ and women’s participation in the sport has grown by 34 percent over the past 10 years.
“The game in general is gaining popularity,” Desjarlais said. “[Hockey] is growing tremendously in the Mid-Atlantic.”
Desjarlais, a Canadian-born former college and professional minor league hockey player, chalks up some of the sport’s regional growth to the success of the Washington Capitals.
Ion, which opened in June 2019,is wrapping up its second year of competitive hockey with its Loudoun Knights program. The club has gone from seven teams to plans for 12 to 14 teams this fall, including at least one all-girls team. The club willstart by focusing on girls’ teams for older players.
“There are a lot of very talented female players on our teams right now who do very well in the coed game and there’s really no reason for them to specialize in girls hockey until they get to be 13, 14 or even 15 years old,” Desjarlais said.
Desjarlais adds that many girls continue to play coed in their teen years, but it’s important to have options.
Blake, a fourth grader at Sycolin Creek Elementary School, said for now coed hockey gives her the excitement and skills development she craves. And for now, being the only girl on the team—in a crucial position—is no big deal.
“I don’t really think much of it,” she said. “I do make friends with the guys—I kind of have to.”
This year she’s the only girl on her coed team, but they may add another female player for the upcoming season. She wants to have the option of the camaraderie of an all-girls team as she gets older.
“It’s really a community,” she said.
For Desjarlais, Blake is a “future star” who will be “an instrumental part of the growth of the girls program here at Ion.”
Dejarlais said that at this point in the girls’ game, many female players are still following older brothers into the sport, although some girls do jump in from the figure skating world.
“The sister comes out to a learn to skate class and tries hockey and next thing you know, she loves it as much as her brother,” Desjarlais said.
Blake caught the hockey bug from watching her older brother Jackson, 12, also a goalie for a Loudoun Knights team.“I thought it looked really cool, so I wanted to do it,” Blake said.
She started with skating lessons and joined a team at age 6. After experimenting with several positions, she decided goalie was the position for her and is thriving in a high-pressure position. “I like the excitement of when a player’s coming down and getting ready and you save the puck,” Blake said. “I like the momentum and the excitement that goes into it.”
And Erika Valentine said the girls are just as fearless as the boys on the ice.
“The girls just go out there and play and they’re not afraid. You can’t play hockey if you’re afraid—period,” she said.
Blake says she’s trying to convince her friends and other Loudoun girls to get hockey on their radar screens.
“I would say definitely try it,” Blake said. “As soon as you start to skate more, you’ll find it’s so much fun. It has a lot of good energy and you meet a lot of good people.”
For more information about Ion’s hockey and skating programs, go to ionitc.com. To catch a live stream of the Loudoun Knights v. Mason-Dixon girls exhibition game Sunday, June 6 at 4:10 p.m., go to creativeunderground.co/live.