HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA
Pointers from NHL and Olympic greats last week during Whitehorse’s Hockey Day in Canada celebrations weren’t enough to prepare the Yukon girls’ hockey team for competition at the Canada Winter Games in Halifax.
The beleaguered team has been getting fewer shots on net than their opponents have been getting goals in their first three games of the competition.
“Our girls have never played at this level,” said Yukon head coach Louis Bouchard. “They have never skated against girls that fast, that strong and who know that game that well. It’s a learning experience for them, but the learning curve is pretty steep.”
Yukon opened the Games with a 17-0 loss to Quebec on Sunday, getting outshot 58-2, with both coming from assistant captain Dana van Vliet.
Then the territory had a tougher time against Manitoba, losing 19-0, seeing 64 shots to Yukon’s two, both from forward Natalja Blanchard.
“No matter what the score was, we just kept on pushing,” said Yukon captain Savannah van Vliet of the loss to Quebec. “It didn’t feel like we were losing that bad. It felt like we came here to play our game and that’s what we were doing.”
On Tuesday, New Brunswick inflicted a second 17-0 loss onto Yukon, outshooting the territory 76-5.
“At first I was surprised, but knowing they are a couple years older and they play at higher levels, I think it’s awesome how well we’ve been holding our own and how many shots I’ve been saving,” said Yukon goaltender Jocelyn Wynnyk. “It’s not the easiest thing to go out there and take on these big teams, but it’s all about having fun, doing the best you can and focusing on each shot.
“Back home we used to get down on ourselves when we lost, but not once have we gotten upset with each other or freaked out. We’ve been staying positive through all three games.”
There is more going on here than the old Canada Games story of big provinces beating the snot out of everyone else. True, with NWT and Nunavut both absent from the Games in girls’ hockey, Yukon is by far the smallest population wise. But age, and all that goes along with it – experience, strength, speed – is also making a difference.
In the 18-and-under tournament, Yukon is by far the youngest with an average player age of 14.6. Not one of the three teams the Yukon has played so far has a single player born after 1995. In fact, Yukon’s back-up goalie, Maya Oakley, is the youngest player in the tournament at age 12.
“We’re playing out of our league, but that’s also part of the game,” said Bouchard after the loss to Quebec.
“They outplayed us, but we had a couple of breakaways, a couple of chances.
“We set out with little goals: win face offs, playing whistle to whistle, and we did that. The girls came out fighting, but they were outworked – we’re playing 18-year-olds with a bunch of 15-year-olds.”
Another glaring factor that comes by comparing Yukon’s roster to the others’ is the club listings. Since the Yukon girls’ team is the Yukon’s only girls’ team, every player is listed as members of the Northern Avalanche in the Yukon Amateur Hockey Association. Looking at Quebec’s roster, any player not on a post-secondary team is, for the most part, playing junior level hockey.
“They’re hard and they’re fast, but they are so much fun,” said captain van Vliet, referring to her team’s first three games. “We’re staying positive and will continue to play hard.”
Despite the blowouts, Yukon looks to be in high spirits as the look to their next game, playing Nova Scotia Wednesday evening at the Halifax Metro Centre.
“Tomorrow is going to be tough because it’s a late-night game and we’re playing the hometown favourites,” said Bouchard.
If gloom and despair starts to set in on the bench, perhaps Bouchard can remind them of what Mel Davidson, Canada’s women’s hockey coach for the last two Winter Olympics, told them in a locker room visit before the Manitoba game.
“She said that they don’t really care about the score, they (Hockey Canada scouts) want to see girls out there fighting for the puck, not giving up and that shows character,” said Bouchard. “Character and hard work can take you a long way.”
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