This week, 14-year-old Lexi Peters will be stickhandling past men twice her size in the starting lineup for the Buffalo Sabres. Or the Vancouver Canucks. Or any team the 4-foot-1, 90-pound left-winger chooses.

"I'm pretty excited," said Lexi from her North Tonawanda home. "It's going to be fun. You don't have to be a man to play anymore."

That's right. When Electronic Arts released the latest version of its popular NHL game on Tuesday, Peters became the first female to be featured in its virtual hockey world. Indeed, she is the first female to be featured in any NHL video game.

"I hope this means more girls will play the video game and actual ice hockey because it's a great sport," she said.

Lexi, a freshman at Starpoint High School, comes from a hockey family. Her younger brother plays and so has she for the past four years. The two also spend countless hours off-ice playing hockey against each other on their Playstation 3. Lexi got tired of having to play as a boy.

"My younger brother got to create a character that looked just like him. I had never been able to experience that," Lexi said.

Lexi says she and a teammate would spend hours creating a whole hockey team on the game and try to model the players after their own all-girls team, the Purple Eagles. But the best they could do was give the characters long "hockey" hair.

"We looked like men," she says simply.

Frustrated by the lack of representation of females like her in a sport she loves, she decided to do something about it. So she wrote a letter to the head executives of one of the largest video game makers in the world.

"It is unfair to women and girl hockey players around the world, many of them who play and enjoy your game. I have created a character of myself, except I have to be represented by a male and that's not fun," she wrote to Electronic Arts.

The response she got was disappointing. But she figured at least she'd tried.

"I heard back a few weeks later and they told me it couldn't happen because it has to go through the NHL and other people," she said.

What she didn't know, however, was that the president of EA Sports had forwarded her letter to the lead producer of the company's NHL game, David Littman. His reaction was different.

"Lexi's letter was a wake-up call," says Littman. "Here's a growing audience playing our NHL game and we hadn't done anything to capture them."

It wasn't easy, but Littman made it a priority to get it done: making sure the budget was there to build her into the game, as well as getting the green light from both the NHL and EA's legal department.

"We had an artist work on a 3-D model of [Lexi's] head for about a week to create a likeness. We then defaulted the main female character to both her face and name, so the commentators will actually say her name during the game. And when players choose to play as a female, they'll have Lexi's face," Littman said.

It is, of course, a strategic business move, aimed at capturing a larger market share. But it's one that also marks a major milestone, not only for virtual female hockey players, but for real ones, too.

"It's a big change and it's exciting to see because so many girls pay hockey now," said Manon Rheaume, the only woman to play in the NHL. "When I started, I had to play with boys because there were no girls' teams. I applaud this little girl who wrote the letter. She reminds me of me."

Rheaume was a goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 1992-93 season. She now runs a foundation that offers scholarships to females in sports and promotes girls' hockey.

"I think we're at a place where women in hockey are more accepted absolutely. People are putting more money into girls' hockey and the growth we're seeing in the sport is mainly from girls, not boys," Rheaume said.

Hockey USA numbers back that up.

In 1990, there were just over 6,000 women and girls registered in the sport.

Today, there are almost 66,000.

"The age categories that have increased the most are the young girls and the adult women," says Courtney Welch, with Hockey USA. "A lot of hockey moms want to give the game a try themselves. As well, there's more focus on education and community outreach."