By Dale Cory
“Being a girl on a boys team — once you get older — you don’t change in the same room. You’re always in your own room,” laments young Andrea Anderson. “And sometimes the boys pick on you a little bit.”
It’s all about opportunity. Equal opportunity.
There are plenty of boys’ teams within the Ponoka Minor Hockey Association.
But never has there been a team dedicated strictly to girls.
For the first time in the history of the association, a girls’ minor hockey program has been set up, and, upon watching the team practice Sept. 30, it became obvious this enthusiastic group of females knows the game very well.
“They love the opportunity to be on the ice. Ponoka Minor Hockey gave them the opportunity to play, and they’re appreciative of that. They realize this is the first time and they’re going to make the best of it,” explained head coach Lucas Willier prior to a recent Thursday evening workout at Ponoka Culture and Recreation Complex.
“It’s something I was pushing for for two or three years and needed to be done. I’d seen so many girls playing through peewee, but the boys were just checking too hard, and the girls dropped out. This is going to be a real gap-closing group. I think we’re going to get a lot of younger girls saying, ‘Now I have something to do.’ I’m not saying they’ll ever be NHL players and I’m not saying they’ll ever be on Team Canada, but I am saying it’s a great sport, it’s great exercise, and it’s probably one of the strongest team sports you can play.”
Considering the make up of the group, Willier certainly has his work cut out with respect to teaching the game.
“A lot of them are brand new skaters. It’s the first time they’ve played hockey, and the first time on skates. Some of them never skated with boys’ skates, some are coming from ringette, and some girls are from outside Ponoka,” says Willier. “It’s a motley crew of kids coming together. That’s what is making it fun. They’re excited to be together because every girl has a different attitude and a different opinion, which is why they’re gelling.”
This group is coming together in part because women’s hockey has become more prominent. Many of the girls were glued to their televisions last February — not because a new episode of Glee was airing, but because the Canadian women’s team was cruising toward a gold medal performance at the Vancouver Olympics. That has made Willier’s job of educating the girls much easier.
“I think some of these girls know more about hockey than some of their dads. Honestly! They’re talking about their favourite players, who they skate like and who they look like. It was something unheard of five years ago. But now, girls can love any sport. When we create that diversity with the genders, it just creates more opportunities for all these kids to do something they love.”
The team is made up of 11-and 12-years old and one 13-year-old.
Ponoka’s Jesse Stretch is the elder in the group and has been playing for seven years. How much does she love the sport? Well, consider that on this particular night, Stretch was taking part in the Ivan Christenson Skills Development clinic with a boys group on Ponoka’s smaller ice surface for an hour, and then walked across to the large ice surface to skate with the girls’ team for another hour.
“I prefer playing with the girls team. I’m playing with my friends and it’s more enjoyable with your friends,” says Stretch, who has always played on boys’ hockey teams. That is — until this year. “I’ve been improving my stickhandling and crossovers, and I like the skating.”
Rimbey’s Anderson is also in her seventh season, eight if you count the spring league she played in Red Deer. Like teammate Stretch, she had always played on a boys’ team, and wouldn’t mind playing with the boys in the future, because she enjoys the hitting aspect.
“It’s something I always wanted to do when I was little,” says Anderson regarding her love of hockey. “I heard lots of good things about this team. Meeting new girls and coaches is always a fun experience. It’s my favourite sport. You can always improve.”
Anderson drove to Bentley to play girls’ hockey last year, but jumped at the chance to play in Ponoka once the team was formed.
Coach Willier, who is in the process of establishing a regular season schedule involving teams north of Ponoka, likes the fact this group of girls is attentive, and willing to learn the sport.
“Every time I’ve coached I’ve had kids that will shoot the pucks all over, who won’t listen. I look at this bunch here, and every one of them are staring back, and acknowledging what I’m saying. I threw a couple of pucks on the ice one practice just to see if they would mess around, and they didn’t. Their mentality towards hockey is just learn, learn, learn, and grab as much as they can while they are on the ice. I’m pleasantly surprised at how well behaved the girls are, how great they are as leaders inside the dressing room. They’re screaming, they’re laughing they’re cheering, they’re enjoying themselves — but when they hit the ice they’re all business.”
That statement rang true while watching the practice. During this particular workout, Willier timed the girls as they lined up and skated one revolution around the arena. The plan is to track their improvement from the beginning of the season to the end. As each girl took her turn, the others in the group banged their sticks on the ice and hollered encouragement.
“I’m pleasantly surprised at how it’s coming together. The quality of hockey in girls’ hockey is excellent,” stated Willier. “Our range skill level is right from beginner to probably a fifth or sixth-level hockey player. There are opportunities for some girls to step up as leaders, and other opportunities for kids to develop.”
To find out more… The Ponoka minor hockey girls team practices Thursday at 7:15 pm. At Ponoka Culture and Recreation Complex. Call coach Willier at 403-704-2242 for details on how to join, or check out: www.ponokaminorhockey.ca