SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The opportunities for female hockey players in the United States today are almost unimaginable to some of the players who helped bring about the groundswell of change.
"It is such an exciting time in the sport," said Hilary Knight, a mainstay with the U.S. Women's National Team and a member of the Boston Pride of the National Women's Hockey League. "I almost wish I was born 10 years later, you know, so I don't have to do a lot of the leg work."
Monique Lamoureux, who has been with the national team for almost a decade, recalls her formative years in the sport and smiles at the differences from today. She and her twin sister, Jocelyne, another national team player, grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and played on boys teams until high school. There was no option to play on an all-girls team until sixth grade and even then, the opportunities for top-caliber competition in female-only hockey were limited.
That's no longer the case.
"When we first came on to the national team, you could pretty much say everybody but one or two players grew up playing boys' hockey," Monique Lamoureux said. "For the most part, that was because we didn't have the option of playing on a girls team or that there were hardly any girls that played or that the competition wasn't any good; now, going on almost our 10th year with the national team group, you see this youngest generation come up and they have played girls hockey almost the entire way up."
Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux, 27 and Knight, also 27, are trying to make it to a third straight Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in 2018. They were together Thursday at NHL Network for some promotional spots celebrating the one-year countdown to the Opening Ceremony, which was on Wednesday.
The pool of female players has grown dramatically since each was introduced to the national team program as 17-year-olds.
In 2007, there were 57,549 female players of all ages registered with USA Hockey. Of those, 43,859 were 18 and under. During the 2015-16 season, there were 73,076 registered female players; 54,741 were 18 and under. That's overall growth of 27 percent and a 25 percent increase in youth numbers.
Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux have seen that growth up close. Each is involved with trying to grow the girls' hockey component of the Grand Forks Youth Hockey Association.
This season, the GFYHA had 18 female players sign up for the U-8 program, the highest number to date.
"We are so excited to see the fruits of the labor start to pay off," Monique Lamoureux said.
Grass-roots programs at the national level have also helped.
The NHL runs Hockey Is For Everyone, a month-long platform throughout February that uses hockey and its global influence to drive social change and foster more inclusive communities. It also runs its Learn to Play initiative, an introductory program to the sport that provides free equipment and instruction to youth players. USA Hockey has its Try Hockey For Free initiative as well.
"Now there are a lot of girls youth teams available, a lot more co-ed teams, and it is not just a male, boys' sport," said Knight. "That's a lot different from when the women from our age group were growing up because we were one or two girls on a team among boys."
But the biggest driver of participation will remain success, each of the women say.
If the United States does well again at the 2017 IIHF Women's World Championship, to be held in Plymouth, Michigan, from March 31 through April 7, and, perhaps, claims a gold medal at the PyeongChang tournament, the growth of their game will accelerate.
"Winning a gold medal at the next Olympics would certainly slingshot those numbers for sure," Monique Lamoureux said.
The United States has won a silver medal in each of the past two Winter Olympics, losing to rival Canada at Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014.
"No matter what we do now, it is going to impact the younger generation in a positive way and we just have to make sure we lay the proper foundation for them to grow like the generation before us did for us," Knight said. "It's only fair for us to fill those shoes, go beyond and the next generation can capitalize off all the hard work."