Skate like a girl

David Bergeland/Durango Herald

Durango’s Sara Martin and Alison Millar have grown up girls in a boys hockey world. Now, they’re national runners-up, winning a silver medal as part of a Colorado all-star team at USA Hockey’s national championships. And the best part about it, their play is rubbing off on players such as 13-year-old Sophia Quick, who was the third Durango Area Youth Hockey Association representative at the national tournament in Frisco, Texas.

By Jim Sojourner Herald staff writer

Hockey’s a man’s world?

Sara Martin and Alison Millar beg to differ.

They’ve got a national silver medal to prove it and, if in doubt, can crush a body or two against the boards for good measure.

Martin and Millar were the two Durango pieces of the Colorado Springs-based Colorado Tiger Girls Elite prep team that took second place in the USA Hockey’s 2012 Tier II Girls U19 National Championships in Frisco, Texas, three weeks ago.

The Tigers – made up of elite hockey girls from around the state – won five consecutive games against some of the most storied teams in the country to make it to the finals, where they lost 5-2 to the Alliance Bulldogs and earned their runner-up medals.

“Once we got to second place, once we started winning, it was amazing,” Millar said in an interview with The Durango Herald last week.

But more than silver around their necks, Martin and Millar have hockey in their blood.

“I’ve never really known anything different,” said Martin, daughter of Aimee and Steve Martin.

“Sarah never really took to the girls sports,” Steve Martin said.

Neither did Millar, and that’s how the girls met.

Both girls started playing hockey with the Durango Area Youth Hockey Association at about age 6. For Martin, it was a hockey dad who got her interested in the sport, while for Millar it was a proclivity for tomboyishness.

“When I was little, I was pretty much a little boy,” Millar said. “Since I was young I wanted to be tough, and hockey’s a tough sport. I like being the only girl in my high school to be playing hockey, and I’m known for that.”

Now, just weeks after nationals, both girls bare badges of their toughness: big, black braces.

Martin wears one on her arm and around her neck, a remnant of recent shoulder surgery to tighten up a joint that’s suffered dislocation after dislocation.

The injury last reared its head in a game against Colorado State University midseason, Tigers’ coach Rich Furia said. A hit dislodged Martin’s shoulder, and it was “really dislocated,” visibly hanging inches lower than the other.

What did Martin do? Walked back into the locker room, popped it back in herself and played out the rest of the season.

“That kid’s like a brick,” Furia said. “Most other players would not have come back, and she was like, ‘There’s no way I’m missing the rest of the season, so I’m playing.’”

Millar, on the other hand, has the Velcro tendrils of a knee brace clinging to her leg. She tore her ACL playing lacrosse shortly after the national tournament.

Whereas Martin said her injury is worth the misery, having happened while playing the sport she loves, Millar said hers is not so much. Lacrosse is supposed to keep her in hockey shape, not out of it; it’s not quite hockey, after all.

“I came out of my car with my brace on after I did it that day, and (my dad) goes ‘What’s your sport?’ and I was like ‘Hockey,’ and he was like, ‘Then stick with it,” said Millar, daughter of Lynn and Wally Millar.

And she plans to: Millar is looking to continue playing Division 3 hockey next year in college.

The toughness the girls exhibit as they hunch over and hobble around isn’t necessarily intrinsic, they say. It comes from growing up a girl in a so-called boys sport.

Until a couple of years ago, both girls played hockey almost exclusively with boys youth teams, something that’s both toughened them up and made them more skilled players. They still practice with local boys teams.

Furia said the real difference is seen in their speed on the ice and the quickness of their hockey decisions. Girls that grow up playing only girls hockey aren’t as good, and Furia said he can pick out the girls who have grown up with boys just by watching them in the rink.

Martin and Millar are two of those, he said.

“They naturally get faster; their hands get faster; they’re used to harder shots; they learn to assess the ice and make decisions very quickly,” Furia said.

Furia described Martin, an assistant captain for the Tigers, as a Joe Sakic-style player, taking point in scoring goals and leading by example on the ice.

“She loves to score, but it doesn’t make her game for her,” Furia said. “Her game is doing whatever job she’s given to do and playing tough.”

Millar fills in any role she’s asked to, Furia said, and gives everything she’s got all the time. She’s also “tough as nails,” frequently filling the checking-line and penalty-killer roles.

“She’ll embrace different roles and never ask any questions about what her role is,” Furia said. “If you give her a role, she’s going to go out and execute it.”

Both girls understand the myriad of NCAA-level systems the Tigers have implemented for their lines, Furia said, and that’s something that worked for the Tigers’ advantage at nationals.

That, and all the speed the girls gleaned from playing against the boys.

“Speed is a big thing,” Martin said. “It’s what you do. You have to have a lot of speed to win.”

But even if they learned speed with the boys, Millar said boys and girls hockey almost are two different sports now. The boys are rougher, while the girls use more finesse, with more systemic play and more puck movement. But, “it’s still rough,” Millar said.

“I miss boys hockey, but I definitely love girls’ hockey because there’s not so much pressure that you’re going to get killed,” Millar said.

Although both said they loved growing up on boys teams and learning to play in the rough-and-tumble, Millar said the attitudes have changed a bit as they’ve aged. Physical characteristics have, too.

The boys have gotten bigger and bigger; the girls not so much. Millar has even gotten “not so boyish.”

In airports, Martin said people often think they’re part of a soccer or volleyball team.

“They look at us like ‘You guys are tiny. You play hockey?’” Martin said.

Male teammates also have started poking fun at girls hockey. They don’t get it, Martin said, and they don’t get what it’s about.

They also don’t get that it’s their own boyish competition that have made such smaller girls faster, smarter and much better than they are.

“I love those boys, but I wish they would see what we do. ... It (ticks) me off,” Millar said. “But I just know we’re playing higher-level hockey than they are.

“We have a nationals medal.”

In a sport still dominated in the imagination and on-screen by long-haired, often-toothless men, that makes Martin and Millar pioneers – and role models – of a sort, as well.

At 13-years-old, Sophia Quick still has some time before she reaches the elite level. For her, Martin and Millar are flesh-and-blood inspiration – living examples of what it means to be a hockey girl.

Quick said she watches the hustle Martin and Millar bring to the game. They sprint off the ice during line changes and always are drenched in sweat, Quick said.

“You’re fearless, and just your shots are so hard,” Quick told the Tigers’ duo during the interview at the Herald.

That’s something that the youngster already is trying to imitate – at the national level no less.

Quick also competed in the national tournament in late March, the only Durango player to play with the Mountain State Girls Hockey League U14 Rock Stars all-star team.

Although they lost all three of their games, making a team selected from the state’s best young players and playing on the national stage is no small feat.

Quick’s already got the right tools to be great, Martin said.

“She just has this amazing attitude toward everything and toward everybody on the ice,” Martin said. “She truly just never gives up. She works so hard all the time.”

And although it isn’t always easy playing the girls role in a male-dominated sport, replete with the extra stress of weekends spent on the road and early mornings on the ice, Martin and Millar both said paving the way for girls such as Quick is worth the struggle.

“It feels really good,” Millar said. “It feels like we’re giving people the motive, like they can do it, too.”

With that motivation, Quick, daughter of Lori and Mark Quick, said she’s already beating the boys, on and off the rink. At school, she does a lot of arm wrestling.

“I beat a lot of guys,” Quick said. “And always their first excuse is: ‘Oh, well you play hockey.’”

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