Kiah Vail knew a historic visit to her hometown of Fort Smith, N.W.T., with
the Esso Cup during the summer of 2018 could go beyond a celebration of an
impressive personal accomplishment.
The 17-year-old defenceman, who began her playing career in the Fort Smith
minor hockey system, knew she was being afforded an excellent opportunity
to inspire the next generation of hockey players in the town with a
population a shade over 2,500.
A trip into the classrooms at Joseph B. Tyrell Elementary School – Vail’s
mother, Cora America, is the principal – was particularly poignant.
“I went into the school, and some of the little girls who were hockey
players got to see it and hold the Esso Cup,” said Vail. “It is basically a
symbol that if any little girl puts their mind to anything they can get
Count the young daughters of coach Jessica Cox, who has known Vail since
her initiation hockey days, among those being mesmerized by seeing the
trophy Vail earned last spring with the St. Albert Slash.
“I never expected to get to see the Esso Cup in Fort Smith,” said Cox with
a laugh. “It really was special that Kiah shared it to my kids and me.”
Cox said Vail was a bit of a “run-skater” when she first hit the ice all
those years ago – she would skate like she was running track and would,
therefore, fall regularly. Vail steadily improved her skating and her
overall craft while playing with boys up until Peewee.
Vail was about 12 years old when she approached her parents about pursuing
hockey opportunities outside of Fort Smith.
“I asked them, ‘Is there more for me?’ I would really like to pursue the
sport at a higher level.”
She ventured south to Alberta to attend Grade 7 at Vimy Ridge Academy, one
of the top hockey academies in the country.
“Coming in I was pretty behind. I really didn’t think I was going to make
the Peewee A team when I tried out for it. There were a couple of coaches
there that really believed in me, and they saw what I could be as a
In addition to developing her skill set over her three-year tenure at Vimy
Academy, her time there was significant because she met her future St.
Albert coach Dan Auchenberg for the first time.
Vail spent two enjoyable years playing Bantam AAA with the Edmonton
Lightning, capturing provincial gold in both 2015 and 2016. Her Lightning
teammates included current Slash captain Madison Willan and her first St.
Albert defensive partner, Stephanie Markowski.
She played the 2016-17 season with the Edmonton Pandas in the newly-formed
Alberta Female Hockey League, but the Pandas only won eight of 30 games.
Vail was on the hunt for a new team.
“I signed up for the Slash ID camp and the [defence] coach, Tara Swanson,
approached me and she talked to me about wanting me on her team on her
[defence] corps. I talked to Dan and tried out for the team – and I guess
the rest is history.”
Her road from Fort Smith to national champion has been so inspiring that
Vail said she has already provided counsel to help a young girl to make a
similar transition from Fort Smith to Alberta.
Despite her success ‘down south,’ Vail has remained committed to supporting
hockey in the Northwest Territories. She played for her territory at the
2016 Arctic Winter Games and 2019 Canada Winter Games.
The Canada Games reunited Vail and Cox. Both were determined to push their
territory to new heights at the quadrennial competition.
“The young players on our team really looked to Kiah during the Games,”
said Cox. “They were inspired by the example she set on the ice and in the
The Territories team was very young, with players as young as 12 years old
on the roster. Vail and some of the older leaders created an intricate team
culture by mentoring the younger players.
Vail, a normally defensive-minded rearguard for the Slash, also took charge
of leading her team’s attack. She continually executed precise outlet
passes and rushed up the ice to create offence.
Team Northwest Territories was a success story at the Games; it created
buzz back home by earning a berth in the qualifying round, one step short
of the quarter-finals, before ultimately finishing 10th.
Another opportunity for Vail to inspire Fort Smith, and the territory at
large, could be on the horizon.
Would she complete a second tour with the Esso Cup?
“Absolutely,” said Vail, “But first we have to win it.”