CHATSWORTH — It all started innocuously enough for Jessica Bernal.
"We went for skating lessons," said Ilene Bernal, Jessica's mother. "She kept asking, 'When do I get to play ice hockey?' We finally put her in a summer league and it just kept snowballing from there."
All the way to boys' teams, girls' teams and national camps for elite junior players, where participation is by invitation only.
Bernal, 17, is among the top female goaltenders in her age group in the nation, good enough to earn a spot at the USA Junior Olympics women's ice hockey camp from Sunday through July 9 at Lake Placid, N.Y.
The Chatsworth High junior plays for the West Valley Wolves, a boys' club in North Hills, and with the California Selects, a girls' club in Huntington Beach.
Last season, Bernal had a 2.53 goals-against average and an 89.3% saves percentage with the Wolves, and 1.91 and 91.8% with the Selects.
"She was a big part of the team," Coach Pierre Levesque of the Wolves said. "She's a little hockey maniac.
"What makes her special is she doesn't look competitive, but she is. She has a quiet fire."
Bernal, 5 feet 6 and 125 pounds, took to the sport the moment she first saw a game a few years ago.
"Hockey came on TV one time and I started watching it," Bernal said. "I liked it because it was so fast and it seemed so much different than most sports. I saw the goalies make all the saves and the crowd would go wild."
Since Chatsworth is seriously short on frozen ponds, Bernal devised her own rudimentary--and very dry--alternative. She would don a baseball glove, roller-skating knee pads and a plastic stick, and summon friends to her cul-de-sac.
Bernal would let them fire tennis balls while she tended goal without a face mask.
It's much different now, with Bernal well protected behind gear that can take a healthy bite out of a family's budget. Although the cost of equipment varies according to quality, Bernal said good leg pads cost $1,000 and up, masks and gloves are about $300 each and sticks about $50.
There's also a chest protector goalies wear under their uniforms that sells for about $300 and, of course, skates.
"Luckily, I've had my skates for probably three years," Bernal said.
She's hauling all that cargo to the camp at Lake Placid, a showcase sponsored by USA Hockey and run by several Division I women's hockey coaches.
Bernal attended the camp last summer and came away impressed.
"The competition is great," Bernal said. "The best girls in the United States are there. They break us into teams and we practice together and then play in a mini-tournament. . . . There are tons of coaches and scouts there."
They include Ben Smith, who coached the U.S. women's team to the Olympic gold medal at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. That team, which featured defenseman Angela Ruggiero of Simi Valley and forward Cammi Granato, boosted Bernal's resolve to pursue the sport wholeheartedly.
Bernal closely follows national team goalies Sarah Tueting and Sara DeCosta.
"I look up to them," Bernal said. "I know DeCosta played boys' hockey. It's such a big thing what they did [at the Olympics]. It's such an inspiration."
Bernal hopes to play women's hockey in college and has received letters from several Division I programs, including national champion Minnesota, Cornell, Providence, Ohio State, Yale and Boston College.
Another goal is joining the national or Olympic team one day.
"Right now, I'm pretty much shooting for a college scholarship," Bernal said. "If I can ever come close to [the Olympics], that would be awesome."