By Greg Auman | Oct. 16, 2014, 10:40 a.m. (ET)
Anne Schleper practices with the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, Florida, on Oct. 13, 2014.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Anne Schleper is at home on any ice hockey rink, but her smile was especially wide Monday morning as she took part in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s morning skate as the team prepared for a game against the Montreal Canadiens.

“It passed my expectations. It was so fun,” said Schleper, a defenseman on the U.S. women’s national team that won a silver medal last February in Sochi. “The guys were great. It was awesome. ... I’m always smiling.”

Schleper stayed low-key at first, respectful that this was a team finishing preparation for a key early-season game, but was quickly embraced by players and came out of her shell a bit.

“I think she got better as the practice went on,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “She was nervous, she was pushing her passes a little bit. I said, ‘Just snap it. These guys, it’s no big deal to them.’

“She started getting more and more confidence ... She spoke a lot on the ice. You can really distinguish her voice. She was really active, said all the right things. She was calling for the puck.”
 

Schleper, who led the team through post-practice stretching with star Steven Stamkos — hours before he would score a hat trick against Montreal — spent three days around the team as part of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s “Girls Play Hockey Weekend.” A week earlier, another leader from the 2014 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team, forward Hilary Knight, participated in a practice with the Anaheim Ducks, celebrating the same exposure for the women’s game while enjoying a chance to skate with some of the sport’s best players.

Hilary Knight laces her skates before taking the ice with the Anaheim Ducks in October 2014.

“It was a great experience, a lot of fun to skate with the guys,” Knight said. “As a young hockey player, you always aspire to play in the NHL, to be around some of the best athletes in the world. All of it was a highlight.”

Schleper grew up with the sport in Minnesota — “You get in your skates before you learn to walk,” she explained — but took great pride in the opportunity to work a clinic with young girls in Tampa who don’t have the same immersion in the sport, with rinks harder to find in Florida.

“We were playing street hockey on the plaza (outside Amalie Arena),” Schleper said. “We were out there probably an hour and the girls were already getting better. It was pretty special.”

Knight did much the same in Anaheim and said it reminded her of how much she loved meeting the previous generation’s stars, who took the same time to inspire her as a young player.

“Cammi Granato was my idol, and Angela Ruggiero and Julie Chu,” Knight said of the U.S. Olympians. “Having the opportunity to meet them, to go to one of their camps was huge. Once you’ve been in this program long enough, you realize it’s your responsibility to give back and inspire a younger generation, just as they inspired you.”

Granato and Ruggiero were on the U.S. team that won the first Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey in 1998. Ruggiero played through the 2010 Winter Games, and Chu, playing in her fourth Winter Games, joined Schleper on Team USA in 2014.

 Cooper and his players relished the chance to bring another hockey star into their midst, as they did last season with Tampa’s Declan Farmer, who was part of the U.S. sled hockey team that won gold in the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi.

“Why wouldn’t you want to have somebody (here)? It’s no different than having Declan Farmer here,” Cooper said. “Having her here, we’re about the sport ultimately. It is about the sport of hockey — not men’s hockey, women’s hockey, sled hockey — we’re all in this together.

“It’s so much fun to be around. It doesn’t matter who you are. For her to come out here and be with our guys, it was fun for our guys. If we can build the sport in any way, if that helps 10 little girls line up to play hockey at some point. … I’ve got twin daughters. If they look at this and say, ‘You know what? I’d love to play hockey,’ that’s good enough for us.”

Greg Auman has been a writer with the Tampa Bay Times for the past 15 years. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.