It might be the most important goal Erin Lally has ever scored – one that not only helped her Calgary Flyers closer to a league championship, but helped them step into history.
The Flyers’ sniper notched the overtime winner in a 2-1 victory over the Calgary Bruins on February 25, leaving the Flyers as the last Calgary team standing in the Alberta Major Midget Female Hockey League playoffs, booking their spot as host team at the 2009 Esso Cup.
They are hosting four regional champions – Pacific (B.C., Alta.), West (Sask., Man.), Ontario and Atlantic (N.B., N.L., N.S., P.E.I.) – at Max Bell Centre with the first-ever National Female Midget Championship on the line.
“This being my last year in Midget, I can’t wait to compete for the first-ever national championship,” Lally says. “I think the female game has grown so much over the past few years, and these nationals will be another huge step forward.”
In development since 2001, the national championship finally got the green light at last spring’s Hockey Canada annual general meeting in Montreal. Hockey Canada’s female development council, which oversees the game across the country, decided the Midget age group had grown to the point where it was logical to put a national championship in place, similar to the TELUS Cup, the national championship for men’s Midget hockey, which is celebrating its 31st year this season.
“This is such a huge thing for female Midget hockey to have its own national championship,” says Julie Healy, Hockey Canada’s director of female hockey. “There has never been a true club team championship for this level, so it’s a great step.”
Healy says Hockey Canada has always looked at the bigger picture in growing the women’s game at the highest level, which starts with a strong base across the country in minor hockey associations, building towards the Midget level.
In the 2002-03 season, Midget numbers across the country bypassed the registration numbers in senior female leagues for the first time.
"That’s a sure indicator of how the game has changed," says Healy. "Originally, it was a senior female hockey game where the bulk of players were playing senior and the grassroots were growing."
That season, there were 8,492 Midget female players and senior registrations were at 4,470. Last year, that number ballooned to 12,512 Midget players.
Healy believes the Esso Cup – which replaced the Esso Women’s Nationals, the national championship for senior women’s hockey, on the Hockey Canada schedule – will be great motivation for those young players thinking of moving on to something else.
“I believe Midget is when kids get enticed by other things in life,” Healy says. “By having a national championship, more young women stay in hockey because there is something to play for. Midget hockey exists everywhere in the country, giving everyone the right to compete for this title, and that was important.”
Teams from almost every region of Canada will have the chance to be in Calgary and compete for the Esso Cup – only Quebec is not represented, but it will play for the title in 2010, making it a six-team format similar to that of the TELUS Cup.
Judging from the popularity of the IIHF World Women's Under-18 Championship held in Calgary in January 2008 and the level of competition Canadian teams have shown at the annual Mac's Midget Tournament, Healy expects big things from the Esso Cup.
“I'm confident that the games will be very competitive,” she says.
With the Esso Cup on the schedule and a chance for young players to be called national champions, the National Female Midget Championship is likely to make an indelible mark on registration numbers and the future of women’s hockey in Canada.
“We wanted to give people that vision of a long-term plan and we believe this will help grow the game,” Healy says. “When people see the positive impact this has, we expect we will see Midget hockey numbers increase more than any other age group,” said Healy.