Seven years ago, the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League didn’t even exist.
Now, the SFMAAAHL’s Regina Rebels play all of their home games out of state-of-the-art Co-operators Centre at Evraz Place, have a beautiful new, fully outfitted dressing room, and get plenty of recognition from local media and hockey maniacs alike.
A lot has changed for female hockey, both across Saskatchewan and within the province’s capital city, and Rebels management council chair Lynn Tulloch says the chance to host the 2010 Esso Cup gave the female game a great boost that has left a lasting impression.
“We exposed female hockey to a (much) broader group of folks,” Tulloch, who served as host committee chair for Canada’s National Female Midget Championship, says of making fans aware that the event was coming to Regina. “It was only the second year that the Esso Cup had even existed.”
Just a couple of years later, and “it is certainly on the radar now, that every team’s goal is to … win not only the Saskatchewan championship, but to end up going to the Esso Cup,” Tulloch says. “Everyone understands it well in Saskatchewan … that there’s the TELUS Cup, and there’s the Esso Cup.”
While the Esso Cup is only entering its fourth season, the TELUS Cup, Canada’s National Midget Championship on the men’s side, already has a 38-year history.
Tulloch, who got involved in the sport when her daughter Kelsey started playing, is confident the female equivalent to the TELUS Cup is well on its way to creating a strong tradition within Canadian female hockey. It wasn’t around when Kelsey played for the Regina Rebels, but now the Esso Cup is a goal that thousands of young girls across the country can strive for, as they make their way up from initiation to Midget.
“It gives girls this opportunity to play at a high level (and) to get the exposure that previously they didn’t think they could get unless they were at a prep school that was on the radar of scouts and universities,” she says.
Hockey Alberta female council chair Laury Schmidt, who has watched the story of the Esso Cup unfold since its inaugural year in Calgary, and including last year in St. Albert, agrees the still-blossoming national championship is becoming an important platform for the top young female hockey players across the country to showcase their skills.
“These are girls that feed our national team … and this is really the highest level leading up to CIS or NCAA that Hockey Canada organizes,” he says. “The Esso Cup is kind of a pinnacle for Canada to say, ‘we … should be proud of the achievements we’ve made in the female game.’ ”
Schmidt, whose daughters Jennifer and Megan also grew up playing the great Canadian game, adds the Esso Cup gives female players, parents, coaches and administrators from every region the chance to come together, and work together, toward their shared goal of developing the sport they’re so passionate about.
“It brings an understanding from border to border ... of what can be done,” he says. “There’s a common interest (and understanding) of how hard they work to get their programs together … it’s probably the number one fabric of our society in Canada, hockey.”
While more girls continue to pick up hockey sticks, with registration in Alberta increasing from 8,438 during the 2008-09 season, the first-ever for the Esso Cup, to 8,907 last season, Schmidt agrees the biggest legacy the Esso Cup has left in its host cities thus far is “exposure.”
“The whole economic opportunity, whether it’s hotel rooms, or people saying, ‘I want to go back and see another piece of the country,’ is fantastic,” he says. “But from a pure hockey perspective, the awareness that’s going on, the opportunity when you expose it to a group of school kids … you can’t measure that.”
Every year, Esso Cup host committees have welcomed classes from local schools into the rink to watch an Esso Cup game for free, giving students in the stands a chance to be exposed to the positive values offered in team sports, and players on the ice a solid fan base of hockey-crazed kids cheering them on.
“How many of those kids went home and said, ‘You know what mom, I want to try hockey?’ ” Schmidt wonders.
Tulloch adds the financial impact of hosting is also a big plus for the female game – the 2010 Esso Cup generated a profit of about $54,000. A third went to the Regina Rebels, another chunk went to the Saskatchewan Hockey Association’s post-secondary scholarships for females who go on to compete in Canadian Interuniversity Sport, while the remaining third of the Esso Cup cash is for “female minor hockey development here in the city.”
Tulloch says she can’t wait to get more Saskatchewan girls into the game and pursuing their goals, like now 22-year-old Kelsey, who just finished her fifth year with the University of Saskatchewan and won this season’s Marion Hilliard CIS Student-Athlete Award for Canada West.
“I saw the value that my daughter and her friends got from participating,” Tulloch says. “Young women … that have the opportunity to participate in positive, well-run hockey programs generally turn out to be really well-rounded individuals; great individuals.
“That’s kind of at the root of it.”