The girls of the Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning hockey team find competition, camaraderie

Courtney Gauthier, 13, pushes the puck across the ice after shaking off a defender during a match at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy in Oldsmar last month.

Joseph Garnett Jr. | Times

Courtney Gauthier, 13, pushes the puck across the ice after shaking off a defender during a match at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy in Oldsmar last month.

It is wintry cold behind the double doors at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy's north rink, where jackets are in order even on a hot Florida afternoon.

On the ice, girls ranging in age from 10 to 18 are zooming around the rink on thick-bladed skates, wielding their hockey sticks.

Wait.

Girls? Hockey sticks?

Meet the Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning, the first all-girls hockey team in the area and only the second in the state. (Kissimmee is home to the first.)

The dream of a Tampa Bay all-girls hockey team became reality last November with a push from 13-year-old Courtney Gauthier of New Tampa and some of her fellow skaters.

Courtney's father, Fred Gauthier, helped. A coach for the past 10 years at the skating academy, he supported his daughter's idea of a team for girls and volunteered to coach it. Most of the 15 girls on the roster, including Courtney, formerly played on teams in the local boys' league at the academy.

The coach quickly saw the difference in an all-girl team. Boys, he said, often strive for personal success.

"In just a few months with a girls team," Gauthier said, "I realized that girls look to each other for support and have a strong sense of teamwork."

The new team offers some distinct advantages to the girls — and plenty of challenges as well.

Assistant coach Charli Solis said the new team offers girls the kind of attention and confidence boost they might not get surrounded by boys.

"Our goal as coaches is to give girls a place to train and develop their skills as female players so they can move on in the hockey world in college if they want to," she said.

Solis, a native of Michigan who started skating as a toddler, noted that girls' teams up North have big budgets and get lots of training. Not so in Florida.

"The girls here felt they were being pushed aside in favor of boys," Solis said. "Girls train differently because of size and weight."

Now, she and Gauthier can work on techniques that fit the needs of female players.

The coaches have plenty of challenges, such as the wide range of their players' ages.

"Right now the Jr. Lightning has two 10-year-olds, two 18-year-olds and the rest are mainly 13 and 14," Gauthier said. "Our goal for next season is to get enough girls to split them up according to age."

Skill levels also vary widely. Gauthier's 13-year-old daughter has been skating for 10 years. One 15-year-old player has been skating for only 10 months.

"You don't want weaker skaters to be overwhelmed," he said, "or good players to be bored."

Some of the Jr. Lightning players also play on the Rangers, a boys team at the skating academy. Playing with boys, as well as playing against them, appears to have intensified the girls' competitive spirit.

"Trying to stay up to speed with all the boys that are bigger and stronger than I am is hard," said Courtney Gauthier, "but that is a challenge I don't mind because it helps me."

Fifteen-year-old Holly Sheeler of Clearwater, one of the goalies for the Jr. Lightning, doesn't dwell on playing against boys. She's out to win.

"In the end we're all hockey players," she said. "When we get out there and play, we're not that different."

Sierra Benjamin, 12, began playing at age 5. She, too, loves the challenge of the game — and the competition.

"I enjoy it so much," the Wesley Chapel girl said. "I just don't like to lose."

Gauthier delivers a strong message to his players: "Girls can do whatever they want," he tells them, urging them to enjoy themselves on the ice.

"Winning is not the only thing in youth hockey," he said. "They need to have fun."

.Fast Facts

Tampa Bay

Skating Academy

• Address: 255 Forest Lakes Blvd., Oldsmar

• Practices are usually held from 8:15 until 9 p.m. Fridays. Games are played on Sundays at various times.

• For the game schedule, go to jrlightninggirlshockey.com.

• For information on the Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning call (813) 835-9031

• The public is welcome at all games and practices.

The girls of the Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning hockey team find competition, camaraderie 03/15/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 16, 2012 5:32pm]

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