British Columbia is gearing up for two major female hockey events and a tremendous opportunity to promote women's hockey in the province.
It comes at a crucial time for the game in B.C., where once it was rare to see female players from this part of the country end up on a tryout roster in the national program, something that is now becoming more commonplace.
“B.C. has turned a corner, but it took a long time to develop the game here,” said Nancy Wilson, Team B.C. director of operations, and a former coach in the national program. “It took us a long time to develop an attitude towards hockey where the kids are passionate about the game.”
There are opportunities that are presenting themselves this year by hosting the Esso Cup, Canada’s National Female Midget Championship, and National Women’s Under-18 Championship that are helping to continue to grow interest in the female game and develop elite players in B.C.
Taking what was learned from once having a team in the now-defunct Western Women's Hockey League, the provincial hockey body is hoping to gain ground in registration numbers by exposing girls to elite players.
“With the WWHL team we didn't really have a home, we played all over the province and a lot of people saw us because of that. I can remember a three-game series with Calgary in Whistler and it was fantastic because the arena was packed and everyone came out to see Hayley Wickenheiser and the rest of the Olympians,” said Wilson. “That following summer I held a hockey school in Whistler and all those little girls that came to watch were there. There is no doubt that worked in gaining ground with new female players.”
Now they are working on building the next generation of role models to inspire young girls to get on the ice. Wilson said B.C. Hockey has been laying the ground work to establish and grow the game since 2006 by first developing a U14 program. That rolled into a U16 program, developing a provincial championship and a natural progression to a U18 program.
“These are things that happened slowly over time, you can't do that overnight. We are now seeing the fruits of our labour,” said Wilson.
B.C. players are now showing up on the rosters of national women's team selection camps, including a number at this summer’s camps: Kaleigh Fratkin at the U22 camp and Samantha Fieseler, Jesse Keca, Hannah Miller, Kimberly Newell and Alexa Ranahan at the U18 camp.
“These kids now are passionate and play with an edge,” said Wilson. “The game has changed so much over the last 10 years because there is something to play for whether that be for scouts to get noticed for the next level or provincial championships. The game has become an important part of these kids’ lives.”
Munir Velji has a daughter that plays hockey in the Burnaby Minor Hockey Association, and served as female coordinator for the association. Now he is chair of the Esso Cup host committee and says they have already seen positives come out of hosting the national championship, even though the puck doesn’t drop until April 2013.
“We have already seen quite a few benefits in terms of exposure to the female game. Burnaby struggled for years to keep the female program going. It was tough in terms of exposure for registration as well as promoting it,” said Velji. “Word is spreading that we are hosting the Esso Cup and we have had more inquiries about female hockey. We are going to use that to our advantage and kick off our female registration early in May because of it.”
They also plan on utilizing the host team, the Fraser Valley Phantom, to go into schools to promote the game and the Esso Cup to younger kids.
The province will also play host to the National Women’s Under-18 Championship in Dawson Creek from Nov. 7-11. Barry Reynard, chair of Hockey Canada’s hockey development council and Dawson Creek resident, says not only does the tournament afford huge exposure for the municipality, it will leave a legacy that hopefully will see growth for female minor hockey.
“We get to introduce a high-level game to girls and give them role models like we did with the national team when they trained here before the 2010 Olympics. Now we are growing the next generation of Olympians,” said Reynard