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Ken Ernstberger | Hockey dad inspired to play by his daughters


This is the story of how girls’ hockey got this hockey dad playing men’s hockey.

No, I did not mistype–I meant girls’ hockey, not women’s hockey.

I’ve posted this before, but for those who haven’t read my previous riveting posts, I grew up without a dad. He passed away when I was young, so being an only child it was only my mom and I. Although my mom never came straight out and told me that boys and girls are equal, I see now as an adult that she didn’t have to as it was what I was exposed to. Her strength and determination raised me to respect females.

I now have three daughters. The youngest two, Sarah and Bella, are in hockey. My oldest, Emily is in competitive dance (you think hockey is expensive?!). My middle daughter, Sarah, now 12, has been playing since she was seven. The first year and a half as player and since the age of nine, as a full-time goalie. In grade three she had to do a school project on someone famous. You know who’s going to come up if you Google “Famous female Canadian hockey goalie”, and so Sarah’s journey began, not only as a goalie, but with Shannon Szabados as a role model who ended up reaching out and connecting with her on a personal level.

I was an assistant coach on Sarah’s team during her second year of Atom and first year of Peewee–you know, the guy who skates around trying to hammer pucks into an empty net, yet misses by a mile? Having never played organized hockey myself growing up, I was out of my element. Seeing as nobody knew how to coach a goalie, I was put in the role of trying to instruct my own daughter. Only relying on what goalie coaches would teach her during private lessons, I would regurgitate during practice. It was in her first year of Peewee that I realized I needed to “walk the walk”, so myself, some friends, and another small group of strangers cobbled together a team and joined a league with me at 45 years old between the pipes for the first time. I became hooked VERY quickly. I couldn’t get enough, going from never played before (and could barely skate) to playing three times a week and yearning for more.

I’ve also played at some ladies’ nights at the community centre when they needed a goalie. I’m not very good, but I’ve been told it’s more fun than playing against a garbage can, a tire, or playing posts. Some of these women are damn good too. They are accurate and way more technical than guys who play with the same speed and ability. Sarah’s goalie coach says that women play a better technical game than men. I can see it, as guys rely on brute force a lot. Imagine if you took hitting away from an NHL game? Something to think about.

Since I started playing, I began to appreciate the sport at a different level. I am no longer just “watching” a game. I’ve began to see the plays develop, appreciate the difficulty of the ice and realize that maybe one player can make a detrimental mistake, but at the end of the game it “usually” doesn’t define the game–it’s a team effort. Although that has less to do with the bottom div of beer league, it has everything to do with interacting with the kids that I’ve helped coach. Kids that may continue to play hockey as they grow up and hopefully remember the fun times they had playing hockey.

This feeling has translated into every game I watch. NHL, a midget game after my daughter’s practice, U18 and definitely watching Canada’s National Women’s Hockey team, all with the same excitement. To date the best hockey game I have ever seen in my life was the Canada vs. USA game here in Winnipeg leading up to the 2018 Olympics. The excitement in the air and ferocity on the ice was insane. And if I remember correctly, it was a sold out venue. Wait, what? Women’s hockey sold out? Hmmm…

Over the years I have met some great pro hockey players through the summer camps my daughters have attended. Both AHL & NHL players, as well as several National Women’s players. There is a difference in attitude, though. The men will usually do their time on the ice, stop for a picture and then be on their way without much talking. The women are different. They do the same ice time and picture taking, but they take time and interact with kids on a different level. The desire to grow the sport of female hockey is genuine from each player.

For the past several years, our girls have been attending the Sami Jo Small hockey camp. This year, our youngest went in as a goalie at eight years old. When I came to pick Bella up one day, Sami Jo, who was running a drill with some older girls, saw me and came off the ice to tell me how well Bella was doing in net. Sami Jo told me about the saves Bella made and her general great attitude in being a goalie. It may be a gesture that seems insignificant to some, but when you consider a three-time Olympian took the time to do so, it speaks volumes to her character and passion for the kids she coaches.

Bailey Bram, another Olympian who is also a regular at the Sami Jo camp, has put on her own elite hockey school that Sarah has attended. When Sarah came to pick up her little sister from camp, Bailey stopped to talk to Sarah, asking about the CancerCare fundraising Sarah has been doing. These women remember the little things. Again, character beyond what I would expect.

During the six-game series leading up to the Olympics, Sarah was excited to see her hero, Shannon Szabados play for Canada. When we found out that Shannon was not dressing that game Sarah was saddened enough that she wanted to skip the game. We convinced her to stay, but only because I received a message from Shannon saying that she wanted to meet Sarah after the game. Shannon has supported Sarah’s fundraising efforts from day one. As parents, it was mind-blowing and hard to keep that a secret. But sure enough after the game, Shannon found us. Sarah was so star struck, she couldn’t say much. Again, female hockey players who connect with the youth at a totally different level.

Once the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded in May of this year, 200 of the best female hockey players in the world had the guts to take a stand. They knew that a better long-term solution was needed if women’s hockey was to flourish. So, they decided to not play for the 2019/2020 season and instead focus on making female hockey careers viable and so the PWHPA was born.

The time is now and women’s hockey players need support from corporations, media and investors to push the women’s product to the next level–it seems as though it is an untapped resource. They aren’t second-class athletes and they want to make a living doing what they love. Not to have to go to a regular job, then a 10pm practice, all while making a meager $2000/year with no athletic support and no sponsorship. It’s literally heart breaking. Dan Harbridge has been doing some great work in getting people talking about women’s hockey, sponsorship, and the product and talent that they produce.

All that being said, when my youngest daughter tells me she wants to play in the NHL, in my heart, I know that isn’t likely, even if she was a boy. But, with the hard work and determination that the PWHPA is doing now, daughters all over the world will one day soon have a professional league to dream about. What I tell her is that if she tries hard, practices, plays for the team and has fun, anything is possible. Given enough time and encouragement, yes, I do believe anything is possible. One day, *I* might even win a low level Div E beer league championship.

If I had sons instead of daughters, I may have never been exposed to female hockey like I have been. I may or may not have started hockey at an earlier age and I may have never written (albeit poorly) this article. But the truth is I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is an exciting time for women’s hockey. There’s lots of unknowns and uncertainties, but I’m sure glad I get to see things happen.

Women’s hockey and most importantly my daughters gave me the gift of hockey, plain and simple. So a big thanks to all the female hockey players out there from Novice to Pro. Without you, I wouldn’t get to enjoy 11:10pm ice time in the dead of a -42C Winnipeg winter—something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

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