Former Team Canada member Fiona Smith-Bell’s first piece of advice to the players participating in this year’s Esso Cup is simply “to have fun.”
“It goes by so fast - it’ll be over before they know it,” the Saskatchewan native said. “Enjoy the journey and strive to be the best (you) can be.”
That positive attitude is exactly how Smith-Bell, honorary chairperson of the 2010 Esso Cup, has approached her own impressive hockey career, which includes winning gold at both the 19 IIHF World Women’s Championships and bringing home silver from Nagano in 1998 as a member of the first women’s hockey team to represent Canada at the Olympics.
“In the back of my mind I had always hoped that I would one day become an Olympian but I never, ever thought that women’s hockey would be in the Olympics – I thought I might have to change sports,” Smith-Bell said, referring to how far she’s seen the sport come since she first laced up her skates at age four. “But when I actually got the opportunity to represent (my) country on the world stage … it’s just a dream come true.”
While it took years of demanding training to see that dream realized, Smith-Bell said at the heart of her own journey was a pure passion for the sport, stemming from the enjoyment she got from it growing up and playing the game in Edam and North Battleford, Sask.
“I kind of followed in my brother’s footsteps,” said Smith-Bell, who played hockey with the boys until she was 14 years old. “I just loved the camaraderie and going to minor hockey tournaments.”
But despite starting off on the ice with boys, Smith-Bell was eventually scouted out for a women’s provincial team. “Had I continued playing (with) boys … I (may not) have had the opportunity to go on to the national level.”
But times have changed, she said, explaining scouts now seek out female talent “whether they’re playing boys or girls,” a sure sign that the popularity of women’s hockey is on the rise.
The fact that the Esso Cup now exists is also a strong indicator of the sport’s incredible growth, Smith-Bell said.
“The Esso Cup is just a wonderful opportunity for young girls to be able to develop as players,” she said of the National Female Midget Championship, now in its second year. “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for them to showcase their talent and prepare them for the next level.”
Smith-Bell hopes this year’s Esso Cup, especially since it comes in the midst of an “Olympic high,” will encourage more fans to check out the strong level of hockey that will be played throughout the tournament and encourage more girls and women to give the game a try.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Grab somebody’s gear, whether it’s your brother’s, or it might even be your older sister’s gear … but it’s never too late to try and take up the game.”
Even for Team Canada alumni, it’s important to remember what makes hockey so special. Smith-Bell used to play shinny with other kids in her Saskatchewan neighbourhood, who imagined the Stanley Cup was at stake every time they stepped onto the ice.
“That’s what it’s about – is going out and being able to play at your leisure and have fun and not have that pressure … to perform,” she said. “You just go out and play.”