After a shaky start against PEI, Yukon’s women roared back to net two pucks against the Islanders.
Although the final score was 7-2 for PEI, it was a big accomplishment for a team whose aspiration was to score a single goal going into the Games.
“Yea!” yelled Yukon coach Randy Merkel at ice-side after the team’s final game at the Canada Games Centre on Friday evening.
“They gave the people of Whitehorse something to cheer about today — they really showed that they have some guts,” he said.
But the game got off to a slow start.
In the first two periods, PEI made the Yukon women work for every inch of ice.
The Yukoners, for the most part, stood back and waited for the Islanders to take the puck.
Yukon forward Jessica Trotter had a few good runs at the PEI net, but was stopped by the Islanders’ defense before finding the goal.
Then the Yukoners got a little coaching from the stands.
“Yukon, you’ve gotta skate!” shouted one man.
“Play like you’re hungry!” screamed another.
And some of the ferocious yelling must have stuck in the women’s heads.
As the second period came to a close, the game got interesting.
There was a skirmish at Yukon’s net, which ended in a puck grab that had Chantelle Rivest on a breakaway.
She skated fiercely to the other end, trailed by three Islanders and passed to Mallory Lesage, who was well positioned to net the puck just eight seconds before the buzzer.
The hometown crowd went crazy. They yelled; they thumped; they blew horns and they waved the territory’s flag two at a time.
Using the late goal as an ego boost, Yukon came back in the third. It looked like a new team.
Players made crisp passes and looked for chinks in PEI’s defense.
Even their body language changed with players standing a little taller on the ice.
Nearly eight minutes into the third, it was Lesage again.
She deftly snaked around four PEI players and chipped the puck in the net unassisted, earning Yukon its second goal of the game and third goal of the tournament.
“I went crazy when I scored those two goals,” said Lesage.
The secret to scoring is knowing when to pounce on the puck, she said.
“Before I scored, I saw the loose puck and whenever I see a loose puck I hustle to it and make the play.
“Whatever I can to win,” said the 15-year-old player from Watson Lake, who has been driving the puck since she was five years old.
It was the hometown crowd’s support that really made the difference for Lesage.
“There was a lot of support and the cheering really got me motivated — that’s how I got the second goal,” she said with a smile.
“When you’re at an experience disadvantage, scoring goals is a lot of hard work,” said Merkel.
“It’s a combination of hard work and a little bit of good luck.
“It was in the stars that they scored goals tonight because they’ve worked so hard all year and they’ve been rewarded for what they’ve done.”
At the end of the tournament, the Yukon women had three goals to their credit.
Yukon’s ’03 women’s team — the first to enter the Canada Games, had some cautionary words for the younger women going into this year’s Games.
“Honestly, they didn’t have anything to say to us going into it,” said team forward Chantelle Rivest.
“‘Have fun and don’t expect to win’ is what we were told.
“I guess I can see that, but I was looking to make a difference for team Yukon here and to show that we do have talent up here and that losing isn’t our style every time.”
With two goalies down with groin and knee injuries, and two players sick with the flu, coach Merkel was proud of his team for sticking out the hard-fought matchups along the way.
“These girls have some real heart and they love the game of hockey — they will miss this when it’s all over, it’s been a ride,” he said.
Ontario takes Games’ hockey gold
With the men’s team heading home in the top spot last week, team Ontario’s women’s players had visions of gold in their heads from day one.
“We were just really determined to win the gold medal — we knew we’d have some tough competition against Manitoba and against Quebec,” said Ontario forward Jennifer Wakefield.
“It feels great,” said Ontario’s Rebecca Johnston with the gold medal hanging around her neck after the game.
Ontario began with a pool of 360 players and whittled its team to 20 — most play on the provincial or national women’s hockey league teams.
Manitoba started out Saturday morning’s game strong, with Samantha Wauer finding the back of Ontario’s net a little more than 15 minutes into the first period.
But just 30 seconds later, Ontario roared back to even the score.
After that, the all-star team was unstoppable.
Ontario netted three quick goals in the second making it 4-1.
But when team ‘toba gets behind, its fans only step up their support.
What began as a cluster of more than 100 black-and-yellow suited supporters sitting at the far side of the rink broke off into groups and spread around the building to yell, chant and fly the ‘toba flag.
“It’s a pretty cold province, I guess we don’t have a lot to do in the winters — they were probably excited to have seen the sun,” said Manitoba’s head coach Peter Woods with a laugh.
Despite the heavy support, team ‘toba couldn’t pull out a victory over the more experienced Ontarians.
“It’s a bit disappointing right now, but I’m sure in a week we’ll look back and see that we had an exceptional tournament.
“We got beat by a very good team and we knew we had our work cut out for us.”
While the Yukon team suffered some crushing defeats to team Alberta at 21-0 and team Saskatchewan at 19-0, team Ontario head coach Dave St. Germain had nothing but good things to say about the fledgling team.
“I watched the Yukon play and I sat in the stands cheering for the Yukon players,” he said after the gold-medal game.
“It was a treat to watch — they never ever gave up every single period.”
Scouts search out skills and smarts on ice
The Games’ tournament is a gateway to becoming a high-performance athlete, said Julie Healy, Hockey Canada’s director of female hockey.
Hockey Canada has thousands of players to choose from across the country.
“We’re just trying to find the best, and sometimes we find them up here in the North,” said Healy.
What distinguishes a player as a scouting prospect?
“Obviously skating is a priority,” she said. “After that it’s a combination of skills, smarts and intangibles — everybody brings different pieces to that.”