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Chicago Daily Herald
The Rolling Meadows Park District is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and its youth and adult hockey programs go back more than 40 years. Yet this past fall season featured a new spin on the sport: cheerleaders in the stands.
"I'm not going to lie, some of the players were a little confused about what was going on," says Stephan Polus, one of the youth hockey coordinators and a coach of the mite level Renegades, including the under 6-year-olds and under 8-year-olds. "But once the first period was over," he added, "the kids were really getting into the cheering."
Joanne Burger is one of the coaches in the Rolling Meadows Youth Cheerleading program, and she says that while the girls traditionally cheered at youth football games, those opportunities had diminished.
"In years past, our girls cheered for the youth football teams, but since those numbers dropped, we began focusing on our girls doing cheer competitions," Burger says. "This year, our girls wanted to show their support to our local youth hockey teams."
And they had plenty of games to choose from.
The Rolling Meadows Renegades now have more than 500 participants in their hockey programs, from tots through teenage players, and increasingly more girls joining the sport.
They now enjoy a newly updated facility after a nearly $2 million renovation to the rink at the Nelson Sports Complex in 2016. Park district officials pointed to the complex's heavy foot traffic, with more than 3 million people coming through its doors and those of neighboring West Meadows Arena, both in Rolling Meadows.
And having cheerleaders there to support both boys' and girls' games has subtly helped fuel girls' interest in taking the ice, Burger says, including her own daughter.
"My daughter is one of the girls who began playing hockey at 4 years old and she has continued," Burger says. "She is also on the second-grade squad of the Rolling Meadows Youth Cheerleading program, and she absolutely loved having her very own girls there cheering her on for one of her games."
Polus agrees that more girls have entered the program over the past few years, but he credits the success of the women's hockey teams in the last two Winter Olympics with ramping up interest, including their gold medal victory over Canada in February in South Korea.
"During the Olympics, they always showcase where these athletes come from and what they do for their community," Polus adds. "It just gives these young female athletes someone to look up to."
According to USA Hockey and its governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are more than 75,000 girls and women playing in the sport.
Rolling Meadows sees its growth, building from the lower levels on up.
According to Polus, more than one dozen girls are playing at the at the basic hockey levels (hockey tots and pre-mixes). If they stick with it, they would move up to the mite level, or 6 and under, and 8 and under. He adds that they currently have 13 girls playing at those levels, with four at the under-10 level, and three at the under-12s.
Having the cheerleaders at the rink on weekends helped expose them to the sport, Polus says, and he's all for starting players out early and having girls love the sport.
"Personally, I really like the idea of having the cheerleaders," he says. "Most of the time it's just the kids' parents cheering for them in the stands, so it was nice to see the cheerleaders give the players their attention. "It was just nice to see something different," Polus adds, "and to see the kids really get into it."
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