IRVINE -- Kathy McGarrigle and Caroline Marchant were beaming with pride as they watched their Lady Ducks 10U and 12U teams on the ice at FivePoint Arena on Thursday night. It was a memorable experience for the kids because of who they were skating with. Joining them was the U.S. Women's National Team, in town for training camp as it prepares for the final stretch of games in the Rivalry Series against Canada. Three contests remain in the five-game series, which culminates on Saturday, Feb. 8 at Honda Center.
McGarrigle, Founder, Program Director and Head Coach for the Lady Ducks, called it a "See it, be it" moment for her young players.
"Our kids were immediately inspired," she said. "I coach our 12U team, and they were out here. You look at them, and all of sudden they put everything together in this one moment and play amazing because they're next to someone who they want to be like. That's really cool. Our youngest girls that came out are just excited because these are their idols. To be right next to them, make a pass, get a pass or shoot on a goalie. Nothing gets better than that."
One of those idols happens to be an Orange County native. Annie Pankowski, a longtime Lady Ducks standout, will be among the women who step onto the ice at Honda Center wearing the red, white and blue. The 25-year-old Laguna Hills native played for the Lady Ducks from 2005-11. She was a finalist for the 2019 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, presented annually to the top Division I women's college hockey player in the nation (University of Wisconsin), and won the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship and was named "Player of the Game" in the Championship game (U.S. vs. Finland), scoring a goal and the game-deciding shootout tally.
Pankowski was also nominated for the 2019 Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented to the student-athlete who makes significant contributions not only to their team, but also the community-at large through leadership in volunteerism.
"This is one of the greatest rivalries in sports and in all of hockey," Pankowski said. "It's USA vs. Canada. It's hard to put into words how much these girls care about the game. Playing against each other, it always gets heated. We really bring out the best in each other."
Southern California is a hotbed for hockey these days, but things were different in the past. Marchant, wife of former Ducks Stanley Cup champion Todd Marchant, remembers when they first moved to Orange County 14 years ago. "There were just a handful of teams in the Lady Ducks organization," said Marchant, who serves as general manager for the Lady Ducks program. "With Kathy's hard work, it bloomed into 11 teams overnight. It was crazy. This program has so much to offer. Not just to make better hockey players, but we're out to make the best people we can make. Give them the best foundation we can give them."
That's one of the reasons why the opportunity to skate with the women's national team was so impactful, says McGarrigle.
"All these girls played in college," she said. "They're college students as well as athletes. Our ultimate goal is to have 100% participation at the college level whether it be an arts or some type of school, hockey, or a school where they're focused on academics and continue to play hockey for fun. These girls represent both. As a program, that's a perfect scenario. As parents, it's a perfect scenario for [their daughters] to come out and rub elbows with them."
Pankowski takes great pride in serving as a role model. Even something as simple as joining the Lady Ducks for half an hour on the ice goes a long way. "We're just sharing our love for hockey," she said. "Giving them that 'see it to be it' moment. People they dream of, and dream about being. For us to be out here and share that is a pretty special moment for them and us.
"We never had people who came back and did this for us," Pankowski added. "My first real national team awareness wasn't until I was 15. These girls are getting it when they're eight or nine years old, which is incredible. It just shows how much hockey has grown here."
Pankowski admits having training camp and the final Rivalry Series game in her backyard is a bit of an adjustment, but in the best possible way. Earlier this week she invited her teammates to her house, which includes a pool with an attached slide in the backyard.
"It's something that has always been so far away for me," she said. "It's always been on the East Coast or in the Midwest. To have it be at home is something that's really special. It's really exciting. All my family and friends get to be here. You get to share with the rest of the world how much women's hockey is growing in California, which is amazing."
The Rivalry Series was introduced by USA Hockey and Hockey Canada last season, and was made up of three games between the respective women's national teams. This year's series is composed of five games - two were held in December (both won by Team USA) and the final three in February. It resumes next Monday and Wednesday with games in Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia, respectively.
The game in Anaheim on Feb. 8 will be part of the Anaheim Ducks "We Play Weekend," which will take place Feb. 7-9, and includes multiple initiatives to celebrate the girls and women's game. As part of the weekend festivities, U.S. National Team members will take part in S.C.O.R.E. (Scholastic Curriculum Of Recreation & Education) events that promote hockey, physical fitness, and academic excellence in classrooms across Southern California.
Prior to the Rivalry Series game at Honda Center, the Ducks will host a ticketed pre-game Women in Sports panel featuring distinguished female athletes. Autographs will be available post-game from members of the U.S. Women's National Team and alumni. To conclude the weekend on Sunday, Feb. 9, kids ages 6-16 will have a chance to take part in special clinics with members of Team USA at Great Park Ice and FivePoint Arena.
When the game at Honda Center was announced, McGarrigle says Marchant joked that attending the game should be mandatory for the Lady Ducks. "We just didn't want anyone to miss it," McGarrigle said with a laugh. "The teams are going to sit together all around different parts of the arena. The group that was out there [Thursday] is going to watch the game and be like, She skated with me! I scored on that goalie! Those things will really [bring together] the two groups. They're actually interested in watching the game. It's huge for us."
Pankowski says she can't wait to skate in front of her hometown fans, and hopes the game inspires the next generation of women athletes.
"I think for us to bring the best of women's hockey to Southern California is just going to ignite a whole bunch of dreams," she said. "I hope these girls get a chance to see that."