Islanders' Ice Girls win over fans, community

New York Islanders Ice Girls Victoria Calderone of

New York Islanders Ice Girls Victoria Calderone of West Islip, left, and Christie Kunzig of Bethpage, get ready to hit the rink at the teams Iceworks facility in Syosset. (Sept. 21, 2012) Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

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Christi Kunzig is an aspiring legal eagle, but she said she'd gladly clip her law school wings to clean the ice at Islanders' home games at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale.

And she's not kidding.

"I love it!" said Kunzig, 23, a second-year student at Hofstra University in Hempstead.

The Bethpage native has been an Ice Girl since 2009, having been smitten with the team after seeing them at an Islanders game in 2008. Kunzig and nine other Ice Girls have a few job duties, including dashing onto the 200- by 85-foot rink during commercial breaks to shovel and cart off snow that accumulates on 11,000 square feet of the rink. They must complete the task in 90 seconds.

A shovel of snow weighs a couple pounds and the bucket is "like a sack of potatoes when it's full," noted Linda Beach, figure skating coach at the Islanders practice facility, Iceworks, in Syosset.

During intermissions, Ice Girls are in the stands doing pom-pom routines, holding hockey trivia contests, tossing Islanders T-shirts into the crowd, and releasing confetti and streamers over contest winners.

When they are not smoothing the ice during home games, the Ice Girls make about 225 promotional appearances throughout the year at hospitals, street fairs, golf outings, summer camps and charity events. They also sign autographs, give away Islanders hats and take photographs with fans of all ages. They are paid $75 for each appearance on and off the ice.

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Busy despite NHL lockout

The Islanders' regular season was scheduled to begin Oct. 12 in Pittsburgh, and the team's first home game against the Philadelphia Flyers was scheduled for Oct. 13, but an NHL lockout has kept players and the Ice Girls off the ice.

The league has canceled games through Nov. 1, and league commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday that a full 82-game regular season was unlikely.

Although the rink is off limits, the Ice Girls have kept busy fulfilling their community commitments. Most recently they made appearances at the Farmingdale Street Fair, the Huntington Columbus Day Parade and the Food Allergy Walk in Eisenhower Park.

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"We're still very involved with the community, we just don't get to have our games," Kunzig said. "I'm absolutely hoping that it [the work stoppage] ends as soon as possible."

The National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association have not agreed on terms of a new collective bargaining agreement, said Islanders spokesman David Hochman, adding that the previous agreement signed in 2005 expired Sept. 15, 2012. Team owner Charles Wang announced Wednesday that the Islanders will relocate to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn when the team's lease at the Coliseum expires in 2015.

The Islanders were the first of 30 teams in the NHL to have Ice Girls, responding to a league mandate requiring that snow be removed from the ice during games. At least 20 other teams have female ice crews, said Tim Beach, the team's vice president of game operations and events.

Under the mandate, "The people who did the [snow] removal had to be on skates, and we'd have to teach people to skate who had never skated before or find a group that could get on and off the ice in a minute and a half," he said. "Some of our girls can give the guys a run for their money with the skating."

Victoria Calderone, 22, of West Islip, is one of them. She was retiring from professional figure skating but wanted to stay with the sport. She had skated competitively since she was 8 and landed a spot with the Ice Girls in 2010. Ice Girls -- who must be at least 18 -- go through a rigorous audition. They must exhibit exceptional skating skills, and speed tops the list.

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"The reason we get the best possible skaters we can is because there are 12 players on the ice and four referees," Beach said. "That creates traffic the girls have to navigate around. The last thing you want is someone who doesn't have the correct skating ability and she takes out one of your players."

 

Bringing 'spark to the ice'

Although not needed for their ice duty, Ice Girls must also be able to do lunges, spirals, T-stops, power crossovers and even skate backward, which they demonstrate in a performance whenever the team wins.

Besides skating prowess, Ice Girls must also possess a "dynamic personality to be taken seriously," said Linda Beach. The former Walt Disney World On Ice professional figure skater said most of the current Ice Girls are competitive skaters and range in age from 18 to 25. Two are teachers, and there was a police officer on a previous team.

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The Islanders Ice Girls took to the ice in the 2002 season.

"My thought was, we already had enough men on the ice, we don't have any females involved in hockey game nights," Tim Beach recalled. "I felt there was room for some perfume on the ice."

Many of the team's fans agree.

"They bring life into the stadium," said John Power, of Floral Park, who said he has watched Islanders games since he was a child and now takes his five children to games. "They bring spark to the ice."

Evan Platt, of Merrick, agrees. "I think they're wonderful, good for the fan base and good for the team," he said.

Kunzig would probably second that.

"I was more excited to be an Ice Girl than I was to get into law school," she said. "I love it so much I would do it forever; I would give up law. With everything that we do it's hard not to love it. It's such fun."

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