For a lot of teams it’s where the season started. And for a select few it’s also where the season could end.
In the first week of September, Stoney Creek, Ont., hosted its annual Showcase Tournament, welcoming 64 female Midget teams from across Canada and the United States. A few weeks later, it was announced the community would welcome some of those same teams back in April as the host of the 2014 Esso Cup, Canada’s National Female Midget Championship.
More than three dozen of the teams that played in the fall started down the Road to the Esso Cup – and the road back to Stoney Creek – with provincial playoffs in February. For the teams still alive in their playdowns, a return trip to southern Ontario this spring is a wanted addition to the schedule.
The Edmonton Thunder played the Showcase Tournament for the first time in 2013 and went 2-2. “We wanted to play some teams that we’d never seen before,” says head coach Cassea Schols, “teams that we could potentially see if we make it to nationals.”
One of those teams the Thunder met was the Whitby Wolves, a perennial contender in Ontario. Schols says the game proved to be an eye-opener, especially for her first-year players: if the team is to make it back to Stoney Creek they better be prepared for a more physical game than what they were used to in Bantam.
Whitby won that day, 1-0, and both teams would welcome seeing each other again when the stakes are higher and the teams have gotten their feet completely wet. “You always expect that it’s going to be a much different team in April than the one you faced in September,” says Keven Schram, head coach of the Wolves. “I expect by April a whole new scouting report will have to be done on the players.”
The challenge of facing unfamiliar foes also enticed Kim Perepeluk and his Regina Rebels to fly east. Should the team win the West Region, the players would already be familiar with the travel, facilities and distractions awaiting them upon their return.
They also got to experience playing the hometown Sabres in their arena. The Rebels defeated the hosts 1-0 in front of a packed, partisan crowd. (“If they come back I will plaster that [result] all over the wall,” laughs Sabres head coach Brian Cleary. “That’s the great stuff a coach can use for motivation.”)
Playing high-level competition so far from home set the Rebels up for a season that saw them go 24-2-1-1 and win the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League regular season title.
“[The tournament] not only helped us prepare as a team, but showed us by our opponents just how good female hockey is in Canada and how much better we’re going to have to get to be successful,” says Perepeluk.
Six months later the end of the season is in sight. “Nationals is definitely something we talk about at the start of the season when we establish our team goals,” says Schols. “We always want to be that Thunder team that continues to get back (Edmonton has qualified for every Esso Cup since the inaugural event in 2009).
And now having been to the host community already – and ventured to Niagara Falls and into Toronto to the Hockey Hall of Fame – the off-ice excursions have been crossed off. “We could just focus on hockey and not the tourist stuff we did at the start of the year.”
It’s a shorter road to drive from Whitby to Stoney Creek, and Schram believes his team’s familiarity with the city, arena and people running the tournament would only help them succeed. Plus, being just 90 minutes away would allow more family and friends to come and deck the Gateway Ice Centre in Wolves gold and blue.
While the words “Esso Cup” haven’t been spoken by the coach, Perepeluk believes the sentiment they suggest is present in the Rebels dressing room. “Quite a few players were there last year, so I think that in itself is all the talking we need to do.”
Having played top teams like the Thunder and Sabres in the past, the Rebels know the level of competition that awaits upon a return trip this season to Stoney Creek.
The players would love for the season to end in the same city it began, facing the teams whose paths they crossed six months earlier. “The biggest lesson we’ve taken away,” says Perepeluk, “is just how good these teams are and just how good we have to be to be able to compete with them.”