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'Never give up': Young hockey players like Claire determined to help grow the female game

By Rhonda Leeman Taylor & Kristen Lipscombe

She is the future.

That is, girls such as 10-year-old Claire Zywien of Rochester, Mich., represent the future of women's hockey.

Young Claire's passion for ice hockey started at the tender age of just five years old, when she started following the Detroit Red Wings, much to her father's dismay. Josh Zywien is a Boston Bruins fan.

"Apparently, I wasn't able to convince Claire," Josh said while speaking with OFFSIDE author Rhonda Taylor and fellow podcast host Dave Briglio, of his determined and dedicated daughter.

"We saw a Red Wings-Bruins game," Josh recalled with a chuckle of taking her to a live National Hockey League (NHL) game, "and I think the Red Wings won that game 6-1 or something, so it was really embarrassing for me."

It seems Claire is the true hockey aficionado in this particular upper New York State household.

In fact, it was Claire who discovered the book OFFSIDE and wanted to read it in order to learn all about the history of women's hockey. Josh said she was absolutely "beaming" when she received the book in the mail from Rhonda, with an author autograph and a personalized note encouraging her to work hard and be the very best she can be, both on and off the ice.

"I said I was going to play hockey," Claire said with a giggle of making the decision herself and informing her parents, Josh and Stephanie, of her already set plans.

She wanted to play different sports than her twin sister, Avery, who prefers soccer, so Claire opted for hockey in the winter and softball in the summer.

"I'm a defenceman," Claire said of her position on the under-10 competitive girls' hockey team, the Mt. Clemens Lady Wolves in Michigan.

The Lady Wolves actually got to complete their season this year, winning the 2020 Michigan Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) Tier 3 state championship, shutting out the St. Clair Shores Saints 6-0 in the championship game March 1 at the Summit Sports and Ice Complex in Lansing, just before the coronavirus shut down hockey for much of the world.

Although she plays the female game now, she started off facing off with the boys, which isn't always easy when you're the only girl on the team.

"I came to the rink dressed," Claire said of not being able to change in the boys' dressing room, which meant missing out on some of the fun antics with teammates. Now that she plays with other girls, Claire gets to participate in all the dressing room fun and important pre-game talks that is often an important part of team bonding.

Although some might have been surprised by a then-five-year-old female's decision to pick up a stick and take on the boys, Josh said his wife's side of the family "all grew up playing hockey."

"Her aunt actually had a college scholarship offer to play ... at a school in Boston, so it's definitely in her blood," Josh said. "She was exposed to skating; we put her on skates when she was two or three I think; she could barely walk. So it ... was not terribly surprising that she wanted to get into it.

"She went to a Red Wings game when she was, I think, two for the first time," Josh said of his little girl's life-long favourite team.

"She was the only girl in her school who was playing hockey, and there were no real girl programs in the arena that's close by us, so it was boy programs at first, which I think in some ways kind of forced her to kind of challenge herself a little bit and really push herself.

"And then it was about two years ago that she joined a girls' travel team for the first time," Josh said. "There aren't that many teams organized around girls' hockey - but that's starting to change in a big way, at least around Michigan."

Although women's hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, it still suffers from pockets on both sides of the border where it's much harder to find competitive girls' teams, which is why Claire has to travel from New York to Michigan in order to keep growing her own game.

But the smile hockey puts on Claire's face is more than worth it, for daughter and parents alike.

Naturally, competitive Claire especially loves "having the fun of scoring goals and winning games."

If female players like Claire are the future of women's hockey, it's role models like defenceman Kacey Bellamy of the U.S. Women's National Team who are setting the example and leading the way right now.

Bellamy, who won gold at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, in addition to two silver medals at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and Vancouver, B.C., just happens to be Claire's favourite hockey player. Nope, it's not a Red Wings player.

"Her number is my lucky number (22)," Claire explained, "and I always wanted to play defence and she is one of my favourite defencemen."

Claire even got to take a photo with Bellamy - and get her autograph - at an exhibition game between Team Canada and Team U.S.A., which was a very special moment for the aspiring young female player.

As for male hockey players, Claire does like to watch Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader, because he played hockey "at Michigan State."

"That's where I want to go to college," Claire said.

Outside of sports, Claire also enjoys baking and playing with her dogs. But her No. 1 passion is, of course, playing hockey.

"Claire's playing five days a week," Josh said of keeping busy on the road during hockey season.

With all the time and hard work she and her family have already committed to the game she loves, Claire knows it's important to "stay strong."

Because when young players such as Claire and her teammates can "stay strong." and as Rhonda says "carry the torch" into the next generation, the future of women's hockey will remain bright no matter what challenges remain ahead in an often male-dominated sports world.

"Your problems in playing the game are going to be different than the problems that I had," Rhonda advised, "but you're the generation that is going to see women's hockey blossom."

Claire said hockey has taught her "to never give up," especially if you want your dreams to come true. For Claire, that means becoming a veterinarian and playing on the U.S. Women's National Team at the Olympics.

"Hockey is one of the best sports in the world," Claire said. "I love to go out there with all my friends and teammates and just have fun."

From the sounds of it, the future of women's hockey will be in good hands among the next generation of role models, whether Claire and her contemporaries are stickhandling on the ice, or high-fiving young girls who look up to them off the ice.

Take a listen to Claire and her dad talking women's hockey on the OFFSIDE podcast with Rhonda and Dave here:…/10106966/offside-14-claire-zywien

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