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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, with 107 girls, over 22 per cent of the total amount, enrolled in minor hockey. Photo courtesy Stephen Anderson-Lindsay

Whitehorse female minor hockey hits a major milestone: Part 2

The Whitehorse female hockey program has achieved a major milestone: 107 female players, over 22 per cent of the total, have registered for minor hockey.

By Morris Prokop on December 1, 2021

The Whitehorse female hockey program has achieved a major milestone: 107 female players, over 22 per cent of the total, have registered for minor hockey. In Part 2, the discussion continues with Pat Tobler, director-at large for Whitehorse Minor Hockey, Dan Johnson, vice-president of Female Programs, and Tyler Plaunt, who coaches the younger teams in the program.

Johnson explains why these guys are so dedicated to the female program.

“I’ve been a closet fan of women’s hockey my whole life,” admitted Johnson. “My dad’s a complete hockey junkie, so we were always watching the women’s world championships. Some of the best games I’ve ever seen are the U.S.- Canada battles so I’ve always been an undercover fan, but when I had the kids, one of the things I wanted to do was make sure they played a team sport of some kind. And so we tried soccer and baseball and everything like that, and I’ve always believed team sports have a lot to teach you about life, about work, about everything, so that was my motivation. I wanted them to play a team sport and they happened to fall in love with hockey ... I coached rep hockey before I had kids so it was so different coaching females ... lots of different ways to coach them, but they also get things differently. They work differently as a group. They grasp things differently, maybe quicker sometimes than the boys.“

Tobler added “seeing the girls have success is really special ... what Dan said earlier sort of resonated with me – his daughter’s on the bubble in a co-ed situation, not making rep teams. Same with my daughter – she’s never made a rep team before. But in the realm of a girl hockey player ... if she played down south, she’d probably be on a rep team, or at least a higher-level team. So providing these opportunities for these girls is just super-important.

“We’ve had a bunch of girls that have come through the system that have left Whitehorse to play because they are seeking a higher level of competition... just because of the numbers game, we’ve had a hard time supporting higher- level teams. But the stuff Dan’s working on, with bringing kids down to Prince George, and us putting together tournament teams, is helping keep some of the older girls that are left here in the territory engaged with hockey. I think we’re having some real good success there.

“Another really interesting thing is this latest connection we’ve explored with NWT. Because of these girls leaving town, and playing down south, it’s sort of eroded our ability to keep a full team – for example U18 girls team. So recently we’ve teamed with Yellowknife because they’re in the exact same situation as us and we’re gonna meet up in Vancouver here in February and form a team together and that’s gonna be a real fun unique opportunity for our girls. They’re gonna be playing at a pretty high level in that tournament.”

The girls are playing in the WickFest tournament in Surrey, B.C. Feb. 3-6, 2022. It’s a tournament created by former Canadian women’s team superstar Hayley Wickenheiser. Up to 75 teams from around the world will be involved. There will be U13 and U18 combined NWT-Yukon teams and a U11 Yukon-only team taking part in the tourney.

Plaunt explains what motivates him to be involved.

“I grew up a hockey junkie and a goalie who was always looking for shots wherever they would come from and back in those days, there was the women’s league here. It was much smaller than the one there is today and they always needed a second goalie. I think they only had one adult female goalie in town, so I’d moonlight. But it normalized me that girls played and were quite good. We had some really good players in town in those days who travel out to all the western Canadian tournaments. So when my daughter started playing, I was already coaching my son. She wasn’t gonna let me get away with not coaching her.

“B.C. Hockey has come up and run some programming in the spring and that’s actually where my daughter caught the bug and made some friends and hasn’t looked back – just loves the relationships, loves being at the rink, skating with friends and through those friendships and through that capacity, it’s not just her. There’s a bunch of them. You see it – they really love playing hockey together. They really come together, and now they’re at the point where they actually want to compete at the game, it’s not just about fun at the barn. Seeing that, and feeling that vibe, that’s what motivates me. The whole group is pretty special. We’re super-proud of them and that’s motivation enough. We’re really lucky to coach a lot of great kids.”

Tobler added “providing female-only teams and even exhibition games is just so important for the girls to shine. Last weekend we had a game ... it was mainly U11s. We had a few older kids and a few younger kids. We split ‘em up into two teams and they played an exhibition game and those girls, they just took right to it. In a regular co-ed game, they might defer to the boys, and the boys might even steal the puck from them. In this game, the girls had to make it happen. That’s why providing these female-only opportunities is so valuable. They really develop as hockey players when they’re given the opportunity to play in that environment.”

As they say, the future’s looking bright.

“We’re going to go out and get some sponsors to allow us ... we need to provide opportunities for these girls to play ‘outside’ and not move ‘outside’. So I’d like to really foster this relationship with B.C. Hockey. With our sponsorship, we can make it so these girls can travel four or five times a year with very little cost, because we still want them to play on the Whitehorse team and some of them maybe the Mustangs team. We don’t want them to have to make choices between ‘should I play with the Mustangs or should I play with this Northern B.C team.’ We’re growing on the development side and having full teams would be a great thing to see in a decade,” said Johnson.

Hockey Yukon sponsors some of the female hockey ice-time. They also have two sponsors for the program, Bomac Builders and Newmont Corporation, which has been a sponsor for three years. Their funding is for tournament registrations and travel. The female program is currently looking for annual funding to create a fund for travel for elite girls.

“We don’t want to lose the momentum that we have right now,” stated Plaunt.

“Those grassroots efforts are really bearing fruit with good solid hockey players who want to compete. I think the goal is to build capacity and that doesn’t happen without good funding and good partnerships and so we’re glad that there’s people that are willing to come to the table and people are realizing that women’s sports are going to take a seat at the table and we see ... so many of our national teams at the Olympics this past summer – Canada’s successes are driven by female athletes right now.

“Now’s the time to build that capacity and we’re happy to get support, either corporately or from Hockey Yukon and Whitehorse Minor Hockey so that we can keep improving opportunities for these girls and gaining more ice and gaining more registrants and keeping more people playing hockey. That’s really the goal of it, and we know that girls will keep playing if they have a place to grow and play together. That’s what all the research we’ve done points to – just that female-centred space and making room for it and you’re gonna create some really good athletes who’ll beg for the opportunity from that. If not, we’ve got girls who just enjoy playing the game and will filter into a women’s league and wherever they end, hopefully, and become beer-league hockey players like Dan and I. Hopefully they’ll want to coach someday too.”

Johnson said female coaching is key.

”I can’t really say how important it is to have females involved at the coaching levels. I coached with Crystal Mckenna and she was a hell of a hockey player. In fact, I think there was a couple of rep teams that she got cut from because she was a girl; nobody was in a spot where they felt comfortable with that. So Crystal McKenna jumped on board. She’s helping out with the youth here 13-18. She coaches a U13 house league team with me and Tyler. I can’t say how important it is for the girls to see this female athlete buzzing around the ice. Like absolutely rippin’ around, being aggressive – they just have to look there. And on top of that, we’ve got these U18 girls coming out to coach at all ice times ... there’s a very different bond with the females. You can take someone from our U11 group and have them playing with the U15s or U13s and they’re just part of the group ... from U11 up to U18 they’re very close.”

A lot of girls look up to Team Canada and their success lately, but Johnson said these girls have local heroines too.

“My girls went to a hockey camp put on by Meaghan Mikkleson and that got them into the ‘who’s Natalie Spooner, who’s Marie-Philip Poulin’, and so they follow that pretty closely. The recent world championships were pretty fun to watch ... at least my girls are like ‘OK, Team Canada’s on - who do we cheer for?’ For them I think honestly, it’s more local. Like they look up to Emery probably more than they do Natalie Spooner because Emery’s right in front of them. They can see her flying down the ice and they can say ‘ok, that’s a hockey player.’”

One thing’s for sure: these guys aren’t going to skate away from female hockey anytime soon.

“It’s been real funny. A lot of people stop Tyler and Pat and myself and tell us what a great job and program this is, but we wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun ... we’re growing this thing, and see where we can go in five or ten years,” said Johnson.

Plaunt added “we have a lot of fun at the barn, and just want to keep it going and keep on making it fun for the girls, as long as they’ll have us, and hopefully we keep picking up some female coaches along the way. Everything’s trending positive.”

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