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People: Leslie Stepanek Hits the Ice

Leslie Stepanek on the ice. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Stepanek. Click for larger image.)

Leslie Stepanek, SLAC's work planning and control manager, remembers the moment she fell in love with ice hockey 13 years ago. On leave from her club field-hockey team with an injury, she went to watch a friend play. "I sat there listening to the wooden sticks hitting each other, the skates cutting the ice," she said. "Just the sounds of the game were intriguing."

She decided to go to "Give Hockey A Try Day," a session sponsored by the Northern California Women's Hockey League, or NCWHL, and she hasn't looked back since. "I was hooked," Stepanek said. "I went out and bought all my gear the next weekend."

As an experienced athlete, Stepanek was a quick study of ice hockey's swift dynamics and fluid position changes. "I can anticipate things pretty well, but not everyone has that. When I was in the beginner division, I remember one player asked me a few minutes into a game, 'Which way are we shooting?'" As a beginner, Stepanek's personal challenge was learning to skate backwards. "We did a drill where everyone lined up on the goal line and had to skate backwards the length of the rink. Several minutes later everyone was at the other end, and I was still standing there. I hadn't moved! I just didn't understand how to make my feet go backwards."

Stepanek has come a long way since then. Now she's on the ice at least two days a week almost year-round, playing two five-month seasons with the NCWHL. For seven months of the year she's also a forward with the Lady Sharks, a competitive senior women's team under the San Jose Junior Sharks program. "All I do is work and play hockey," jokes Stepanek, who also finds time to bike through Europe, do volunteer maintenance on Alcatraz, and run enough to snag the best women's time in the SLAC Run & Walk.

(Photo courtesy of Leslie Stepanek. Click for larger image.)

Stepanek's skates have cut ice on rinks all over North America. In the last few months her team has flown to tournaments in Utah, Washington and Ontario, where the Lady Sharks went head-to-head with Team England. Although they lost, the Lady Sharks managed to sneak the puck past the English national goalie, shattering expectations of a shut-out. Stepanek was thrilled, and the opposing team—whose oldest player is about the same age as the Lady Sharks' youngest—was floored.

"When we lined up to shake hands afterwards and our goalie took off her helmet—she's also in her forties—one of the England players was like, 'Wow, they're old!" Stepanek recalled, laughing.

She is looking forward to traveling to Alaska in March for the Lady Sharks' next tournament, but she anticipates some bruises. "No checking doesn't mean no contact," said Stepanek, who received plenty during the five years she played in a co-ed league. "I've been checked off my feet into the boards."

Despite the sore muscles and the occasional cross-check, Stepanek loves her sport. Because NCWHL teams change every year, she's gotten to know many of the players in her league. "We carry on conversations on the ice," Stepanek said, laughing about the colorful trash talk she's swapped with friends over the years. It's part of the community's overall sense of closeness. "It's a blast," Stepanek said. "It's just so much fun."

—Lauren Schenkman
SLAC Today, February 11, 2009