WASHINGTON -- Haley Skarupa enjoyed playing hockey growing up in Rockville, Maryland, but the lack of opportunities for girls in the game sometimes made it a challenge.
"I played through squirts with the boys' teams, which I really did love," said Skarupa, a forward for the United States women's hockey team that won the gold medal at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. "It was a huge challenge, obviously, on and off the ice, but it really helped make me a better player and person.
"But there were the little things here and there: You can't be in the same locker room with them (boys), obviously they see a ponytail coming out of your helmet and they want to go after you -- half the boys do respect you and want to be your friend or they don't want you to beat them and they're kind of going after you. You're always proving your own … I just had a lot of once I transferred to the girls' side."
Skarupa will be among some of the high-profile participants in the International IIHF World Girls' Hockey Weekend, an annual event to celebrate and grow the girls and women's game.
Many of the 31 NHL teams are hosting events this weekend, from Try Hockey for Free sessions at their arenas or practice facilities to highlighting the work of girls' hockey teams and programs in their area.
For example, Skarupa, who was recently named hockey ambassador for the Washington Capitals, will host two free girls' hockey clinics for players ages 8-18 at the MedStar Capitals Iceplex. The New York Rangers will host 13 Try Hockey for Free events for girls ages 11-14. In addition, girls between 11-12 from the New York tri-state area will have the opportunity to represent the Rangers on a tournament team.
"I think how far the game has come in girls' hockey and how far it still has to go, just one weekend is never enough," Skarupa said. "But to even just have one girls' hockey weekend around the globe just to create that awareness, continue building that awareness, seeing all the different opportunities for girls who are currently playing hockey, girls who have never picked up a stick or never skated and want to try it out for the first time, I think it really helps build that spark for girls all over the country, all over the world who want to play hockey."
Girls hockey has experienced significant growth in recent years, according to USA Hockey figures. Enrollment has surged by more than 25 percent from five years ago and more than doubled since 2000.
During the 2017-18 season, 60,983 girls 18 and under played, according to USA Hockey registration figures. Growth in the girls' game outpaces boys' hockey, which still had more participants in 2017-18 with 321,531.
"When I was starting there definitely was more of a stigma, like, 'Oh, hockey's not a girls' sport,'" Skarupa said. "Nowadays, it seems more common and so many girls are picking up hockey sticks and loving it, and I don't see as much as a reluctancy, which is great."
Skarupa, 25, got interested in hockey because her older brother played. With few opportunities for girls at the time, she played on boys' teams. She switched to girls' hockey when she was 11 or 12 and later played for the Washington Pride, a local women's junior team.
"The camaraderie that you have in a sport with a bunch of different girls, that you all have that interest in common, it makes such a big difference," she said. "I had a lot of fun once I transferred to the girls' side. Some of the friends that I met when I was playing on a team at 11 or 12 years old, I'm still, like, best friends with them. And I think that's so cool because not everyone gets that."
Skarupa went on to play at Boston College, where she had 244 points (115 goals, 129 assists) in 144 NCAA Division I games. The New York Riveters of the National Women's Hockey League selected her with the No. 9 pick in the 2015 NWHL Draft and traded her rights to the Connecticut Whale on April 26, 2016. She has 45 points (19 goals, 26 assists) in 34 NWHL games with the Whale and Boston Pride.