Whether she’s playing on a Wheeling (W.Va.) Junior Nailers boys’ travel team or with the Pittsburgh Elite Tier I U-12 girls’ team, 11-year-old Brooke McArdle has always been one of the guys.
She’s graceful on her skates, and as comfortable leading the offensive rush as she is holding down the fort on the blue line. But there’s another side beneath all that equipment that’s most noticeable when she does her pre-game stretching.
While her teammates kneel on the ice in a familiar frog-legged position, Brooke will lie on her back, and pull her leg up and back until the toe of her skate touches the ice behind her ear. Then she’ll do the same thing with her other leg.
A word of caution to most youth hockey players: Don’t try this at home, unless you’re as flexible as a ballerina.
Although Brooke has been playing hockey since she was 4, she’s been dancing even longer, starting at the ripe old age of 2, and she loves to compete in both.
All it takes is watching one episode of Dancing With the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance on TV to realize that dancers are fantastic athletes, too.
To compete at the national level, dancers must take multiple classes in ballet, jazz, tap and acrobatics, and they must also participate in a stretch class that lasts a minimum of 30 minutes.
Let’s face it, some hockey players think that a 30-second stretch before a game is good enough, but it’s no surprise to Brooke’s coaches that her dancing skills and excellent flexibility translate well onto the ice.
“I think it’s a fantastic tool, a great way to improve your skating ability,” said Stefan Brannare, a former Div. I standout at Providence College who also played forward for the ECHL Wheeling Nailers.
“I coached Brooke last year for the boys’ Squirt travel team, and it was very evident that her dance training has developed her core, strengthened her legs and increased her coordination and balance. It’s helped make her a great skater, and that’s really the key to being a good hockey player.”
Of course, all those classes mean many days and long hours at the dance studio, so how does a mom with two other kids [Ian and Danielle] in hockey make it all work? (One Thanksgiving weekend, the McArdle kids played a total of 17 games.)
A color-coordinated calendar helps, but the real key is getting involved as a coach or a team manager, according to Brooke’s mom, Elgine.
“It’s the only way we could do both sports, because dance requires such a huge time commitment,” said Elgine, who is the vice president of West Virginia Youth Hockey.
“It can be a juggling act, but it’s what you have to do for your kids. And hockey teaches such great life lessons about hard work, overcoming failure, commitment and teamwork. I was happy to be involved.”
Brooke doesn’t mind hustling out of her uniform and equipment and into her tights, then putting her hair up in a bun in the car on her way to rehearsal.
“It’s crazy sometimes, but mostly it’s fun,” she said. “If I have a bad game or if we lost, I can go to dance and forget all about it and just have fun with my dance team. Both practices are hard work, but I like the fact that I can tell when I’m getting better. It makes all that work worth it.”
Youth hockey, especially at the elite level, can become pretty stressful as the competition for roster spots or as District tournaments or the USA Hockey National Championships draw close, but Brooke thinks that the pressure at a dance competition is even more intense.
“In dance, you work all year on a performance that lasts for three minutes,” she said, “and if your hair isn’t just right, or your make-up gets messed up,or you make one little mistake, the judges will give you a lower score. I like the fact that nobody cares what I look like with my ponytail under my helmet.”
While few of her teammates have volunteered to add dance to their athletic resumes, Brannare believes that attitudes could be changing.
“I truly believe that we’re moving away from gender-specific roles,” he said. “I don’t think it’s completely out of the question anymore, and that negative connotation for boys and dance is disappearing.
“Think about it: hanging around with pretty girls and improving your hockey skills. Who wouldn’t go for that?”
Brooke giggles that her 16-year-old brother Ian wouldn’t be caught dead in tights, pretty girls or no, but she could see where he might consider taking some lessons – if an NHL star was taking them, too.
Abby Greenbaum, coach of the Pittsburgh Elite girls’ team, agrees that there’s much to gain from dance and other sports for hockey players.
“USA Hockey has always preached that kids shouldn’t just play hockey all year around,” she said. “There’s so much pressure as you move up in skill level, but a kid like Brooke can make a mistake in the first period, learn from it, and know that she has a chance to redeem herself 40 seconds later.
“She’s very coachable and willing to do whatever I ask her to do, and she can adapt to things well both on and off the ice. That’s what caught my attention during tryouts; that, plus her quick feet and turning ability. Training in other sports helps to develop other skills, other muscles, and that can prevent injury, too. I don’t ever see her burning out on hockey, and that’s a very good thing.”
Unfortunately, as Brooke has improved in both sports, she’s had to make some tough choices. This fall, the Elite team’s schedule conflicted with both her boys’ Peewee travel team and dance team’s schedule, plus she made her cheerleading squad at school as well.
Something had to give, but for Brooke, the choice was easy.
“I like hockey best,” she said. “It’s so exciting, and I love playing in front of my parents and my friends and their parents. It’s like a family.
“I love both dance and hockey, but I had to commit to one or the other, and I’d rather play for the U.S. Olympic Team than be a Rockette any day.”
She still takes an acrobatics class, and is a substitute and practice player on the Peewee team, but Brooke hopes that her Pittsburgh Elite team makes it to Nationals this year. However, she also thinks she’d like to try basketball this winter.
After all, as someone once said, “Life is a dance, from one stage to the next.”