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For female Philly hockey hotshots, an opportunity of a lifetime

Young women from Snider Hockey teams, which focus on academics and character as much as on athletics, met with members of the U.S. Women's hockey team in Boston. Hockey means much to the team. "People say, 'It's a guy's sport,' and I say, 'I can play with the guys.' I still play as aggressive as they do - I try my heart out," one player said.

Maryam Belgrave (right) jokes with a fellow goalkeeper at practice .
Maryam Belgrave (right) jokes with a fellow goalkeeper at practice .Read moreGENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer

Hockey has given Maryam Belgrave much: a sense of confidence, a strong work ethic, even academic help.

This week, it's giving the skilled 16-year-old goalie something else: the chance to meet some of her idols, the players on Team USA, the national women's ice hockey team.

Belgrave, a Philadelphia native who recently moved to Pottstown, first took the ice when she was 8, a small kid in a big helmet eager to learn to skate. Her father was looking for an outlet for Belgrave and her siblings, and he found the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, which gives 3,000 children in Philadelphia and Camden free and full access to a game they might not experience otherwise.

Snider Hockey is about teaching kids fundamentals, but it's also about showing them the world. That's why Belgrave and 10 other girls boarded a bus and traveled to Boston on Wednesday to meet with the U.S. team on the day it played Team Canada in a pre-Olympic game.

"Hockey is the thing I'm most passionate about," said Belgrave, who recently transferred to Pottstown High after two years at Girls' High in Philadelphia. "I was so super-excited to meet the team."

Belgrave is part of a growing number of young women nationally who are gravitating toward ice hockey. According to USA Hockey, the national governing body of the sport, the number of female players, youth and adult, has grown at a record-setting pace over the last four years. In 2016-17, over 75,000 girls and women played. Participation is up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, too, the organization said.

Snider's work was familiar to USA Hockey, and earlier this year, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando, two-time Olympic silver medalists and twin sisters who have donated money and equipment to Snider, met with some of the players at Scanlon Ice Rink in Kensington. That led to the invitation to Boston, the long bus ride, and the Snider girls' sitting on the USA team bench during warm-ups.

Casey Kilduff, Snider's coordinator of hockey programs, selected the 11 girls not just on the basis of hockey skills, but because they're stellar students or have made great strides academically. Many have been involved in programs for years — recruited at schools or in neighborhoods while they were still in elementary school, signed up first for after-school programs teaching them to play floor hockey, then taught to skate and play hockey in learn-to-play classes.

Snider athletes must keep good grades and strong attendance and behavior records. If they start to slip, tutoring is provided and ice time withheld. There is homework help, SAT prep, and college guidance.

"A lot of them come from neighborhoods where if they didn't have something like hockey to hold on to, they might have gone down a different path," said Kilduff. "We want them to be good citizens on and off the rink."

That has resonated with Rosie Castro, who also started playing hockey for Snider at age 8. Now 17 and a junior at Frankford High, Castro said the sport "helps me a lot."

"It keeps me out of trouble," said Castro, who plays center. "I won't make a bad decision, get suspended or anything, and I have to keep my grades up. If I get in trouble, I know I'll have to deal with the coaches."

Snider motivates Jasmine Martinez, 18, a senior at New Foundations Charter School. She started playing for Snider because her older brother did and she wanted to be like him. Now, she does it in part because some people say she can't.

"People say, 'It's a guy's sport,' and I say, 'I can play with the guys.' I still play as aggressive as they do — I try my heart out," said Martinez, who plays center and forward.

About 30 percent of Snider participants are girls, and that has grown considerably in recent years, said Scott Tharp, Snider's president, and the organization has made a concerted effort to recruit more young women to play. In 2010, the foundation was key in a deal to keeping city ice rinks open amid a budget crisis. Snider kids can now play at Philadelphia's rinks year-round.

Playing a sport not everyone in the neighborhood is familiar with can be tough, the team said — female hockey players are far less common than male ones. There is a small National Women's Hockey League, some amateur leagues, and some college teams and clubs.

But, to a player, the Snider girls chosen for Boston say they want to stick with hockey into adulthood, if they can.

Snider, which operates on a $5 million annual budget, was started in 2005 by Flyers cofounder Ed Snider. It appears to be the largest program of its kind in the U.S. and has been hailed as a model by the NHL; Ed Snider hoped it would be his legacy.

"He always felt that hockey is the hook to really gain and hold the attention of our kids so we can involve them in much greater life lessons," said Tharp.

That's why the Snider girls fit in a college visit — tours of Boston University — as well as time with the U.S. team. Jasmine Masino, a freshman at MaST Community Charter School in the Northeast, said her eyes have been opened by participating in the program since she was in first grade.

She's been to the White House as part of a fitness initiative during the Obama administration; she's been to hockey camp in Minnesota; she's toured colleges and already thought hard about her future. (College, for sure, and she hopes one with a hockey program.)

"It's really broadened the places and the things I've seen," said Masino, 14.

"Meeting the U.S. Olympic team," her teammate Martinez added, "is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."