The Lynnwood Ice Center was lively on Saturday morning. A couple dozen younger-age girls lugged duffel bags full of equipment and hockey sticks. Some of the girls carried the gear on their shoulders while others rolled their bags down the stairs to the dressing room at ice level.
A few girls, fully dressed in their gear, were already chatting and sitting at the rink-side team benches, roughly half an hour before a free hockey training clinic is due to start.
Professional hockey player and Snohomish-native Lexi Bender walked in, looking quite pleased with the surroundings.
"This is exciting for these girls," someone suggests to Bender, a defender for the NWHL's Boston Pride and former NCAA Division I athlete at Boston College.
"I'm so much more excited," said Bender, smiling. "This is where I grew up playing every Wednesday morning at 5:30 a.m. I think it was a fun thing for my mom. My mom would drive my younger brother Tucker and me [from Snohomish]. We would work on our skills with [coaches] Gord Whitaker and Zach Ham. We would have bagels in the car, then school."
Bender explained her plans for the two training sessions, one for younger girls and a second for older girls: Start with "edge work" or skating agility, including "the peanut," which is a drill that requires skaters to weave through a series of cones to work on crossover moves by lifting and thrusting one skate boot and blade over the other boot, then a short sprint, then the next crossover with the other boot and blade.
"We definitely will work on moving our feet really quick," said Bender, still smiling. "One thing that gives me a lot of success in my game is quickness."
The girls, their parents and some younger siblings, got a first-hand look at Bender's quickness as she smoothly skated from place to place on the ice during two clinic sessions that attracted more than 35 female participants. Parents sat in the bleachers for the younger-age clinic and soaked up Bender's deep knowledge of the sport for themselves. The only phones in use were the ones filming the proceedings to review later.
"Flow" drills came next where participants practiced their passing and shooting, plus situational skating. Bender finished each session with "a lot of small-area games and competition skills." For the younger kids, that meant three-on-three games while the older girls worked on one-on-one battles in front of the net for 15 minutes.
Bender's coaching colleagues for the morning were Anne Marie Dion, coach of the local Washington Wild 14U Rep Tier 2/AA girls team, and part-time Wild coach Bonnie Paulson, a Shoreline resident and sophomore defenseman for the St. Olaf College women's hockey team in Minnesota.
The Cano family, who drove down from Camus so that daughters Viviana, 10, and Gisela, 8, could participate, look to return twice a month so the kids can play with the Seattle Junior Hockey Association's girls select teams.
"We moved to Camus from Minnesota this year," says Summer Cano, Viviana's and Gisela's mom.
"One requirement we had was to move somewhere where the girls could play hockey. The girls will play down here twice a month, then play with the boys in a Vancouver league too." Karissa Cano, 4, has already learned how to skate and plans to become a hockey player.
"We had a rink in our [Minneosta] backyard," explained Summer.
On the ice, Bender was positive yet challenging throughout the workouts. She cheered abundantly, talked up pretty much every girl and stopped some players to better explain how to improve a move. She used breaks to map out whiteboard drills and teach playmaking. The girls were rapt.
"I loved it all," said 11-year-old Paloma Gonzales-Phillips, who lives in Bellevue and will play with the Seattle Junior Association this season. "I plan to work on my crossovers and my transitions during my ice time."
Rudy Phillips, Paloma's father, explained how his daughter caught the hockey bug. Rudy took Paloma to a public skating session, and when the skate was over, Paloma noticed a bunch of hockey players, mostly boys, waiting to take the ice once the Zamboni cleaned the surface. Paloma asked to stick around to watch. Rudy pointed out one of the defenders was a girl.
"Dad, I want to play hockey," said Paloma told her father.
The exchange was meaningful to Rudy. He grew up loving hockey as young boy in Alaska. When his family moved to the Seattle area, Rudy's father determined it was too difficult and told his son "to find another sport." Rudy played basketball, baseball, football and wrestled but never dropped his love for the game on ice.
"We are so excited about the new NHL team," said Rudy.
For her part, Bender encouraged girls of all ages to take up the sport if so inclined and to not be intimidated if younger kids were better skaters in the beginning.
"Go for it," said Bender. "Now that I am a bit removed from my Boston College career, still playing professionally but attending law school and entering the working world, I've seen how much hockey give you not just on the ice and no matter what age you pick it up, the discipline, learning how to shoot, being part of a team over a season. It gives you a unique set of life skills."