Sports

Homegrown hockey: The Isobel Cup, and Zoe Hickel and crew helping grow the game

Just 23, Anchorage's Zoe Hickel can look back and savor ample accomplishments – a professional hockey championship, two world championship gold medals and a distinguished college career – and yet her mind is fixed forward.

Hickel's in the mix for the U.S. Olympic women's team, and the 2018 Games feel like they'll be here in a hockey heartbeat.

And while she's spending time in Alaska this week with her teammates from the champion Boston Pride of the National Women's Hockey League – several doubled as teammates with Hickel on the last two U.S. national teams – she's also thinking about the future of the burgeoning women's game.

Hickel and crew are showing the Isobel Cup around Southcentral Alaska — they hoisted the hardware this year in the NWHL's inaugural season. They're also conducting the four-day Lithia Ram Hockey Showcase, for girls from 8 to college ages, at the Subway Sports Centre beginning Tuesday. And they're making the Cup available for pictures, and themselves for autographs.

Hickel said the Cup, the players coaching in the Showcase and college coaches participating in that clinic are designed to show Alaska girls players the possibilities the game offers. In this past season, Alaskans dotted hockey's North American landscape – Hickel and Boston teammate Jordan Smelker of Anchorage won the cup, 15 Alaskan women played NCAA Division I hockey, 26 Alaskan women played Division III, and others played club hockey in college.

"College coaches from around the company have been dying to come here and see what we have to offer,'' Hickel said. "We think it's important for Alaska girls to know there are options. It's an intimate setting and we think they'll learn a lot.
"The coaches love it and the girls love it.''

Hickel and company on Monday afternoon took the Cup to Anchorage Golf Course, where rain did not discourage them from playing — they're hockey players, and hockey players aren't big on excuses.

Hickel will be joined at the Showcase by elite players like Boston and national team teammate Hilary Knight, who Hickel calls "the Sidney Crosby of women's hockey'' and is a two-time Olympian and eight-time world championship medalist; Pride teammates and U.S. Olympians Breanna Decker and Kacey Bellamy; Canadian Olympic star Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored the gold-medal winning goals against the U.S. in both the 2010 and 2014 Olympics; and Hickel's sister, Tori, who plays Division I at Northeastern.

For Knight, coaching at the Showcase reminds her of when she was a girl skating at a camp where U.S. Olympic star Cammi Granato taught. When Knight broke her sticks and ran out of them, Granato, who is a Hockey hall of Famer, loaned her new twigs – that's the equivalent of Alexander Ovechkin loaning fresh lumber.

"We're kind of filling those shoes,'' Knight said. "I don't even look at it as giving back. You love hockey. You want to share the sport. You want to share the love and excitement you feel for the game.''

The Hickel sisters, Knight and the players serving as Showcase coaches came of age as women's hockey was blossoming. Female participation in USA Hockey, the sport's governing body, has nearly doubled in the new millennium, with about 70,000 players registered in 2014-15.

For Zoe Hickel, a forward, last season started off roughly. She suffered a concussion in a game in Boston and missed two months. Once recovered, she helped the Pride to the Cup and Team USA to the world championship for the second straight season.

Hickel, and the other Americans here, recently finished a USA Hockey national training camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado. That served

Hickel as another reminder that consistency in training and in games is all about the details, hence her motto: How you do anything is how you do everything.

She knows she must keep working and improving to earn a coveted spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

"It's a tough one to crack,'' Hickel said. "It's always a battle, top to bottom. You always have to earn your shot.
"Every day you show up is a tryout.''

Chances to see the Isobel Cup and Cup winners
Tuesday – Zoe Hickel and crew will be taking the Cup up Flattop Mountain at 5 p.m.
Thursday – Cup available for pictures, and players available for photos and autographs, starting at noon at Subway Sports Centre, 11111 O'Malley Centre Drive, between Seward Highway and Old Seward Highway.
Sunday – Cup will be at base of Mount Marathon in Seward, 11 a.m.

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