In a 2014-15 season that represented so many memorable highlights, the Canadian national women’s ice sledge hockey team enters the 2015-16 season with a roster that hopes to build on such momentum. From the 2014 IPC Women’s Worlds to a 2015 exhibition event in Buffalo where the national team got to wear game-used Hockey Canada jerseys from the Sochi Winter Gamers, it was a tremendous boost to the confidence and self-esteem of the program.
Heading into this season, the first big test for the Canadian team includes a three-game exhibition series from November 6-8 against the US national team. Contested in Brampton, Ontario, the site of the 2014 IPC Women’s Worlds, the Canadians shall be looking to avenge their gold medal game loss to their American rivals.
One of the most unique aspects of this season’s team brings with it a blend of future stars and established talent, hoping to assemble its greatest season yet. It is all part of a collaborative effort with dreams of a gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, where women’s ice sledge hockey shall be an exhibition sport for the first time ever.
For 25 year-old Danica McPhee, who is in her second season with the national team, she is excited at the potential so many new faces bring to the program and its gold medal ambitions for Pyeongchang,
“There are so many new girls this year. It shows how much potential that women’s ice sledge hockey has. These new girls represent untapped resources.”
Having competed with the Canadian national team at a world championship event in suburban Philadelphia back in 2013, (not recognized by the IPC), Thea Hill was part of a groundbreaking moment. It marked the beginning of great things to come in the sport, including the 2014 IPC Women’s Worlds. Although Hill missed the 2014 event due to pregnancy, the proud mother of two is back with the roster and ready to bring her world-class skills to the roster.
“I like how so many people tried out (in 2015). You can tell that some are still at different levels, but internationally, it bodes well for the future. The impact of the sport is quite serious and it is really starting to become official and respected.”
Although veteran Christine Gauthier (who played in Philadelphia) shall not be part of the 2015-16 roster, the team shall always hold a place in her heart. Having qualified to represent Canada in paracanoe at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Summer Games, the resident of Dorval, Quebec is aiming for a podium finish, hopefully a positive sign of things to come for Canada’s ice sledge hockey effort at Pyeongchang. Of note, Gauthier was in attendance at Canada’s training camp in Ottawa, looking to bring her experience and serve as a source of support for younger players,
“There are a lot more people here this year than there ever was. You can see that we are reaching out to younger people. This is what we need. It is great to see. We need to make it accessible for people so that they can be able to go.”
Despite Gauthier’s absence from this years’ team, there is no shortage of players from Quebec competing this season. Myriam Adam, a 22-year old forward from Chicoutimi is joined by Vanessa Racine, who is entering her fifth season with the program. In addition, a pair of teenagers including goaltender Sophie Forest from Laval and Quebec City’s Veronique Major (hailing from Quebec City) round out the number of Quebec-born players on this year’s team.
Among one of several teenaged players on the roster, including blueliners Geneva Coulter, Sarah Mickey and MacKenzie Spong, forward Alannah Mah is excited at the potential of this year’s roster. Reputed as one of the team’s best puck handlers, Mah brings strong maturity and a great perspective on the game, ensuring that the program can look to her for leadership in the future. “Everyone out here is really talented. It is super good to see a lot of women out there.”
Having won medals in the Parlaympic Games and the Para Pan Am Games as a wheelchair racer, Jessica Matassa was among the most accomplished of the new faces on this year’s roster. Having also competed in the Boston Marathon, ice sledge hockey represented a leisure event for Matassa. Such strong athletic gifts would translate into an elite level of play on the ice, gifts that have represented a comeback in the international level.
Although she is very humble and gracious, one of Matassa’s best qualities is the willingness to learn. A training camp intrasquad game introduced her to another facet of the game, seeing players from other parts of Canada bringing their elite skills, “The intrasquad game was super fun. There were some good lines and it is fun playing with other athletes. There was a high caliber of play and everyone seemed to meld together.”
Through it all, a key aspect of the game lies in its economics. Players must find ways to raise funds. Through online campaigns and fundraiser events (usually held at restaurants), the financial realities result in hard work off the ice as well. Goaltender Jessie Gregory was among a group of five players, including McPhee, Claire Buchanan, Christina Picton and Tuyet Morris Yurczyszyn who organized a BBQ to raise funds for this season. Not only do funds go for travel costs and ice time, but Gregory pointed out how equipment is a significant cost, “Our equipment does not last long. It is not uncommon to go through four sticks in one year.”
Although Morris Yurczyszyn was named as one of four alternates to this year’s team, along with Edmonton’s Samantha Helgeland and Ontario residents Nadini Sharma and Shawnie Snell, the national team holds a special place in her heart. Having become close friends with many of the players that reside in her community, the chance to help increase awareness for the sport and earn much needed funds are a labor of love. Despite her status as an alternate, she is optimistic about the growing number of talented players in the sport, “For me, it was nerve wracking, trying to make the team again. It was nice to have all those girls at the camp. It shows the great potential down the road and was really awesome.”
Blueliner Ashley Goure, Canada’s leading scorer during the 2014-15 season is also one of the national team’s charter members. Having played with Matassa on the Essex-Kent Ice Bullets, the upcoming season shall see the opportunity for the two to experience a special milestone of calling each other teammates at the national team level.
Although the autumn represents Goure’s eighth season with the national team, it has also signified a return to college. Studying fitness and health training, the obligation to pursue her studies has created a strain, “It is a struggle. I am going back to college and it can create extra financial problems. In one season, I can go through several pairs of gloves.”
Fellow charter member Peggy Assinck understands the strain of balancing academics and sport. Currently a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, she recently participated in floorball at the Breda Games in the Netherlands. Acknowledging that some disabled athletes have limited options for employment, she points out the need for support,
“Many athletes are students and/or minors. They do not always have the way to make the income. We definitely need sponsorships.”
A key area where sponsorship or at least raising awareness may take place comes through stand up women’s hockey. Hailing from Brampton, Ontario, Buchanan received a generous show of support from the stand up hockey community. A fundraiser was held in her honor at a local restaurant to help fund her way to the training camp.
Among the athletes who attended in a show of support was Jocelyne Larocque. Not only did Larocque win a gold medal in women’s ice hockey at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, she is the captain of the Brampton Thunder women’s ice hockey club. Not only did the Thunder promote the fundraiser on their website, several players attended. As a side note, the Thunder also donated gently used equipment to the WISH Project, an initiative to establish a national women’s ice sledge hockey team in Japan.
Taking into account that women’s ice sledge hockey is in the same stages of growth as women’s stand up hockey was 25 years ago, when the first IIHF Women’s Worlds were held in Ottawa, there are many opportunities present for both sports to learn from each other. Buchanan’s fund raiser served as a remarkable eye opener, raising awareness in the women’s hockey community that ice sledge hockey exists, and that another segment of empowering women are looking to build their own legacies as hockey heroes.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”