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In the game Sure they're Sabres fans -- these days, who isn't -- but for a growing number of women, hockey is more than just a matter of team spirit

Deep into the third period at HSBC Arena one recent evening, two Sabres fans desperately tried to determine why their team was losing.

"We drank our Red Bull," said Lauren Keating, 23.

"We brought our foam fingers," chimed Laurie Kamery, 27, referring to the giant foam index finger in Sabres blue that rested on her lap.

"And we used our Sabres pencils," Keating added.

And just like that, it became clear. The two young women used their Sabres pencils, but not on game day, like they did last time when Buffalo won.

Bingo! That's why the Sabres were shooting blanks!

The ruminations continued, as did the losing way of the Sabres for that one game, but the concern shown by Keating and Kamery not only reflects their commitment to professional ice hockey, but also the growing presence of women fans with hockey savvy.

They are not alone. Women have become a vocal force among hockey spectators.

"As women's interest and participation in ice hockey has mushroomed, their number as sports spectators has also increased," explained Don Sabo, sports sociologist at D'Youville College. "Part of it is their kids' involvement, and the increased family involvement in sports by dads and moms and single moms.

"It's also driven by past participation, and the explosion in involvement of girls in hockey, so we're seeing second-generation girls who played hockey 15 years ago who stay with the sport and go to the games and watch what's cooking."

It doesn't hurt that the Buffalo Sabres are one of the most exciting teams in professional hockey, or that recent rule changes have decreased the fighting and increased the finesse of the game.

Of course, there are degrees of enthusiasm and knowledge among women fans -- as there are among men -- as well as different motivational factors.

>Drawn to the rink

Outside HSBC Arena before Sabres playoff games, fans gather in the plaza to worship their team. One recent night, a trio of foam chicken wing hats bobbed up and down in rhythm to the music of the Party Squad. Under the wings? Three women who drove from Akron and Barker to see their team.

"I've never brought my husband to a game," said Gillian Wellman, 27, of Barker, who this season attended seven games. "Last year, we didn't have tickets and we went out to watch the games every single night. Nothing will come between me and hockey. I'm here for the Cup."

Liza Cummings, 42, and Colleen Burns, 46, both of Akron, agreed.

"I'm very loud, and very into it," Cummings said. "I scream."

There are many factors that draw women to hockey. In the past, many women have pointed to their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons as being their prime motivators. But now more women are watching the sport because they once played it.

Statistics suggest that on the collegiate level, women's participation in ice hockey has more than tripled in the past decade, according to Sabo, a leading researcher on gender and sports in the United States. In the 1995-96 school year, for example, there were 377 women hockey players in intercollegiate sports as compared to 1,348 in 2004-05.

How much of a statement have women made in hockey?

A commercial for Molson Canadian beer confirms their arrival. It features a locker room full of hockey players pictured from the waist down tying their skates. All of a sudden, the unshaven legs of a woman player are shown. The message? Women hockey players put a new spin on the male tradition of playoff beards.

>Ice ballet

You forget sometimes that these hockey players are performing on ice, managing 100 mph slapshots, gliding backward, spinning and stopping suddenly on a surface that most of us avoid walking on.

Gail Maloney, senior associate director of athletics and women's basketball coach for 21 years at Buffalo State College, has followed sports for 35 years. For her, hockey is pure athleticism.

"To me it's like a ballet on ice," Maloney said, "and the fact that they're moving at such a high speed, and the kinds of turns and twists. Like this [Brian] Campbell -- how he comes flying down the ice, turns, skates backward and still manages to put a puck on the net is an incredible skill. He can shoot with his back to the goal."

This year, women fans in particular have found the game to be aesthetically entertaining, no longer marked by violent, fighting goons.

The willingness to pay big bucks for a pair of seats in the 300-level -- playoffs aside -- is a sign of a dedicated fan. But for the first time in a long time, Barbara O'Neill -- who, with her husband, drives from Albany to the games -- has no favorite player.

"It's one of the rare years, I think, when it's not so much about an individual player," said O'Neill, 42. "This year, it's about the team, although there are strong players who play well individually. We have four 30-goal scorers, an excellent goaltender. In previous years, you'd watch the French Connection or I would be focused on Dominik Hasek.

"It's really about watching the game, an incredibly fast-paced game," O'Neill added. "It's about watching the plays develop. We've got four great lines. It's great to watch Maxim Afinogenov shoot up and down the ice, but this year it's more about watching the lines unfold."

"There is variation in the kinds of women fans," suggested Timothy Osberg, licensed clinical psychologist and psychology professor at Niagara University. "Some are a little more serious, some are more interested in the human aspect of the players.

"When you hear some of the stories about football players and basketball players, their behavior and how they deal with fans," Osberg added, "hockey players seem more easier to identify with, and women may be attracted to that."

>The attraction

Why else would a young fan name her pet hamster after a hockey player?

Caroline Hettrick, 17, has been attending Sabres games for years with her father.

"I named my pet hamster after Rob Ray," she said, standing outside the Sabres store at the arena. "He was my favorite player at the time. Now it's [Jason] Pominville."

It doesn't hurt that hockey has some slick-looking athletes. While male and female fans of any sport could have an attraction to a particular player, hockey is one sport that has a term for it.

A "puck bunny," according to online encyclopedia Wikipedia, is a female ice hockey fan whose interest is primarily motivated by an attraction to the players rather than enjoyment of the game. Sports sociologists -- including Sabo -- roil at its mention.

"The puck-bunny thing is an aberration," Sabo insisted. "You're talking about groupies. It's like discussing the sexuality of women across a life span and focusing on prostitutes."

A bit of an overstatement, perhaps, but there is no question that some women appreciate players' looks as well as their skills. Take Keating and Kamery, who purchased two first-round 100-level playoff tickets for $250 total.

"We're more known as lovers of the boys," said Kamery, who favors goalie Ryan Miller because of his charity work and the way he tosses his hair when he sheds his helmet. "I just think he's sexual. I like to watch him."

Keating, who screams loudest for Pominville and Paul Gaustad, agreed, with one addition.

"We call [Coach] Lindy Ruff our dad," said the 23-year-old.

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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