It’s an early Sunday morning and the town of Burlington, Vt., is buzzing. It could be the church bells that echo down the aptly named Church Street, calling the faithful to Easter service. Or it could be the locals rehashing the previous night’s record-setting performance up the road at Gutterson Fieldhouse.
It’s been hours since the U.S. Women’s National Team’s 9-2 rout over their Canadian rivals in the opener at the 2012 IIHF Women’s World Championship, and it still dominates the breakfast counter conversation at local diners.
Across town in South Burlington, more than 80 young girls are on the ice at Cairns Arena trying out their best Monique Lamoureux-Kolls and Kelli Stack moves, much to the delight of youth hockey coaches and local college players who have surrendered any notion of a Sunday slumber so they can lend a helping hand.
It wasn’t long ago that homegrown talent Amanda Pelkey was on the other side of the coaching fence, but today she is busy stoking the fires of local girls whose interest was sparked the night before.
“I think all the little girls watching last night walked out of the rink all wide eyed after seeing that great game. I think that will have a big influence on them,” said Pelkey, who was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team last season at the University of Vermont.
“I think all the little girls watching last night walked out of the rink all wide eyed after seeing that great game. I think that will have a big influence on them,”
As a hockey role model of sorts, Pelkey is to local girls what St. Albans native John LeClair was to young boys growing up playing hockey. A native of Montpelier, Pelkey is not only making a name for herself at UVM, she is also a three-time member of the U.S. Under-18 Women’s Team and hopes to wear the red, white and blue in Sochi in 2014.
It wasn’t just the capacity crowd that came away from “The Gutt” impressed by watching the pinnacle of international hockey. Ben Smith has been in on the ground floor of the women’s game, and even he knows that hosting a world-class tournament in a place such as Burlington can light the fuse for future growth.
“I remember going to the movies on a Saturday afternoon and coming out afterward looking for a Palomino because I just watched Roy Rogers for an hour and a half,” said Smith, who coached the U.S. Women’s National and Olympic Teams from 1996 to 2006.
“You certainly hope there’s the spillover of an 8-year-old kid coming in with her mom and dad and looking through the glass at somebody who catches her eye. You hope those seeds get planted in the minds of the young kids who come to these games.”
Nestled between New York and New Hampshire, with Massachusetts to the south and Canada to the north, the Green Mountain State may rank 49th in population, but for 10 days in early April it was the capital of the women’s hockey world.
And while the tournament may have put Burlington on the map, at least as far as the international hockey community is concerned, the real success may not be known for years down the road.
“When we were tapped [to host the event] well over a year ago, we saw an opportunity here to grow the game, not just in terms of the sheer number of players but the attitude in general,” said Keith Barrett, president of Vermont Amateur Hockey.
“If you look at our numbers stacked up against the other New England states, we have seen a huge growth in girls’ and women’s hockey. Vermont has had a great tradition and a great heritage for hockey, and there’s more to come.”
When USA Hockey was asked to host the Women’s World Championship for only the third time – the first came in 1994 in Lake Placid, N.Y., and again in Minneapolis in 2001 – it looked for a place where the event would not get buried in the sports pages or the collective psyche of local sports fans.
And Burlington, with its proud hockey heritage and a small town feel, proved to be the perfect place as the community embraced its role as host, which was appreciated by competitors and organizers alike.
“I think the fact that this is a small community is why we had such great support,” said U.S. captain Julie Chu, herself a native New Englander from Connecticut.
“Even walking around town, I don’t know how many people would come up to us and say ‘good luck in your game’ or ‘you’re doing great.’ It is just a great place to hold a world championship.”
And while the U.S. Women’s National Team wasn’t able to win its fourth straight IIHF title in front of its home crowd, the experience of hosting the tournament was enough to make organizers consider a return engagement.
“In a perfect world you’d put this event in Madison Square Garden and everybody would know it’s on. But we have so much [going on] in this country that we need to put it in a place where it’s going to have proper profile,” said USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean.
“The experience has been so good that when the time comes down the road to look for the 2017 World Championships, we’ll talk to Burlington.”
And with a little luck, local fans will once again pack “The Gutt,” cheering on a few of their own suiting up for Team USA.