Erin Kirkland isn’t quite ready to hang up her skates.
The Tisdale, Sask., native and member of the Prince Albert Bears has one
last tournament. All those years in minor hockey, growing up playing the
game she loved is concluding with the 2022 Esso Cup.
Kirkland is one of five 17-year-olds – alongside Paige Dawson, Taylor
Leitch, Carnell Olsen and Sophia Zuck – who will wrap up their minor hockey
careers at Canada’s National Women’s U18 Club Championship.
The opportunity to play for a national title has been a long time coming
for the quintet; the Bears were originally scheduled to host the 2020 Esso
Cup before it was cancelled in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prince Albert was then awarded the 2021 tournament, but the pandemic
scuttled those plans as well.
This year the Bears finally get their shot as the host team, although
they’ll do it 765 kilometres from home. Earlier this season, as the Omicron
variant was making its way through Canadian communities, Hockey Canada and
the host committee in Prince Albert made the decision that the event would
go ahead but it would be held at a neutral site – announced in early April
as Okotoks, Alta.
“It’s really special that we get to [play in the Esso Cup],” says Kirkland,
who is off to Iowa Western Community College in the fall on a softball
scholarship. “I played with the girls before when we were supposed to have
it in 2020 and they were very upset that they couldn’t go to it. One of the
main reasons a lot of us girls chose to come to the Bears was because of
the Esso Cup. It’s a really exciting opportunity we all get to have.”
Prince Albert had its fair share of ups and downs in 2021-22; it finished
the regular season with a record of 10 wins, 15 losses, one overtime win
and four overtime losses, good for fifth place in the Saskatchewan Female
U18 AAA Hockey League, before it was bounced in three-straight games by the
Saskatoon Stars in the opening round of the playoffs.
With the Stars finishing the sweep on March 9, it means the Bears will go
68 days without game action before they open their Esso Cup schedule
against the Durham West Lightning, the Ontario Region champions, on May 16.
Among the greatest challenges the club faced came in January when longtime
head coach Jeff Willoughby resigned from his position. Assistant coach
Steve Young, a former coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey
League, took over head coaching duties.
Young admits the situation wasn’t ideal for his players, but has been
impressed how the girls have adapted and worked together on a common goal.
“Jeff and I are different people and we have different thoughts, so there
were some changes there,” Young says. “But the nucleus of the team was
there. What we tried to do was keep moving forward, polish some things up
and try to win some hockey games.
“We have a team that it’s important that all 20 of us are together. We
don’t have a makeup of a team where we have a top-end scorer or top-end
checker or anything like that. We are kind of a balanced team.”
Kirkland says her coach nailed the description of the club.
“That’s definitely it. There is no player that stands out,” she says. “We
work together as a team and everything we do is for the team. It’s a battle
we have to do together. If not everyone is putting in the effort, then the
games don’t usually go well for us.
“[The coaching change] definitely was a big change, but we tried to look to
the positive side of it, that change is good and this can help us. It
helped a lot, and we grew as a team and we realized that whatever happens,
we have to all stick together and keep pushing because we have a big goal
in the end and that’s Esso and it’s coming soon.”