FORT SMITH, Canada – Even in some of Canada’s remotest corners, passion for women’s hockey burns brightly. Fort Smith, Northwest Territories hosted its inaugural World Girls’ Ice Hockey event on Saturday.
The 1874-founded sub-Arctic town of 2,500, once a fur trading outpost, is located on the Slave River by the northern Alberta border. Eight players, ages 6 to 43, came out for the event here. The format was simple but effective.
“We started off with ice time, including some fun skating games for about 20 minutes,” said local minor hockey coach Jessica Cox. “Then we did a cross-ice scrimmage for half an hour. We wrapped up with a pizza party featuring female hockey trivia.”
Cox, who works as a continuing education coordinator at Aurora College, has also coached the Arctic Winter Games and Canada Winter Games girls’ hockey teams for the Northwest Territories. In a small community like Fort Smith, getting ice time is usually quite feasible, but putting together local teams can be a challenge.
“We don’t have a dedicated female hockey program for each age group, just because we don’t have the numbers,” she explained. “And the girls help round up the numbers for the boys’ teams. I coach the novice group here and have historically been involved in organizing the bantam and midget groups for girls. We have in the past run female ice time once a week for players aged 11 to 17.”
Even when it’s possible to round up enough players to field a team that travels, the travel times in this part of the world are immense – almost unimaginable to European players, coaches, or fans.
“Our communities are very spread apart,” said Cox. “We are on the road system here in Fort Smith, but it’s two and a half hours to the next closest community, and five and a half hours to the closest community after that. We travel up to seven and a half hours for our standard tournaments one way. If we go to Edmonton or Grande Prairie, in Alberta, it’s between a 10- and 14-hour drive one way.”
All those hours on the road can pay off, however. At the 2014 Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival in Calgary, the NWT midget girls’ team earned an undefeated record in its division, winning gold with a 4-0 shutout over the Edmonton Shock. After the game, Hayley Wickenheiser, the Canadian legend who organizes the tournament, came to the dressing room for autographs and photos, spending 20 minutes with the team.
The strength of adult women’s hockey in Fort Smith and other southern NWT communities like Hay River, Fort Simpson, and Yellowknife also offers hope for the future.
“What we’ve found is that this has helped with recruitment for our minor hockey programs,” Cox said. “They see their moms and aunts playing hockey and they want to do it themselves. They also really like seeing the bantam and midget groups play.”
So World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend, Volume One is just an inkling of what lies ahead in Fort Smith. There’ll be more than eight participants in 2017.
“It really was a fun hour on the ice,” Cox said. “I think next year it’ll be bigger and better. It certainly helps draw interest to the game.”