Erika Kraml had her 13th birthday party Saturday night at the Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion in Buffalo Grove. She skated with a few friends and snagged an autograph -- along with inspiration -- from U.S. women's Olympic hockey team member Megan Bozek.
Bozek, 22, was the guest of honor Saturday at a meet-and-greet fundraiser just weeks before she's set to skate for Team USA in Sochi, Russia. About 500 well-wishers of all ages attended the event, which saw the hockey sensation and Buffalo Grove native smile, hug, sign autographs and pose for hundreds of photos.
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"It's exciting getting to meet (Megan); this was fun," said Erika, a seventh-grader at Wauconda Middle School.
Also there was Bette Williams who, like Erika, was talking about a birthday -- in her case, her 91st later this week. But the sticker on her white USA shirt told the true tale of her reason for being in Buffalo Grove: "Megan's Grandma."
"I am so proud of her," said Williams, who lives in Westchester. "She's such a nice girl, not just a great hockey player."
Williams, of course, plans to watch every game from the Sochi Olympics, "and if I was 10 years younger, I would go," she said.
Stevenson High School boys hockey coach Jim Wood reflected on the times Bozek, a Stevenson grad, skated with the Patriots during casual summer pickup games.
"She is such a good athlete," said Wood, who also watched Bozek play baseball in the Buffalo Grove Recreational Association on a team with his son, Danny, and Tommy Olczyk, the son of Blackhawks broadcaster (and former player) Eddie Olczyk.
"She could hit and pitch, was one of the best pitchers in the league that year," Wood said.
Sisters Samantha and Taylor Meents, 9 and 11, respectively, were all smiles posing for pictures alongside Bozek, who also signed autographs for each.
"It's pretty cool to meet an Olympian," Samantha said.
Samantha and Taylor live in Hawthorn Woods, and skate in a homemade, backyard rink.
"Megan is a good role model for them to see," said Mary Meents, their mom. "For young girls, it's very important for them to know that they can do anything."
Samantha now wants to be an Olympic basketball player; Taylor dreams of Olympic glory on the soccer field.
Erin Basney, 5, of Oak Park, met Bozek minutes before skating. She is one of two girls in her learn-to-skate program. Erin also gave Bozek a handmade card that she signed.
"I really wanted Erin to see a girl hockey player," said her mom, Robin Basney.
"It was pretty cool for the young girls here to see and meet someone who is a role model," said Emily Collins, 27, of Palatine, who was the lone girl on her high school hockey team, the Kenosha Thunder.
Several area hockey coaches attended the three-hour event, as well as Chad Dauphin, the assistant athletic director at Stevenson. He presented the skating star with green and white Stevenson jerseys, with "BOZEK" on the back, among other Stevenson goodies.
"She was a well-rounded student who was easy going, a lot of fun, and absolutely loved by her peers," said Dauphin, who was Bozek's health teacher as a sophomore.
Myles Gottainer coached Bozek at age 5 and then for three seasons in high school. The two hugged Saturday night.
"I knew she had talent," Gottainer said. "She's a natural born athlete who has worked very hard, and done everything she had to do to get to this point in her career.
"I've (coached) a lot of girls who played college hockey, but she is the one who had the most determination."