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Interprovincial Series Key Step Forward for Canadian Female Ice Sledge Hockey

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While the world championships (and the subsequent announcement regarding the Paralympics Games) were landmark events for women’s ice sledge hockey in Canada, helping to increase awareness for the sport, an interprovincial series between Ontario and Quebec may prove to be just as significant. 

Considering the inaugural world championships were held in Brampton, Ontario, the province established a new chapter in its growing women’s ice sledge hockey legacy. Located north of Toronto, the municipality of Newmarket, Ontario was the host city for an autumn interprovincial three-game series between Ontario and Quebec held at the Magna Centre.

One of the catalysts in making such an event reality was Christina Picton. Hailing from Ontario’s Niagara Region, she is also the captain of the national women’s ice sledge hockey team. Her drive to make said series a reality was testament to her strong leadership. With the invaluable assistance of Janice Coulter, President of Canada’s national team, a venue was found, allowing for an evolutionary step forward, which Picton was proud to participate in,

“I had presented the idea to some of the girls and they liked it. We had talked about it for a long time. Especially now that the sport is becoming bigger.”

Just a few days before Christmas, Quebec reciprocated, by hosting a three-game series against Ontario. Contested at Howie Morenz Arena, it was a point of pride for the members of Team Quebec’s roster. Of note, it was the first all-female women’s ice sledge hockey tournament in the province.

For Tuyet Morris Yurczyszyn, the chance to get back on the ice was very special. Having been named as one of the alternates for the Canadian national team during the 2015-16 season, she looked upon these series as a chance for more than just playing time, but an opportunity to reunite with cherished friends. As so many elite female competitors tend to play with men’s teams (Yurczyszyn plays with the Brant County Crushers), events such as these represent a rare opportunity for an all-female event where the love of the game is more important than the final score,

“For sure, I definitely enjoyed being able to play. The highlight of this tournament for me was being able to play with women. I really felt that we all respected each other.

The enthusiasm was shown on the ice and on the bench. I missed these girls. We do not play together very often. With more playing time, the better you get.”

Heading into the series, the complexion of Team Quebec was greatly altered as team captain Vanessa Racine was not available due to a concussion. Despite the unfortunate setback, she made her presence felt, attending the games and occupying a spot behind the bench, testament to her dedication to the team and role as a team captain.

“It was important to be there. As one of the players with the most experience, I want to show leadership by displaying that I can still help the team. I hope that I can motivate them and they can always approach me, as I want to be there to support the team.”

Although Ontario swept Quebec in both series, the significance of said series was evident in the fact that young talent exists, destined to raise the sport to an even greater level of prominence. While both squads featured players in their teens, Team Ontario had an eight-year old girl participate in one game at Howie Morenz Arena.

Dott Buchanan, who was also making her debut for Team Ontario during the series was in awe of her young teammate, whose enthusiasm was a source of jubilation and team spirit for all competitors, “On the bench, she was bouncing up and down. Everyone encouraged her to just go out there and give it her all.”

Of note, Buchanan would make an impression in her Team Ontario debut. Netting two goals in said debut, it represented a cherished milestone. “It felt amazing. It can be a really complicated game, with the back and forth, so it is great to help the team to win. It is very fulfilling and I decided that I was going to do it. We even played 5-on-5.”

Throughout the first and second interprovincial series, a key theme that emerged was the growth of the game, one that Buchanan reflected on, “I was thinking about that all weekend. The more women that can play at events such as this, the growth in awareness and support.”

Another unique twist to the interprovincial series in Montreal was the presence of two Alberta players, Brooke Martens and Frances Miller, on the Ontario roster. Taking into account that Alberta has enough talent to stage its own roster, perhaps the day shall come when their presence is featured in an interprovincial series. For now, the biggest obstacle is cost. Many travel expenses are out of pocket, and a key challenge in the short term shall be obtaining sponsorships.

The chance for Martens and Miller to participate was an important milestone in their careers, while adding experience that shall translate into leadership upon their return to Alberta. Prior to the second game that took place on the Saturday; a kind gesture was made when the team was announced as Team Ontario-Alberta, acknowledging the two Albertans on the roster, a point of pride for Martens, who has successfully made the transition to playing on defense.

“I just started to feel confidence in my abilities. Defense is more comfortable. This weekend, it was an absolute pleasure to play with people who know the game.

It was great to be announced as Team Ontario-Alberta. This is my fourth season of ice sledge hockey and my second season competing with a team in the Alberta league. I really like the camaraderie of the game.

It is nice to have been invited among all the players that participated. Montreal as a destination was lovely.”

An additional reflection on the interprovincial series saw Martens reveal how impressed she was by the eagerness of her eight-year old teammate. Displaying great fervor on the ice, everyone on Team Ontario took on the kindly role of mentor, as Martens recounted, “She got so much advice from the more experienced players. Everyone was so kind, it was almost overwhelming. She is a real go-getter.”

Hailing from Edmonton, Frances Miller was part of the other half of proud Albertans participating with Team Ontario. As one of the directors for the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Associaton of Northern Alberta, she has helped establish a partnership with The Home Depot for numerous fundraising activities. Although she is relatively new to the sport, the chance to participate in this landmark event was a proud learning experience.

“I had started playing with Team Ontario in the autumn. Although I had played team sports before, I was looking for another team sport. Some local clubs had invited me to play and in a couple of weeks, I earned the nod from Team Ontario.

Everyone here (in Montreal) was very focused. To be surrounded by national team members was definitely motivation. You try and keep up with them. They help you develop your game and elevate your skill. It makes a difference when you play with those that are better than you.”

Among the highlights of both series was the fact that Canadian national team members were prominent on both Ontario’s and Quebec’s rosters. Considering that these players collaborated in a remarkable effort to defeat the United States in a three-game exhibition in November, hosted in Brampton, Ontario, suddenly, teammates became opponents for the interprovincial series.

Throughout the six games that saw Ontario compete against Quebec, such opposition was looked upon in good sportsmanship. Picton’s observations on the event helped set a friendly tone, reinforcing the theme of fair play and mutual respect,

“It was fun playing against them. There were moments when I was cheering for (Canadian national team member) Myriam Adam, and then I realized, I was cheering for the wrong team.”

For Myriam Adam, her role on Team Quebec is one that involves a leadership role on and off the ice. As a member of the Canadian national team, she is also dedicated to her teammates with the Quebec provincial team, proudly one of its assistant captains. Working towards instilling confidence and fostering friendship, she is definitely a role model for Quebec’s younger players.

Despite suffering another three-game sweep, Adam found motivation in the aftermath. Realizing that opportunities to improve exist, she also looks to set a positive example, ensuring that such a series is based not on rivalry but on sportsmanship and a mutual effort to grow the game through collaboration,

“The young players are getting more familiar and are playing very well. We find it is good to talk to the younger players. Outside the rink, after the game, we will give constructive criticism. It is never meant to be negative. It is meant to help them improve.

Team Ontario featured many good players. Playing against them only motivates us to work harder. Against Ontario, we consider the concept of a rivalry as negative. Off the ice, we are friends. It is good for younger players to see that, it goes beyond hockey and they can see us as players off the ice.”

Veronique Major, an alternate captain with Team Quebec is one of the sport’s rising stars. Having made her debut with the Canadian national team during the November exhibition against the United States, she is also adept in the swimming pool, establishing herself as a two-sport star. Against Ontario, she worked tirelessly to create scoring opportunities, while showing great determination in the corners to obtain puck possession. In the aftermath of said series, her thoughts were filled with a friendly focus, 

“Was it weird to play teammates from Team Canada? I don’t think so. We joked at the end of the game that there were no hard feelings. We really believe that. We still like them but when we play against them, it is still fierce.

When I practice, sometimes in Quebec, other times in Montreal, sometimes I play against Myriam (Adam) and we will hit each other in the scrimmage. We believe in the game, but we still like each other. It just depends on the make-up of each game.”

The impact of Ontario continues to be the hub of relevance for elite women’s ice sledge hockey in the country, setting a gold standard for other provinces to emulate and aspire to. For Danica McPhee, one of the younger members of the Canadian national team, she hopes that such events will serve as a springboard to help inspire other young ice sledge hockey players,  

“These events are important. It helps us get more practice. It is great to see so many women playing. One of our teammates was eight years old and many of the younger players hope to be on the national team, it’s where they want to be.”

Perhaps one day, the interprovincial series between Ontario and Quebec may serve as the blueprint for expansion, propelling such series into a possible Canadian national women’s ice sledge hokey championship, which could emulate the former Esso Women’s Nationals, the first major national championship in women’s stand-up hockey in Canada, which saw competitors play for the Abby Hoffman Cup and the Maureen McTier Trophy. For now, these empowering women are helping to shape a new legacy, one that makes them inspiring champions. 

"All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated"

Photo credits: Group photo obtained from Facebook, all other photos by Mark Staffieri

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