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In this "Five Days of Hockey" series, The Detroit News will look at how the game intertwines with family, community and the desire to excel. Previously: Families keep hockey strong for ECHL's Toledo Walleye.

Livonia — For athletes who are seniors, the last rivalry game makes time feel like it is balanced on the point of a needle, leaning perilously forward.

Before the game, as it has been for years, so much is preparation. Afterward, it is on to a new stage of life.

Amid the passion, sentiment and pregame butterflies, the captain of the Walled Lake Wild, defenseman Kelsie Vanderklok, had a firm grip.

"Playing Mercy is a big rush because they've always been our rival," Vanderklok said, sitting inside the Eddie Edgar Ice Arena as students, parents and family milled around in a cacophony of pregame greetings and conversation.

"I hope my team can really work as a team because if we don't get to play them in the playoffs, this is my last time I'll play Mercy."

As the game grew closer, expectations mixed with butterflies, equipment came out of bags and on to bodies, the coaches imparted a last few words and, especially among parents, family and fellow students, a social scene swirled.

But, transcendent on this winter's night was the sheer thrill of playing the sport.

Girls and boys may be different, but their appreciation of hockey is much the same. The girls say what attracts them is the speed, skill, a sense of being utterly in the moment on the ice and the camaraderie.

Many fewer high schools around Metro Detroit have girls teams than boys. Michigan lags behind the other three big hockey-playing states — Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York — in the participation of girls.

But there is no lack of desire. The girls just want to play.

Vanderklok was learning lacrosse in fourth grade when she stumbled upon a girls' roller hockey team.

"So, I told my dad, 'I want to play hockey,' " she explained.

"And he was like, 'You're not going to like it.'

"And then, I loved it."

Julia Barrett, a Mercy freshman, laced them up and recalled her influences.

"My cousin Andrew played hockey," she said. "He was a goalie.

"And a neighbor did, and she really got me into it. She plays for Ladywood now."

Gearing up for the game, enjoyment was written all over the young defenseman's face.

"Protecting the goalie, taking shots from the blue line," Barrett said. "That's pretty much what I like to do.

"Hockey's fast-paced. It takes a lot of skill.

"I like the effort, the physicalness — even though you can't check, necessarily. But I mean, you can still get physical."

In this together

As parents stood with their young children, chatting with other parents, and the two coaches conferred nearby, it also was plain more was happening than just the hockey.

Amid the long season and the high cost of the sport, which strains more than a few family budgets, young lives were evolving.

Parents like Mary Reeber's mom, Hollie, appreciate the hockey, too. But they prize the values.

"I've never played hockey," Reeber said. "My husband Tom's played hockey all of his life.

"So, when I was brought into the hockey world, I didn't understand that it's a culture — like, it's the love of the game."

She explained the phenomenon through the relationship between her daughter and her opponent on this night, Vanderklok. The girls built a friendship, in part through their competition in hockey and softball.

"They are fierce competitors in softball, but they are hockey players," Reeber explained. "And they have this bond because they are girls that play hockey.

"You'll see two teams go out there on the ice, and they'll battle. But, in the end, they are part of a small group of girls that play hockey.

"Boys? There's lots of boy hockey players. But the girls. It's 'Your daughter plays hockey? That's awesome!'

"It's just a different culture, in general. I mean, even when you go to Red Wings games, it's like a different vibe of people who are like — well, it's hockey, you know?

"And it's fun for the girls to have their team and to play for their school. Before there was high school hockey for them, they didn't have that."

Growth expected

School spirit is not only implicated, it is in the balance.

A student dressed as a caveman and a large inflatable giraffe pass through the doors and into the Mercy section of the rink. The students' intention is to poke fun at the Wild.

But much of what occurs here tonight is quite serious.

The players say they can feel their high school years ebbing, and college beckoning.

They talk about how the demands placed on their time by hockey helps them manage it, like the absolute need to get right on top of their studies as soon as they get home on practice nights.

Game nights? It is a different drill.

"On those days, usually the team meets as a group at a player's house between school and the game to finish homework, study or otherwise prepare for the game," said Scott Hamilton, whose daughter, Hannah, plays defense for Mercy.

"Coach Jones emphasizes that time management is a skill as important as stickhandling or skating."

The hall at Eddie Edgar becomes a dressing room, family room and community meeting place, with multiple, simultaneous conversations raising a din.

As they moved around the common hall, outside the individual rinks, Mercy coach Joe Jones and Walled Lake coach Erik Carlson check the names off their roster, making sure the players are all dressed and talking to them and their parents.

Meanwhile, the pregame butterflies flutter.

The eyes of many players dart around the room, assessing the progress toward the drop of the puck.

"What I love about the girls is their willingness to learn and get better," said Carlson, who also has coached boys.

"They are very coachable. Every girl I've had, very coachable. They want to know, with specifics, 'What do I need to do today?' And they're going to work at it.' "

Both coaches see considerable room for growth in the girls' game, in Michigan.

"The more it grows, the more girls will get involved at a young age, because there's an endpoint to playing, something to work towards, if you're 8 or 9 years old," said Jones, who played Division III hockey at MIT.

"My experience is, you are probably more likely to play a sport in your area, if there's going to be a chance to play it in high school.

"I think it's grown some," Jones said of the girls' game, organized under the Michigan Metro Girls High School Hockey League.

"It hasn't grown enough."

No babying

Suddenly, those wearing uniforms and skates are on the move toward the rink. The availability of the big white sheet beckons.

Shortly after 8 p.m., the game begins.

It is not long before Mercy is ahead.

Vanderklok's fondest hopes, however, are not entirely dashed. Walled Lake performs well, but Mercy will prove a bit too much for a comparatively young opponent.

The play is fast and crisp, with no bad passes and few offsides.

The girls do not deliver any intentional body checks. But that only limits the number of times bodies come crashing together, not the intensity of the collisions.

As three players pursue a loose puck toward the end boards, they all go crashing in, bodies prone and limbs at awkward angles.

Everyone gets up, except Kayleigh Walker, a rugged senior forward for Walled Lake.

At first, all grows still in the rink. Then, a murmur goes through the crowd.

Walker, parents and students say, came into the game nursing a bad ankle. Coaches and players help her into an office chair, wheeled out onto the ice, and Walker is carted off.

Parents and coaches accompany her to the hospital where X-rays later reveal no fracture, but a high ankle sprain — which is sometimes worse. She likely will be out until the playoffs in the March.

Hockey is a tough sport. Carlson, who was the first adult to reach his fallen player, talks about not babying them, and treating the girls just like the boys when it comes to the inevitable injuries.

"You should see them," he said. "It's like the pros.

"They're almost embarrassed to be injured sometimes."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/greggkrupa

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