As the 2015-16 season for the Canadian national women’s ice sledge hockey team culminates, there is a strong sense of momentum. From an increasing awareness of the game to a growing level of acceptance, these remarkable women mounting the sled are helping to pioneer a golden age for the sport.
The conclusion to the season brought the team to Calgary and Medicine Hat, Alberta, participating in a series of exhibition games against the Calgary Scorpions ice sledge hockey team. While the focus of the team gathering in Alberta also involved a talent and skills evaluation camp, the reality consisted of positive team building and a series of proud milestones.
Serving as the national team’s starting goaltender, Jessie Gregory was very happy with the final outcome at camp. Considering that the first half of the season was one of transition, as the team featured many new faces, Gregory felt that there was a better sense of familiarity and subsequently, increased chemistry, among all the players proudly donning the Maple Leaf,
“I would say that, yes, we gelled very well as a team this camp. Everyone knew what their role on the team was and what they needed to do.
I think that the team improved as a whole a lot from even our last camp, you would think that we all play together on a regular basic even though most everyone on the team plays for different teams with our club teams.”
For the younger players, the camp proved to be a great opportunity for team building, while improving confidence. Among a group of players raised in Alberta that don the Canadian jersey, the camp was among a pair of milestones for Sarah Mickey. Having recently graduated from high school, Mickey was not only proud to see her home province host the team, but her promising career represents the feeling of potential for the program to break through and gain prominence,
“The best thing about the camp for me was the quality time that we got to spend with one another. We all bond together well and whether it was in the dressing room, on the ice or doing off ice team activities there were tons of memories made.
I was definitely proud to see us win both our exhibition games in Medicine Hat and Calgary against the Scorpions. As a women’s team we came together and not only played well individually but we supported and worked together as a team. Anytime that I get to wear the Team Canada jersey, it is always an extreme sense of pride.”
Representing a new generation of ice sledge hockey stars from Ontario, Mackenzie Spong is the youngest player on the national team. Making her debut with the national team last autumn, Spong has also been able to sharpen her skills as a member of Team Ontario. Heading into spring camp, Spong’s growth as a player and her increasing maturity exemplify that the future of women’s ice sledge hockey in Ontario is destined to remain strong.
“I felt more confident going into this camp because I had more experience playing with the team. I also felt more confident because I knew that my skills had improved since tryouts in August last year. I had the most fun getting to hang out with the rest of the team and making unforgettable memories.”
Even among the team’s veteran players, the camps hold significant importance. Not only does a strong sense of teamwork exist with more experienced players, it strengthens existing friendships while allowing for opportunities to sharpen skills for club play and competition outside of the national team.
Peggy Assinck and Thea Hill shall gain the opportunity to be teammates twice this season. With the Canadian ice sledge hockey nationals being held in May, Assinck and Hill shall be breaking gender barriers. Playing alongside a group of men on the provincial team representing British Columbia, it continues to enhance their status as legendary pioneers. As a side note, Geneva Coulter and Alannah Mah shall be suiting up for Team Alberta.
“Yes this camp served as a great preparation for the upcoming nationals event. Thea and I are lucky to be able to train together and both represent Canada on the National team and Team BC at nationals in May.”
Considering that the dream is to one day have women’s ice sledge hockey at the Paralympic Winter Games, the members of the national team were treated to the opportunity of visiting one of Canada’s most treasured sports venues. Roaming the halls of Winsport Arena, the on-ice facility of Hockey Canada (also home to the Calgary Dinos of CIS play and the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno), it was a venue befitting these athletes, whose efforts have enthralled the game. Winsport provided more than just a concrete connection for the game’s growth, it was a career milestone for the national team’s members, a moment that signified acceptance while exemplifying their growing impact in the national sporting picture.
Gaining the opportunity to play the Calgary Scorpions there, it was an exceptional highlight in the seasons of both teams. For Claire Buchanan, who won a national championship in the United States with the University of Alabama in wheelchair basketball, the chance to be part of something so significant in the history of ice sledge hockey in Canada and compete at Winsport resulted in a euphoric destiny that produced a lifetime of memories.
Appreciating the opportunity to be part of a facility that has hosted some of the world’s finest hockey players in men’s and women’s stand-up, along with men’s ice sledge hockey, put into perspective that their arrival as world-class athletes is quickly becoming a reality. As Buchanan looks towards the next two years with great anticipation, the accumulation of career milestones is a great point of pride,
“As a national athlete and one that is part of a program with its sights on being in the Paralympic Games one day, playing at that facility where other elite hockey stars have played was phenomenal.
The iconic visit also builds on the momentum from last season, when a series against the rival US in Buffalo, New York featured the Canadian team sporting game-worn jerseys from the national stand-up team.
Undoubtedly, the experience at Winsport Arena helps to build the importance of the players and the program, signifying that they are destined to become an integral part of hockey in Canada. As the Paralympic Winter Games represents a dream for all of these amazing women, Assinck shares how the visit held remarkable impact,
“Visiting Winsport Arena was amazing. It really makes us feel like we are part of something bigger than just our team. We took photos from the outside of the locker room and we are excited about one day being able to use the locker room like many other Canadians representing their country have been able to do previously. It helps remind us that we are making history and serving as role models for many girls/women with disabilities after we are long done being involved in this great program.
Gaining the opportunity to actually visit the facility builds on that point of pride from last season, while feeling closer to their stand-up sisters. Ashley Goure, like Assinck, is also a charter member of the national team, and the chance to visit Winsport presented her with many proud personal and career milestones, simultaneously helping bringing the sport into the mainstream.
“Being at the Winsport Arena was very inspirational knowing that all the other Hockey Canada teams are there for games and training. I was glad we had the opportunity to play our game there. Even though we did not get a chance to use/see the actual Hockey Canada dressing room, we still enjoyed being apart of the opportunity to play at the venue and leave our mark there.”
An added bonus was the chance to meet a pair of local women’s hockey heroes, whose contributions helped make history for the female game in Calgary. Jenna Cunningham and Kelsey Webster, both charter members of the Calgary Inferno (also dating back to the team’s earliest days as Team Alberta), visited both the national ice sledge hockey team and the Scorpions.
Of note, Cunningham and Webster experienced their own hockey milestones in 2016, as both were part of the Inferno roster that captured the Clarkson Cup in an 8-3 victory over Les Canadiennes de Montreal, the first in franchise history. Not only did these two exceptional women make many new friends during the weekend, visiting the players on both teams and encouraging them, they showed a remarkable touch of class by bringing the Cup.
Reflecting on the experience, Cunningham was proud to be able to bring the Clarkson Cup to the athletes, allowing them a chance to share in the revelry of a growing piece of sporting Canadiana. Considering that the stand-up game has seen its share of struggle for acceptance in the 1990s and 2000s, Cunningham sees a kindred spirit in the women of ice sledge hockey
“It was exciting to meet the women’s sledge hockey team and share the Clarkson Cup with them. We have many things in common when it comes to fighting for your sport and the support of your sport. We share the common goal of playing the game because we love it and the hope that we are creating a foundation for future women to have a place to play. So that was fun to talk to them about that and share some of those feelings.”
The presence of Cunningham and Webster only added to Claire Buchanan’s growing admiration of the CWHL. Currently residing in Brampton, Buchanan was invited to participate in the face-off ceremonies for the Thunder’s season opener in 2015. In addition, the Thunder did an outstanding job of gathering gently used equipment to donate to the developing Japanese national women’s ice sledge hockey program.
As Buchanan had the chance to proudly hold the Cup, treating it as gently as a newborn baby, her glowing yet proud smile was unmistakable. Although the Cup is a symbol for the rising importance of women in hockey, the reality is that the prestige of such a Cup adds greater meaning as it signifies the potential for female athletes, both able-bodied and disabled, to achieve their dreams in Canadian sport.
“I follow the CWHL pretty well. The women in that league are such a big supporter of upcoming women in the game. I have had the opportunity to bond with a couple of the girls from the Brampton Thunder.
When the Clarkson Cup ended up in my hands I could sense all of the history and work these athletes put in. They are a part something great and the path for women’s hockey to get on the big stage is a hard fought battle and I couldn’t have been more proud to have them speak to us before our game.”
During the 2015-16 CWHL season, Buchanan was not the only member of the Canadian national team to brush shoulders with the CWHL. Four members of Les Québécoises, the first all-women’s ice sledge hockey team in La Belle Province were treated to an unforgettable experience.
As Les Canadiennes de Montreal, who would finish the season as the runner-up in the Clarkson Cup finals, hosted the Boston Blades in their final home stand of the season, Vanessa Racine, captain of Les Québécoises was on the ice during player introductions, mounted beside Charline Labonte, a two-time winner of the CWHL’s Goaltender of the Year Award.
Along with Myriam Adam, Sophie Forest and Veronique Major, Racine was part of an exceptional foursome of national team members that proudly don the jersey of Les Québécoises. Joined by the rest of the team at Le Centre Etienne-Desmarteau, they had an opportunity to meet several members of Les Canadiennes after the game, only adding to the team’s profile.
While Racine is among the younger players on the national team, her role as captain of Les Québécoises means that she has the poise of a veteran, bringing a confidence that only inspires her other teammates. As the 2015-16 season was the first in the history of Les Québécoises, the opportunity for tournament play and a pair of series against Team Ontario were essential in providing the team with experience. Heading into the camp in Alberta, the amount of play was a key factor in Racine bringing an elevated sense of confidence,
“In fact, I went into this camp very confident and I do think that Les Québécoises is the reason why. Being captain is a privilege and comes with great responsibility, but also gave me a lot of confidence as a player and as a person.
There is something special when you get to play with girls. It is a lot easier than with guys. With girls, I do not need to earn respect; we just have it right away. With girls, you do not need to prove yourself and you do not lose respect just by missing a pass. With guys, you constantly have to be at your best.”
As the Canadian team successfully swept the Scorpions, the wins were not as important as the chance to celebrate the game. The sportsmanship that was present that day, complemented by friendship and fair play superseded winning. As Racine reflects, there was definitely a strong sense of mutual respect,
“I had never played this team before, but I knew two girls on their team by meeting them at tryouts in August. I enjoyed playing them. They are a good team; they have good players and good sportsmanship. We could tell that they were playing those games for fun and they were happy to be there.”
Through it all, Goure looks at the team and its progressive accomplishments with a great sense of pride. From a team that began the season as a collection of new faces and established veterans, there was a great feeling of evolving growth in the aftermath of the Calgary camp. While the thought of reaching the Paralympic pinnacle represents a harbinger of optimism, star players such as Goure, a bastion to the game’s earliest roots, remained focus on ensuring that the quality on the ice continues to be strong, while continuously setting a positive example through hard work and dedication,
“I am proud of the team. We were totally in sync with each other. Everyone worked together as an unit. It is always fun to beat the other team when everyone works hard together and does not give up until the final buzzer sounds. I am proud to be on a team with all these amazing ladies.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images obtained from Facebook