Eli Ternovits, 12, left, plays for a Rolling Meadows Renegades, while her sister, Drew, plays on a high school-level junior varsity team. Both girls play on teams that are otherwise all boys.
Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
Eli Ternovits, 12, (white helmet) and her teammates pause as their coach goes over a drill at a recent practice. Eli is one of a growing legion of young female hockey players across the country.
Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
Drew Ternovits, a defenseman on the D211 Chiefs hockey team, plays in a recent game against Stevenson High School. The 16-year-old former figure skater started playing hockey when she was 7 years old.
Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
From a spot at the top of the circle, 16-year-old Drew Ternovits eyes the hockey goal about 50 feet away and tightly grips the stick in her hands.
She winds back and swings, bringing the stick down to the puck at her feet like the Grim Reaper swinging his scythe.
The stick connects -- and a moment later the puck hits the steel crossbar at the back of the goal with a satisfying clang that rings through the Nelson Sports Complex ice rink in Rolling Meadows.
Behind the metal cage of her face mask, Drew smiles.
"I like hearing that sound," the Inverness teen says. "It's definitely a job well done."
A defenseman on an otherwise all-boy junior varsity club called the D211 Chiefs, Drew is one of a growing number of female ice hockey players in the U.S. and Illinois.
As of the 2016-17 season, 75,832 girls and women across the nation were registered with USA Hockey, the sport's governing body here. That's up nearly 32 percent from the 2006-07 season.
The number of boys and men playing hockey rose during those 10 years, too -- but only by about 19 percent.
The increase of female players has been even more dramatic in Illinois, where 3,097 girls and women registered with USA Hockey last season -- up 58 percent from 2006-07.
The number of male players in Illinois increased by 46 percent during the same period.
Liz Zorn, head coach of a Lake Forest-based girls hockey club called the Scouts, is thrilled so many girls and women are playing the game.
Zorn credits the Chicago Blackhawks' recent Stanley Cup wins and the continued success of the U.S. women's national team, which has medaled in every Winter Olympics since the first tournament in 1998, for the sport's growth in the Chicago area.
Those Olympic triumphs are especially notable here because one member of the silver medal-winning 2014 Olympic squad, Megan Bozek, grew up in Buffalo Grove.
"Girls hockey is growing rapidly," Zorn said. "As a lifelong participant in the sport, I am proud to see it thriving."
As of the 2016-17 season, girls and women constituted nearly 14 percent of the total players registered nationally with USA Hockey. That's up from less than 13 percent during the 2006-07 season.
Girls and women represented about 9.8 percent of Illinois' hockey players last season, up from 9.2 percent a decade earlier.
Steve Climo, the head hockey coach at Naperville North High School, is among those who credit the Blackhawks for drawing girls and women to the sport.
"(The team) has created a whole new generation of Chicagoland hockey players and fans," he said.
Additionally, thanks to a federal law banning sex discrimination in education, more colleges are adding all-women hockey teams and offering scholarships, Climo said.
At the high school level, ice hockey -- for girls and boys -- is a club sport in Illinois because not enough schools have teams to meet Illinois High School Association requirements.
All-girl high school squads like Zorn's Lake Forest Scouts are relatively rare here. Barrington, Glenbrook South, New Trier and Warren Township are among the few suburban schools with girls teams.
Many of the region's high school hockey clubs -- like the Scouts and Drew Ternovits' coed D211 Chiefs -- are combined teams that draw players from several schools.
A sophomore at Palatine's Fremd High School, Drew has played organized ice hockey since she was 7. She tried figure skating first but quit because she couldn't stop racing the other kids.
"As soon as I tried (hockey), I loved it," Drew said. "I love the speed. I love how everything moves at once."
Drew knows she's not as physically strong as some of her opponents, so she tries to get in their heads. No one wants to be the guy who can't get around the only girl on the ice, she said.
"I definitely have strengths that they don't have," she said.
Drew's 12-year-old sister, Eli, plays hockey, too. She's a forward on a 12-and-under team called the Rolling Meadows Renegades.
Eli had two female teammates last year but is the only girl on her squad this season. She doesn't mind.
"My teammates have always been very nice to me," said Eli, a seventh-grader at Sundling Junior High in Palatine. "They judge me for my skill and not for my gender."
Naperville North's Climo said female players get better every season.
"These girls are great athletes and have high skill and (competition) levels," he said.
Although no girls have played on Naperville North's varsity team, several have made the junior varsity squad. One current JV player, Rachel Goff, was named MVP of last year's Illinois High School Hockey League West DivisionJV All-Star Game.
"Rachel is one of the best JV forwards in our conference," Climo said. "Other coaches are always making comments to me about 'that girl' on my team. She is a great player and a great teammate."
A 16-year-old Naperville North junior who also plays on an all-girl team called the Chicago Mission, Rachel is passionate about hockey.
"I love everything about it," she said. "I love how tough the players are. I love how competitive it is. And most of all I love how different it is (from) other sports, and how much skill it requires to play."
Looking past high school, Rachel already has verbally committed to playing NCAA hockey with the women's team at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
Could a uniform adorned with the Stars and Stripes be next?
"Being on the women's USA national team would be a dream come true," she said.
Bozek was on boys teams until the eighth grade and female squads after that, including the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Although Bozek never played for Stevenson, hockey director and varsity head coach Tom Wood remembers her skating with his players during summer scrimmages.
"She did very well against the boys," Wood said. "She would have been one of the best players on one of the best teams I coached."
After returning from the 2014 Winter Games in Russia, Bozek discussed her experiences at Stevenson and elsewhere in the suburbs. She hopes to inspire girls and women to play the game every time she steps on the ice or talks about hockey.
"We play to grow the game," she said.
Zorn expects February's Winter Olympics in South Korea will draw more girls to the sport. But the cost of playing ice hockey could be an obstacle for some youths -- female or male.
Jean Ternovits, Drew and Eli's mom, estimates their skates, sticks, helmets and other gear run about $1,000 per girl. Team registration fees can be $1,000 or more.
"The sport is expensive," Ternovits said.
Zorn would like to see clubs and arenas offer affordable, girl-friendly hockey activities this winter to satisfy any Olympic-inspired interest.
Skating clinics for young girls and free lessons at local rinks would work, she said.
"There are some great initiatives for young girls to try hockey for the first time," Zorn said. "It would be awesome to see those opportunities expand."
Hockey: Olympian from Buffalo Grove hopes to inspire girls