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Thursday, June 27, 2013
Updated: July 2, 1:19 PM ET
The grand total of youth hockey

By Steve Wulf
ESPN The Magazine

Elizabeth Wulf
Elizabeth Wulf, a youth hockey player for the Mid-Fairfield (Conn.) Stars, carries her gear at the Sports Center of Connecticut in Shelton.

They came in all shapes and sizes, from Maine to Arizona, Alaska to Florida, 25 states in all. Yet, every one of the 1,300 girls descending upon Sharks Ice at San Jose for USA Hockey's 2013 National Championships had one thing in common. Slung over each player's shoulder was a duffel bag -- a big, bulky, about-to-rip duffel bag.

That's part of being a hockey player, carrying this 40-pound behemoth into and out of rinks while juggling two sticks in one hand and a drink in the other. Goalies have it a little worse, what with their larger paddles, pads and gloves, but nobody ever complains. Hockey teaches you to carry your load at an early age.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, each bag contains skates, a helmet, shin guards, a neck guard, shoulder pads, elbow pads, protective pants or girdles, shells, home and away jerseys, home and away socks, (smelly) gloves, various undergarments, hosiery and lots of tape, as well as sundry items like a blade sharpener, first aid kit, scissors, a rag, wax, talcum powder and an iPod.

It has been my distinct pleasure to know the inside of that bag, and similar ones, for 13 years and counting, ever since Mike Chiapparelli, the local high school hockey coach, pulled my wife aside after one of his floor hockey after-school classes and said, "Put her on skates."

Elizabeth Wulf
Elizabeth Wulf

"Her" is Elizabeth, and we were in San Jose because her U-19 Tier I team, the Mid-Fairfield (Conn.) Stars, won the New England regionals to qualify for nationals. The first time she wore hockey skates at a clinic, I remember a father berating a son who refused to go on the ice. "I just spent $100 on equipment. You better get out there."

Hah! Take the skates we put on her now. Elizabeth has had five pairs of Bauer skates at an average price of $200. (Fortunately, her feet have never grown into the adult range, when a topline pair goes for more than $500.) Because she plays for both the school and travel teams, she goes through two sets of blades a year, so additional steel has cost us an estimated $300. Then there's the sharpening: $5 once a week for 25 weeks, times 10 years, equals $1,250. Throw in $50 for broken laces and lost blade covers. And a recent $45 for shoe repair -- her left skate was literally blown apart by a puck in the last period of the victory that got her to San Jose. But we knew a guy who knew a guy who offered to sew up the toe box so she wouldn't have to break in a new pair right away.

Skates: $2,645.

Truth be told, we try not to think of the expense. I look at the skates, and it's not dollar signs I see, but the first time she tied them herself. I look at the helmet, which cost $250, and I don't remember the four sitting in the garage, but rather the one she wore when she was the only girl on the local Pee Wee team. As she waited to get on the ice before her first game, the best player on the team tapped her on the helmet to get her attention, then smiled at her to let her know she was one of them.

Helmets: $1,250.

Elbow pads? She's on her third set, having worn the second set for 10 years, because they reminded her of a tournament her Mite team won. Shin guards? This is her fourth set, which I made her get after she blocked a shot with her "lucky" too-small shin guards and had to limp off the ice because the puck hit her shin.

Elbow pads: $150.

Shin guards: $180.

The most unpleasant aspect of hockey is the smell of the gloves, which is why there is a cottage industry and probably a branch of science devoted to eliminating the odor: sprays, detergents, liners, small driers. I didn't mind driving hours to practices and games, through weather that would make "Ice Road Truckers" think twice. The drive back while trying not to breathe through your nose, however, is tough. Elizabeth begs to differ, "I know you hate the smell, but I actually love it -- it reminds me of all the hard work and sweat we put into stick-handling."

Elizabeth Wulf
Elizabeth in action during a hockey game around 2005.

Gloves: $400.

Febreze spray and drier sheets: $15.

Special hockey detergent: $40.

Once a player moves from wood to hi-tech composite, sticks can be a major hockey expense, especially if you buy the latest $250 Zetterberg or Crosby from a retailer. We've since found a place that sells customized sticks for $150 apiece, but we discovered it too late to avoid the season in which Elizabeth broke three Easton Stealths, each just past the 30-day refund date. I now use them to make sure the raccoons don't pry the lids off our garbage cans.

Sticks: $1,750.

Hockey parents often trade tips on where to buy wholesale to try and cut costs. But top to bottom, it still adds up:

Neck guards (7): $70

Shoulder pads (3): $270

UnderArmour (6): $150

Practice jerseys (5): $100

Pelvic protectors (5): $100 Pants (4): $240

Shells (4): $40

Undersocks (10): $100

Practice socks (5): $50

Bags (4): $200

Elizabeth Wulf
Elizabeth suits up for a game around 2006.

Oh, and tape. How could we forget tape? Black (or white) for the stick blade, white (or black) for the stick handle, clear to wrap around the socks and keep the shin guards in place.

Black tape: $300

White tape: $50

Clear tape: $200

But every time you watch your kid dexterously and meticulously wrap tape around his or her stick, you know you're getting your money's worth. It's care adhering to passion. "They are our babies," says Elizabeth. "First, I tape it heel-to-toe with black tape. Then, I smooth it out with a puck. Third, I cut the excess tape off my heel. Last, I apply stick wax."

Stick wax: $50

Then there are the big-ticket items: travel costs, which include tournament fees; travel team dues, which cover uniforms, coaching and the expensive ice time; summer camp tuitions; and clinic or lesson fees. These costs fluctuate from year to year, depending on the number of camps and tournaments, but here's a rough, cringe-worthy estimate for the past 10 years.

Travel (transportation, lodging, meals): $10,500

Club dues: $20,000

Camps, clinics, and lessons: $10,000

Overlooked here are the costs attached to your automobile, things like gas and repairs and Kelley Blue Book value. Mileage might vary, of course, so I can only put it in personal terms: We've beaten the crap out of three cars. The second of them was a gray Nissan Quest minivan that we bought specifically because it had a well that was perfect for the hockey bag. "It" quickly became "she," and "she" did well, racking up 165,000 miles in four short years. We once drove her from New York to Lansing, Mich., for the U-16 Tier II Nationals, and just as I spotted the dome of the Michigan State Capitol ("Wake up, Elizabeth!"), I also heard the muffler dragging.

Fortunately, I remembered we had tape in the back. I went with the clear.

We're leaving the car costs out because it's high-quality bonding time with your kids. (And later, your mechanic.) You can talk about homework, music, the moon, friends, and the game -- if it was a victory.

Elizabeth Wulf
Elizabeth and her teammates on the Mid-Fairfield (Conn.) Stars qualified for the 2013 U19 girls nationals in San Jose.

Grand total: $48,850

I know. Shocked me, too. And I'm sure I left some things out. But it really is a grand total. As my friend Greg Cohen, whose daughter plays for the New Jersey Colonials, said in San Jose, "Girls hockey is like a pot of gold at the beginning of the rainbow."

Indeed, there is this glorious spectacle that emanates from a significant investment of time and money. In and of itself, hockey is a great sport for kids. It teaches them responsibility on and off the ice at an early age. Wings routinely cover for defensemen at even the youngest level. Rink times are often insanely early, and homework has to be done in the car on the way to and from practice.

As for girls hockey, it's probably the closest thing to gender equity in youth team sports, which is why it has grown from 10,000 participants in 1992 to 65,000 today. For one thing, the girls often start out on boys' teams. Alli Devins, a Mid-Fairfield forward from the Westminster School who will be playing at Division I Union College next fall, says, "The boys in my Vermont town taught me not to back down just because they were boys."

For another, the choreography is often as fast and intense as the male version, minus the overt checking. Relatives watching in the stands or at the ends of the rink can take pride and joy in the knowledge that their girls are giving as good as they get -- and getting as good as they can be. The glass they're up against while they're fighting for the puck will make that glass ceiling a little less daunting.

And their work ethic is as impressive as their skill level. Stars forward Audrey Quirk explains, "You learn to push that extra 15 seconds on a bike interval sprint, or to stretch for 30 minutes on an off day, or to save that $4 dollars you were about to spend on Ben & Jerry's the night before a game."

Audrey learned to play in Oregon, but left home to play hockey at The Taft School in Connecticut. While there are fine public high school programs in the Midwest and Canada, the better players from elsewhere usually gravitate toward Eastern Seaboard private schools to play. Yes, that's an additional sacrifice and investment for families, but you really can't put a price on the education they receive.

Therein lies the other end of the rainbow. "No, we don't have an NHL," says Moe Tarrant, the hockey director for Mid-Fairfield, as well as the longtime coach at Greenwich (Conn.) Academy. "What we do have are great opportunities to play in college, maybe on scholarship, maybe at some of the finest colleges and universities in the country."

Mid-Fairfield sent three Tier I teams to San Jose: U-14, U-16 and U-19. Because the U-19 players came from a variety of private and boarding schools, and because nationals fell at the beginning of the spring sports season, they hadn't had much time to practice. And they faced a brutal preliminary schedule: perennial powerhouse Assabet Valley (Mass.) followed by the Alaska Stars and Shattuck-St. Mary's (Minn.).

Shattuck's entry in the tournament meant the presence of royalty, though they hardly acted like it. One of the team's goalies is Taylor Crosby, younger sister of Sidney, who also left Nova Scotia to play for Shattuck. Parents Troy and Trina were in San Jose to root her on. They graciously offered to pass on a question for Taylor about what hockey meant to her. Here was her reply:

"I grew up watching Sidney and seeing him grow as a player and a person. Now I hope to do the same. Hockey has taught me how to truly love something, love something so much that you will push yourself until you cannot breathe, so much that you go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. Some people are not lucky enough to find that passion."

As inspiring as girls hockey is, it is not exactly ruffles and bows. In Mid-Fairfield's first game at nationals, an Assabet Valley player steamrolled one of the Stars, then told her to "Stay down, bitch." But she got up, and so did the Stars after losing 6-1. Even though they lost to both Alaska and Shattuck, they qualified for the quarterfinals because their goal differential was better than the two other winless teams in the six-team division.

That necessitated some flight changes and another night of lodging and round of meals.

Steve and Elizabeth Wulf
Parents like Steve Wulf spend lots of time packing and unpacking cars with their kids' gear.

Ticket changes: $400

Car rental: $60

Motel: $125

Meals: $30

But again, who's counting? Halfway through the second period of the quarterfinal against the No. 1 seed from the other division, the Chicago Mission, the score was tied 0-0. Our goalie was standing on her head, and our girls were realizing that they could stay with a team that was expected to make the finals. Alas, one goal led to another, and another, but each girl walked out of the rink after the 3-0 defeat with her head held high and a bagful of memories on her shoulder.

As Elizabeth loaded her bag into the car, she said, "Hey, at least I got to see the Golden Gate for the first time."