The first time Courtney Vorster met her Fraser Valley Phantom teammates, head coach Dean Reed asked his players to go around the dressing room and introduce themselves.
Vorster went last, and when she told her new teammates how old she was, she was met with wide eyes and open mouths.
Vorster was 13.
“They all thought I was so young,” says Vorster, who turned 14 in March. “But they were all so welcoming. They don’t really mind the age difference.”
When it comes to hockey, age really is just a number for Vorster, Sarah Nelles of the Stoney Creek Sabres and Raine Smith of the Weyburn Gold Wings, the Esso Cup’s first Year 2000-born players.
Walking into a dressing room full of 16- and 17-year-olds wasn’t at all intimidating, says Nelles, 13. “My teammates brought me right in,” she says. “They’re a nice group of girls and perfect to play with.”
The Gold Wings girls were just as welcoming, says Smith, who has now played for three teams this season. After starting the year playing Bantam boys in Carlyle, Sask., she switched to a Midget girls’ house league team in Carnduff, Sask.
With her older sister, Paige, already playing in Weyburn, Smith welcomed the move to join her. The two hadn’t played together since they were six and four.
“It’s good because I can see her more,” says Smith, the tournament’s youngest player.
Her older sister isn’t the only family member Smith has been able to look up to when it comes to carving out a hockey path. Her cousin Jeff Glass backstopped Canada’s National Junior Team to gold in 2005.
Hockey heredity is a theme with all three players.
For Vorster, the love of the ice started when she was two and she would watch her older brothers play hockey. “It looked like so much fun – I wanted to go on the ice with them,” she remembers.
Not until you’re four, her mom told her. So, as young kids are prone to do, Vorster started persistently asking questions. Or in this case, one question: Am I four yet, am I four yet, every day, until finally she was old enough to join her brothers. “It was just as much fun as it looked,” she says. “I was hooked the first time.”
“I just remember picking out all the equipment and wanting all the sticks,” says Smith, laughing.
Nelles remembers going with her dad to Smithville Arena, his hands securely holding her from behind as the two glided around the ice. “My dad would look down at me and say, ‘this is your future.’”
Even Dad couldn’t have known that 10 years later the future would see his daughter stepping up and playing for a national championship.
Nelles played with the Sabres’ Bantam team and was called upon as an affiliated player only once this season.
When coach Brian Cleary asked Nelles to join his team for the Esso Cup, Nelles knew exactly who she wanted to share the news with first.
“I called my grandparents because they’re special to me,” she says, “and they’ve always been a big part of my hockey life.”
When Nelles scored on a one-timer in the Sabres’ opening game against the Moncton Rockets, her grandparents were standing and cheering in the stands.
Nelles was only doing what was asked of her. “I’ve been known from other teams as a playmaker and heads-up person on the ice. I think they just want me to get the puck to the net.”
Smith sees her role as changing with each shift she takes. “I think I just need to go out there and fill the role of who I take off.”
Vorster, the only defenceman of the three, has seen plenty of minutes on the power play this week. In addition to bringing a keen understanding of the game with her to Fraser Valley, she also brought first-hand experience of being at her best when it counts.
Last year Vorster was chosen to play with the West Coast Selects at the Female World Selects Invitational Tournament in Stockholm, Sweden. She was named tournament MVP.
After playing the first part of the season with the Seafair Islanders boys’ Bantam A1 team, Vorster joined the Phantom in January.
For all three players, stepping up to a higher level of hockey has meant adjusting their games. The biggest difference they say is the speed.
“I feel like I’ve been skating faster since I’ve been trying to keep up,” says Smith. Competing against more skilled players has also improved her ability to read the ice.
“My speed has improved,” says Nelles. “Brian encourages us to keep our feet moving all the time, which has helped me.”
As the players finish off this season, their minds move to what they hope their futures hold.
“Midget, junior, eventually a top university team and then the Canadian Olympic Team,” says Nelles.
Who knows, maybe in 2022, she’ll be taking the point pass from Vorster and feeding it to Smith for the one-timer.
There’s still plenty of time to watch and find out.