North’s Forant has boys on the side

Knight junior one of only two females in CVC hockey

By: Justin Feil
   Nikki Forant acknowledges that there are plenty of differences between playing boys’ ice hockey for the West Windsor-Plainsboro High North team and girls’ ice hockey for her Princeton Tiger Lilies club team, not the least of which was the big headache she had this weekend after suffering a concussion in the Knights’ 1-0 win over Hightstown on Friday.
   "It’s a totally different game," said the WW-PN junior wing, who will miss up to three weeks after suffering her first concussion. "With guys, there are more shots along the boards. With girls, there’s more thinking. Your plays are more defined and your breakouts are different. In boys, you really want to hit and make the other team more scared that they’ll be hit."
   As one of only two female players in the Colonial Valley Conference this season, Forant has experienced different attitudes on hitting when it comes to her play. A lot of times it depends on whether an opponent sees the long blonde hair out of the back of her helmet.
   "Sometimes there are guys who see girls and hold back," Forant said. "Sometimes there are guys who see a girl and they don’t want a girl on the ice and they hit harder. There’s not really any middle. And then sometimes guys can’t tell and play us like we’re normal players. I hope they would do that. That’s how my teammates treat me. I’m out there to play."
   That attitude is why Forant is more upset about missing the final six minutes of Friday’s win that left the Knights 5-4-1 and all the games she’ll miss in the coming weeks due to the injury than she was about having the injury itself.
   "It’s hockey," she said, "That’s the game. That’s how you play."
   Ironically, it was a hit by the CVC’s only other female player, Hightstown’s Lindsay (Lu Lu) Herzog, that raised the intensity level of the contest Friday. Herzog upended a North player in the second period, and was paid back.
   "Lu Lu got nailed a couple times," said WW-PN head coach Tim Grable. "And she got up quicker than some of the guys. They’re both tough. It’s a tremendous credit to them both."
   Forant and Herzog, a Rams senior with similar telling long blonde hair, are connected more closely than just as female players in the CVC. They’ve played together for more than five years. They played together on an all-star squad this summer in Hockey Night in Boston.
   They face off as many as fives times a year outside of school when Forant’s Tiger Lilies take on Herzog’s Philadelphia Little Flyers U-19 team. Were it not for Forant’s concussion, the two would have squared off on back-to-back days when their club teams met Saturday (with the Tiger Lilies winning). And lastly, Herzog’s older brother Christian, for whom she sports jersey No. 11, is an assistant coach for WW-P North.
   "I’ve played with Lu Lu since sixth grade," said Forant, who estimates that the two were matched up two or three shifts Friday. "She can hit pretty hard. After she hit our guy, I don’t know if our fans got on her case, but she got hit a couple times. Between periods, I went over to see how she was because she got hit pretty hard. Then, in the third period, I got it."
   Forant’s concussion and strained neck from whiplash-like motion came courtesy of a check along the boards, where she does some of her best work for the Knights.
   "She’s really a good penalty killer and she’s a good skater. She’s a very smart player," Grable said. "Nikki sees a lot that a lot of the guys on the team, especially the younger, newer forwards, may not recognize. She reads the play well. She gets a few scoring opportunities, not many, but she’s good at getting the puck out of the zone. One of the first things I look for in a winger, is if they’re good along the boards at getting the puck out. She is."
   Due to injuries that have cost WW-PN Luke Shevlin, Steve Avery and Matt Lalli time — which on top of graduation leaves the Knights without last season’s top nine scorers — Forant has been playing more than ever. In addition to regular shifts with what essentially is the Knights’ second line, she’s an important part of the penalty kill.
   "I don’t ask Nikki to go out and check," Grable said. "As well as doing superb penalty killing, she’s done a great job of getting the puck out. She’s taken the physical play along the boards to get the puck out. It’s all we’re asking."
   All Forant is asking is a chance to show that she can play. After being cut during tryouts freshman year, Forant came back and made last year’s team that ended up going 23-4-1. Until her injury, she was thrilled to be helping this season’s team with even more ice time.
   "One thing I’ve noticed now that I’m constantly playing, when I sit on the bench long, my hands are too numb and I can’t really do much," she said. "When I’m constantly out there, I understand the pace of the game and how I have to react. If I’m not out there a lot, I don’t think I play as well."
   Forant expected to join Shevlin, who’s lost for the season after a car accident, and Avery and Lalli in street clothes for the Knights’ scheduled Monday game against Toms River North. Avery and Lalli are expected to return soon, and Forant hopes to also come back soon to return the Knights to full strength.
   "We’ll be fine if we keep playing with heart," she said. "That’s what it comes down to. Other teams are just as down. We have to keep hustling to the puck. Our seniors and the captains have done a really good job of setting a good example. With everything we’ve had, everyone’s trying to pull together. With our injuries, everyone understands we have to pick up our game."
   Forant is using her experience with the North ice hockey team to further her own collegiate women’s hockey aspirations. She continues to try to improve her stick-handling to match her speed, and playing with boys has helped.
   "When we go to big tournaments with the prep school kids from places like Connecticut, it’s really competitive," Forant said. "It’s not the same, but playing boys is really helpful."
   Regardless of the team she’s skating for, playing hockey is a lot of fun for Forant, even with the bumps and the bruises — some of them bigger than others. And while her concussion may cost her a few weeks of the game, Nikki Forant can’t wait to get back on the ice against Lu Lu Herzog and the best girls’ hockey club players as well as the CVC and the male-dominated teams.
   "I love it too much," Forant said, "to stop playing because of that."