Emily Pfalzer couldn't help but light up seeing an ice rink full of giddy young girls.
A special guest instructor at the Florida Panthers inaugural "Girls Learn to Play" program at both the Panthers IceDen and Palm Beach Skate Zone on May 18, the U.S. Women's National Hockey Team defenseman was overjoyed to see local girls taking their first steps onto the ice together.
Even growing up in a hockey-hungry haven like Buffalo, New York, it was a chance she never had. From chasing her two older brothers around her family's backyard rink as a three-year-old all the way up until fifth grade or so, she was typically the only girl on every team she played on.
"I was the only girl out there," Pfalzer recalled, adding that she didn't join her first all-girls team until eighth grade. "It's awesome to see this and see all the girls out there learning to skate for the first time with girls. For me, I was the lone girl with a bunch of boys until around fifth grade."
"When I was younger I didn't really notice it. But as I got older and started transitioning into girls hockey, I started to notice it a lot more. Now, it's awesome to see the growth of women's hockey and see all these programs start up and help give all these young girls opportunities to play."
Pfalzer's fiancé, Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson, joined her as a guest instructor.
"One of our goals as an organization is to be able to get out in the community and grow the game," said Matheson, who met Pfalzer while they both attended Boston College. "Growing up in Montreal, I always had hockey as a huge part of my life. I'm lucky to have had that. I think that the more that we're able to get out in the community and do things like this, it's important to do."
In conjunction with the NHL, NHLPA and USA Hockey, the program was created to provide girls ages 5-9 with an easy and welcoming entry into organized hockey. For $175, every participant receives six weeks of on-ice training from Panthers alumni and USA Hockey certified coaches. They are also fitted for a full set of hockey equipment that they keep following their final session.
There are currently more than 40 girls participating in the program.
"Having Mike and Emily here was fantastic," said Panthers Youth Hockey Manager Matt Janusz. "Mike represents the Panthers in the NHL and Emily is a gold-medal winning women's hockey player. It's incredible for these girls to see both sides of the sport and see two people that have made it all the way. These are great role models out here today for these girls to look up to."
The idea of being a role model is still new to Pfalzer. After helping Team USA capture a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, she returned home to new fans and fame. While she grew up idolizing players like Patrick Kane, little girls were suddenly looking at her with the same level of adoration. It's a new mantle, but one she's happy to bear.
"It was so exciting to see people recognize women's hockey and just how many moms came up to us and said, 'My daughter wants to play now after the saw that game,'" Pfalzer said. "I think that's what we really hope for. We want these little girls to be able to play professional hockey and have that dream… My teammates and I are hoping that they'll want to be like us someday."
As a special surprise, Pfalzer brought her Olympic gold medal out at the end of the sessions for all of the girls to see and take photos with. For some of the younger girls, the gleaming accolade was so heavy it nearly brought them to the ground as they put it around their necks for photos. But they seemingly could've cared less, as their smiles shined even brighter than the award.
With the "Girls Learn to Play" program, the Panthers hope to create a new generation of female hockey players in South Florida and inspire them all to have a dream as big as Pfalzer once did.
"Watching the Panthers, that's what made me want to do hockey," said Ava Davis, an eight-year-old who plays for the 10U Palm Beach Hawks. "I love [the program] because other girls want to try hockey. [Emily] told me I could be a good player if I just keep on trying with all this."
For more information on the Florida Panthers Hockey Programs, visit FloridaPanthers.com/HockeyPrograms.