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GIRL POWER – Girls compete in the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend at the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse on Oct. 17. The Whitehorse female hockey program has achieved a major milestone this season. Photo courtesy Stephen Anderson-Lindsay

Female minor hockey hits a major milestone- Part 1

Pat Tobler, Dan Johnson and Tyler Plaunt are the brain trust of the Whitehorse female hockey program.

By Morris Prokop on November 29, 2021

Pat Tobler, Dan Johnson and Tyler Plaunt are the brain trust of the Whitehorse female hockey program. Tobler is a Director-at Large for Whitehorse Minor Hockey and the former Vice-President of Female Programs. He is working with Johnson and Plaunt to help coordinate the female programming for Whitehorse Minor Hockey.

They are part of the Yukon Female Hockey Club, “a group that the three of us started which is an informal group that works under the umbrella of Whitehorse Minor Hockey. We ... do some unique programming for the girls,” said Tobler.

“Years ago, when my daughter first started playing hockey, I realized there weren’t that many girls playing hockey, for one, and two, it wasn’t the best environment for the girls to just play within the co-ed environment, especially when there wasn’t a lot of other girls playing hockey.

“So not long after that, we managed to generate some interest in having a girls-only ice time, once a week, where the girls who were in Whitehorse minor could come out and skate. But we also opened it up for other girls to sign up for just that ice time. So they could come out once a week and just skate with a bunch of girls and we just made it a really fun environment, girls-only. And from that, we were able to parlay that into other things, including taking a group of girls to tournaments ‘outside’ (of Yukon) ... over the years it’s grown. There’s four ice times a week dedicated to girl’s programming. Two younger groups, (an) older ice time – some stand-out kids – U13. And a ‘floater’ ice time.”

They schedule exhibition games with the girl’s teams. Either against each other, or the older girls play against women, or select teams within Whitehorse Minor Hockey.

“We have a group of girls that range in age from U13 to U18. They practice once a week, and they play exhibition games against women’s teams primarily, and then we put together different groups from that group and go to a bunch of tournaments down south,” Tobler related.

Johnson is the current VP for the Female Programs.

“I came into the program because I saw the same thing with my daughters. At the time, there was more girls involved, but I saw as soon as they hit the 12, 13 year old age there was all of a sudden nobody playing hockey anymore. So while there was 10 or 12 at the U9 or U7 level, I was looking ahead for what was gonna happen with them, and there just wasn’t anything there ... we started to get lower numbers at that level.”

According to Johnson, they want to get a high number of girls to continue in the older programs, and that is starting to happen now.

He added they don’t just have grassroots players now, they are starting to compete at a development level as well. Johnson cited Alia Drummond and Emery Twardochleb, who joined the Northeast BC Predators, an elite female hockey program, on the U15 team for a tournament in Richmond, B.C.

“From what I saw, they were two of the best players on the team,” stated Johnson. “We actually have more at that level that I think could be going down there for sure – just haven’t gone. But at the U13 level this year, there’s five girls that did a standardized skating test for the U13 Northern Zone ... the five girls were in the top 15 ... the group behind the U13s, there’s another group of nine or ten girls that are gonna be competitive hockey players ... we’ve been fortunate enough to hook up with some really good contacts in Northern B.C. and that part just keeps growing. It’s interesting to see how a grass roots program can turn into some elite hockey players.

“It sounds like I’ve got five U13 girls who are gonna go play a set of games in Prince George at a U13 rep A tournament ... that’ll be interesting to see as well. See how they fit in. It sounds like they’re in the right group,” added Johnson.

The female program has hit a significant milestone this season.

“It happened this fall,” recalled Tobler. We got 107 girls signed up for Whitehorse Minor hockey, which represents over 22 per cent of the registration for minor hockey. That, by all accounts, seems to be a new record. It’s especially prevalent in the younger age groups. “

Plaunt talked about the growth.

“I primarily coach the two younger age groups. They went from being that one ice time to us having two. Now we’ve grown the program ... to have four ice times and right from five-year-olds up to 17-year-olds. But those two ice times that we run on Friday nights for younger athletes, they’re just a tremendous soft landing spot for young female players lookin’ to try the game on for size and it’s pretty amazing how quickly things have grown that (they) have begged for more ice time – having to divide up the groups and the milestone of getting to over 100 registrants and pretty much a quarter of our association - we’re super-proud of that.”

“And the second group – by the time they’re 7,8,9 and in that U11 group that’s kind of nippin’ at the heels of the U13s and the U15s, they’re learning the game of hockey now,” said Plaunt. “We’re really excited ... we don’t really know what we have, especially coming out of COVID where we had an all-girl’s team in a couple different divisions in Whitehorse Minor Hockey where they were playing boy’s teams and holding their own, but we weren’t obviously able to get them out to tournaments to play girls their own age. They’re anxious to see where they measure up and we’re anxious to see that too.

“If it wasn’t for that soft landing, that great kind of skills-based Saturday ice time where we just keep it really fun and really teach the basics and just give them the space to be female athletes, I don’t think we’d have the numbers to look at going ‘outside’ and being more competitive and starting to feed into more development opportunities here in town as they get older and ‘outside’ in B.C where there’s some good infrastructure there,” Plaunt surmised.

Johnson added “one of the missing parts of female hockey has always been that rep experience. It’s always been a challenge because I know from experience my daughter is a ‘bubble’ kid, so she’s always fighting for a spot and hasn’t been successful that often ... in Whitehorse, if you’re not on the Mustangs team, there’s just nowhere for you to go. House League is great, it’s fun, and I think they deserve the opportunities they’ve been able to have. Being able to give them that grassroots, but those that want more, that rep-type experience is ... pretty important, because it does get you hooked on the game. Those tournaments and those weekends out.”

Johnson and Plaunt say the milestone is indicative of the growth of girl’s hockey in the Yukon.

“I’d love to see the five to nine-year-olds that we have right now that are at these ice times, I’d like to see how we could keep somewhere near those numbers as we get through U13, U15, U18. I think that’s the biggest challenge and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of providing a really good environment for them. I know my daughter is super-excited when she gets to skate with the U13 team once in a while and having that spot to look to, ‘hey, there’s something else after U11’ ... so really it’s awesome to see that number. I think it would be even better if we could have 20 U13s and a couple more U15s and U18’s, said Johnson.

Plaunt added “it really does help that these older girls that are getting towards that more developmental stage, they still love coming and skating when they can and when COVID numbers permit ... but they love to come skate with the younger girls and they’re really great teachers and very patient and very encouraging. I remember guys that were good to me like that when I was growing up and the girls, that’s their whole vibe, is that they really help each other out and give each other space. It’s really cool to see. So we have that kind of mentorship angle always going. The older girls show up, and they jump on the ice with the younger kids to play a game at the end and everyone gets a kick out of it.

“We see it in the numbers. As things grow, the older sister that is playing has the younger sister playing, or the family friend, cousin, they hear great things about how fun hockey is in this space with all girls and willing to give it a try. We see a lot of girls ... now playing in House League and they’re interest in hockey is growing so they’re playing more and more and they’re growing their skills more and more. Our association is reaping the benefit of that and the girls are going to create opportunities for themselves as well.”

Watch for Part 2 on Wednesday.

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