With provincial playdowns now under way across the country, a lot of players are chasing a return trip to the Esso Cup.
In Sudbury, the Lady Wolves returned nine players from the team that won gold last year – and six from the team that won bronze in 2014.
In Saskatoon, 14 members of the Stars would love to improve upon the bronze medal they won a season ago at Canada’s National Female Midget Championship.
And in Moncton, there are four Rockets chasing an Atlantic Region championship three-peat, and eight others seeking back-to-back trips.
Then there’s Jenna Velji of the Greater Vancouver Comets. Velji was 12 years old when the 2013 Esso Cup came to Burnaby, B.C. With her dad, Moe, chairing
the host organizing committee, it was only natural for Velji to get involved as well.
Already recruited to serve as junior host for LHFDQ Nord, the Quebec champions, the bilingual Velji soon found herself busier than expected. First, Dad
offered up his daughter’s services as an anthem singer.
“I was so nervous but I realized what a huge deal it was for the two teams because it’s a national championship,” says Velji. “That’s when I knew I really
wanted to do this [as a player].”
She sang ‘O Canada’ at a pair of preliminary round games as well as both the bronze medal game and gold medal game. (One of those performances lives on
thanks to YouTube.)
Velji didn’t need much convincing. She’d sung in her community before and at weddings, as well as performed the anthem at ball hockey tournaments and other
sporting events her family has been in. But at one of her own games?
“Someone said that I should, but…” says Velji, letting the idea disappear.
Her third job came at the breakfast awards banquet before the start of the medal round; as co-MC, she handled the French portion of the ceremony.
The highpoint for her, though, was the job she initially signed up for. Her role with LHFDQ Nord allowed her to get on the ice with the team and help it
with day-to-day duties in its temporary home-away-from-home on the West Coast. And it gave her a front-row seat when the team defeated the North Bay Ice
Boltz in the gold medal game.
“I was standing right beside the bench,” she says. “When the team won they were crying they were so happy. It just seemed like the best day of their lives.
I thought, ‘I really want to do that one day.’”
Velji and the Comets have positioned themselves to make a run at doing just that. Greater Vancouver won the British Columbia Female Midget AAA League
regular season title and a bye to the provincial semifinals. The team hosts the Vancouver Island Seals in a best-of-three series starting Friday.
“It would mean so much [to go back to the Esso Cup],” she says. “I guess I would have a lot of feelings of nostalgia, but it wouldn’t be the same. I think
it would be better because I remember watching and wanting to be out there. I really wanted to play at that level and now I might get the chance to.”
As a player, Velji has already been exposed to the level of competition at a national championship. The Comets came to Ontario twice this season for
showcase tournaments. The play was an eye-opener, says Velji, but a 1-1 tie with the Lady Wolves showed the team it could compete.
Success seems to have followed Velji since she made the switch to girls’ hockey three seasons ago. Last year she won provincials with her Bantam team, the Richmond Ravens. This year she finished in the top seven in league scoring, with four goals and 13 assists.
“I’m a quite physical player,” says Velji, before laughing, “I like to think I’m smart. I end high on the points, but mostly because of my assists. I don’t
score as much but I do pass. I love making plays like that.”
As for her personal off-ice game plan, that’s been mapped out as well, with an assist to hockey itself.
“I want to be a doctor,” says Velji. “So many people laugh in my face, but I’m like, ‘you can do both [play hockey and do pre-med].’”
Playing hockey has allowed Velji to travel to new places, including universities.
“So many people I know don’t know what they want to do with their lives, but for me hockey opened so many doors and so many options.” On a trip to Montreal
when Velji was in Grade 8, coaches with McGill University gave her the rundown on the school’s academics. “I was really exposed to my options to what I
could have, to what I could do with my life so early, which I thank hockey for and my coaches.”