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Puck Fever

Hockey May Be Relatively New to Orange County, but Some Athletes Can't Imagine Life Without Ice


ALISO VIEJO — It's close to midnight, but Rachel Tilton isn't ready to sleep. She's wide awake and flying across the ice rink at full speed.

Tilton and her California Rays teammates are used to the late-night ice-hockey practice sessions. Although Tilton might be tired after a full day's work, she doesn't mind.

And that might seem strange considering the sport has given her concussions, fractured ribs, twisted knees, sprained elbows and the full array of bumps and bruises.

"My parents would like to see me quit," said Tilton, 20, of Mission Viejo. "They wonder why I do it."

They wonder why she plays the rough and tumble game at all hours of the night. They wonder why she scrimps and saves to pay for this expensive hobby. They wonder why she endures the pain.

But just one look at the glint in Tilton's eyes when she recalls a recent game-winning goal or a bone-crunching check and the answer is clear.

"This game is too exciting, too much fun," Tilton said. "There's no way I'm quitting."

That attitude toward hockey is more commonplace in Orange County recently.

Ice rinks have sprouted up from Aliso Viejo to Anaheim to Huntington Beach. Roller hockey and in-line skating continue to gain popularity. Sell-out crowds filled the Pond for the Mighty Ducks' Stanley Cup-playoff run.

There are the transplanted veterans like Redge Bourgette, who grew up in Canada. Bourgette is now the Hockey Tech Administrator at Glacial Garden Ice Arena in Anaheim, and he watches his daughters play hoping that a new generation will embrace hockey.

Chuck Heathco is a native Southern Californian who didn't begin playing ice hockey until age 45. The former physical therapist liked it so much, he got together with two buddies and they opened the Aliso Viejo Ice Palace three years ago.

And more women are discovering how much fun this sport can be. Interest is high enough among women to support women's leagues at both Glacial Garden and Disney ICE in Anaheim.

Another significant sign of growth is the inclusion of women's ice hockey as a medal event for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Olympic hockey gives players like Tilton and her former teammate, Chanda Gunn of Huntington Beach, something to shoot for.

Gunn and Tilton played together for Team California, the only triple-A flight girls' midget team in the Pacific region that featured some of the best girls' ice hockey players ages 19 and younger.

Last season, Tilton scored 11 goals in 36 games to be Team California's second-leading scorer. Gunn was the starting goaltender for a squad that finished fifth at the junior national championships.

But it's not as if Gunn and Tilton have been playing hockey since they could walk.

Tilton laced on ice hockey skates only three years ago. Gunn, 17, started playing at 12, and that was only playing in the driveway with her younger brother, Jake, fielding his shots on goal with a baseball mitt.

For her 14th birthday, Gunn asked her parents for some goalie equipment and her career began in earnest. Gunn, a junior at Marina High, now has aspirations of playing collegiate hockey.

That doesn't seem so unlikely considering there are about 60 schools that play women's ice hockey at the Division I level.

Gunn will try to earn an invitation to the Junior National team camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., this summer. She's busiest with her wintertime sport when the temperature goes up.

"In the summer, I can play pick-up hockey every day," Gunn said. "But that's the only time I get to play a lot."

When Gunn and Tilton get to play, most of the time it's in men's leagues or pick-up hockey.

"I don't mind," Tilton said. "I prefer to play with the guys. "They're faster and stronger so it makes you better."

The only time Tilton and Gunn played with women of their skill level was with Team California. The team practiced infrequently and most of the time spent together came at the various one-week holiday tournaments.

"We played maybe eight tournaments last season," said Scott Plumer, Team California's coach. "We have players from all over the state of California and even some who are going to prep schools back east so it was hard to get everyone together."

Team California played in tournaments all over the country, so travel expenses and tournament entry fees made it tough financially.

Plumer estimated it cost $3,000 to play for Team California last season, in addition to the $300-$500 or more each player spent on equipment. Like some of her teammates, Tilton found a sponsor.

"That's definitely one of the drawbacks," Tilton said. "This sport can get pretty expensive."

USA Hockey's Mike Johansson explained that renting an ice rink for an hour in California could cost about $250, but in Minnesota, it might only cost $100. There, municipally owned rinks help keep the price down.

"Minnesota is a hockey state," said Johansson, USA Hockey's Pacific District Girls/Women's Section representative. "I don't think it is economically feasible for that to work here. The rinks will probably all stay private."

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