With the spotlight set to shine on the U.S.-Canada women's hockey game Wednesday morning at the Olympics, two players from Illinois will be on the ice knowing thousands of young girls here are cheering them on.
Buffalo Grove native Megan Bozek and Palos Heights native Kendall Coyne are playing on the U.S. squad, which already has two wins after beating Finland and Switzerland.
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USA Hockey stats show there could be plenty more female hockey players from the suburbs and Illinois playing in the Olympics someday.
There were 197 registered female hockey players in Illinois ranging in age from 17 to 19 for the 2012-13 season, according to USA Hockey, the national governing body for amateur hockey.
Overall, there were 2,593 registered female players in Illinois and 65,700 in the nation, according to data from the 2012-13 season.
By comparison, there were about 46,000 nationwide during the 2002-03 season, and only 6,336 in the 1990-91 season.
"I think (girls' hockey) is the purest form of hockey we have right now," said John Cimba, coach of the Chicago Young Americans U19 team.
"I never envisioned coaching girls; it was the farthest thing from my mind. But I'll tell you, it's a lot of fun," said Cimba, a father of two hockey-playing sons from Wilmette.
"The girls listen (to coaching), sometimes to a fault. You sometimes have to be vague, so you can force creativity on them. They want to learn and want to be good."
Many Illinois female hockey players in the U19 classification are having a great season.
The Chicago Mission, for instance, a Tier I team that calls the Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge its home rink, is the No. 1-ranked team in the country -- out of 39 teams ranked by MyHockeyRankings.com. Thirteen Mission players have already committed to Division I college hockey programs for next season.
The Chicago Young Americans, another Tier I team, which plays its home games in Lincolnwood, is ranked seventh in the nation.
"One thing I've noticed (about girls hockey in Illinois) is the talent level has gotten so much better," said Carisa Zaban, head coach for the Lake Forest College women's hockey team.
The amount of television coverage women's hockey receives during the Olympics could fuel a surge in interest, Zaban said.
"If girls are able to watch girls play, and see how good the girls' game really is, I think it will have a huge impact, in terms of (future participation) numbers," she said.
On the local high school front, there are 14 teams in Metro Girls, the lone girls' league in Illinois.
"When we started (Metro Girls), there were a lot of new players, some who maybe had been figure skaters or who had a brother or boyfriend who played too," said Ned Forsberg, one of the founders of Metro Girls.
"Over the last five years or so, girls (high school) hockey has progressed where, more and more, everyone wants to win; it's not just about playing or getting that chance to play."
Jack Raslawski, a longtime referee from Ingleside, has officiated alongside many of Illinois' female officials, including Erin Blair, an on-ice official at the Sochi Olympics. Blair is one of 14 female referees in Illinois.
"I just wish there was more interest in officiating from women," Raslawski said. "As Erin shows, the sky's the limit for how far they can go in the sport."