Three female hockey teams from Whitehorse were in Richmond, B.C., for the 2019 Ice Classic Female Hockey Tournament from March 29 to 31.
The Yukon Female Hockey Club sent atom, peewee and midget teams to the tournament, and returned with a win at the peewee level and a finals appearance at the midget level.
The female peewee Mustangs finished the round robin with wins against Inland and Juan De Fuca and a tie against Richmond, putting the Mustangs in first place.
In the semifinal, the peewees beat Inland 4-3 to advance to the finals and a rematch with Juan De Fuca.
The team won the championship, beating Juan De Fuca 4-3.
Head coach Pat Tobler said the team played well, particularly given that they haven’t had a full schedule of training and games to prepare.
“They played really well considering we don’t play together as a team very often,” said Tobler. “We just kind of put these teams together for tournaments and the girls … really jelled together and played well as a team.”
In the finals, some strict enforcement of the rules meant the team had to adjust on the fly.
“We had a bit of adversity in that the refereeing was really tight,” said Tobler. “There was a constant parade to the penalty box on both sides and the team just had to keep our cool and play through that adversity.”
The midget Mustangs also had a strong showing at the tournament.
After finishing first in round-robin play the team faced off against Meadow Ridge in the final, losing 4-3 in overtime.
Head coach Candice MacEachen said her young team overcame some slow starts to finish with good results.
“We have a young team – most of our players are bantam-aged players,” said MacEachen. “We have a tendency to start off slow and have to battle our way back.”
That trend carried into the finals, where the Yukoners found themselves down 2-0 before tying the game up and ultimately forcing overtime.
Not to be outdone, the atom Mustangs finished second in their pool after round-robin play before losing to Seattle 4-1 in the semifinal.
“The weekend was a great success from the atom girls standpoint,” said head coach Dan Johnson. “They landed there and had very little experience in terms of full-ice games – only a handful of players had ever done that before. We were trying to learn stuff like how to change on the fly during a tournament game, so you can imagine there was some chaos there.”
Johnson said the team relied on skill and determination to stay competitive.
“Our team game wasn’t where some of these other groups were that played together and practiced together all year, but we got some skill happening and that was able to let us in a semifinal game,” said Johnson, adding the lessons learned along the way were beneficial.
“They were down 5-2 in the third period of a game we had to have,” said Johnson. “For them at this young of an age to go through a comeback like that to end up 5-5 with minutes left, that’s a huge learning experience for them.”
Female hockey in the Yukon has grown in recent years. While the midget team is now a fixture of the Yukon hockey scene, both the atom and peewee programs are still in their infancy.
MacEachen said the development of the women’s game in the territory has been “amazing” in the time she’s been a coach here.
“I’ve been coaching here for seven years,” said MacEachen. “The midget program, this is the first year we got any medals and we finished with two silvers — two heartbreakers.”
The credit, at least a large portion of it according to MacEachen, lies with Tobler.
“To see the number of girls playing and that we’re going to tournaments and finishing strong is amazing to see,” said MacEachen. “I think (Tobler) has a lot to do with that building. Building that female ice time is getting a lot of girls that might not have joined hockey into it and really growing the program here.”
The female ice times started as a way to put girls on the ice with each other, learning and developing their skills together.
Johnson agreed with MacEachen, saying the real story was all the work put in to grow the female game.
“Really, the big story is all the back work that (Tobler) has done to turn Whitehorse from a place that had a midget Mustangs team to a sport where we ended up in a tournament as an unofficial association.”
For his team, the tournament and the program show a pathway to continue hockey as players age.
“The biggest thing is that they’re able to see a path from atom to the midget Mustangs, whereas in previous incarnations there just hasn’t been a way to keep them involved and keep them at a competitive level,” said Johnson. “I think that’s probably the bigger story than the gold and silver and success of these teams was just the foundation that was built there and the growth that I think we’ve seen.”
Tobler didn’t take credit for the growth of the program, choosing instead to point out the work Hockey Yukon and Whitehorse Minor Hockey have put in to reach this point.
“Both Hockey Yukon and Whitehorse Minor Hockey have been really supportive of doing some unique things for girls hockey in the last three or four years,” said Tobler. “We’ve managed to get girls-only ice times that essentially allow girls to get together once a week, practise and learn some new skills. … The girls get a chance to play with other girls rather than being only one of two or three girls on a team. That girls-only environment promotes camaraderie and friendship.”
Illustrating just how much female hockey has grown, all three teams had players from the communities including Watson Lake, Carmacks, Haines Junction and Dawson.
Although the season is largely over for most, female players have another option to get back on the ice with the upcoming B.C. Hockey Female Hockey Jamboree from April 12 to 14. Registration is still open, but expected to close soon.
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at email@example.com