‘Girls can do this too’

The Prince Albert Northern Bears gather with younger aged hockey players as part of their team huddle before facing the Melville Prairie Fire on Nov. 18, 2017 in Nipawin, Sask. Evan Radford/Daily Herald

It took Hannah Koroll only 30 minutes of dance lessons.

She knew it wasn’t for her, she knew that her friend’s chosen sport of hockey piqued her interest.

“I went to watch her play, and I said ‘mom and dad, this is what I want to do.’ And I’ve just stuck with it ever since.”

Now 17 years old and captain of the Prince Albert Northern Bears in the provincial AAA female Midget hockey league, Koroll is taking on the role of mentor for younger girls starting the sport.

She and her Bears teammates were the home team in a special weekend game in Nipawin, Sask. against the Melville Prairie Fire on Saturday, Nov. 18.

The town hosted the two teams as part of its annual Female Hockey Tournament weekend on Nov. 18 and 19. – Saturday was marked as the day for girls in the novice, atom, peewee and bantam age groups to see and meet girls who play in the elite AAA Midget level.

Prior to the evening game at the Centennial arena, girls met and chatted with the Bears players, while the team’s head coach, Jeff Willoughby, led a workshop for parents whose daughters are interested in playing AAA Midget hockey.

After meeting with some of the younger players, Koroll reflected on how she found her way to hockey, via her childhood friend in Saskatoon.

“She always talked about it and how happy it made her. I knew I wanted to do it, because all of my guy friends also played hockey.

“And just after seeing her do it, I thought, ‘well girls can do this too,’ and I knew I wanted to start.”

Now committed to play for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, Koroll urged girls interested in hockey to try it and stick with it, touting the opportunities that come as one advances with age and experience through the sport – opportunities like traveling, representing one’s province and the possibility of playing on elite Canadian and American college teams.

The atom 2 Prince Albert Beachcomber Foxes were particularly impressed with the Bears. The team of nine- and ten-year-old girls met and chatted with their hockey role models, who were all gathered into a semi-circle around wood benches in the arena’s lobby.

The Prince Albert atom 2 Beachcomber Foxes pose for a photo in the stands of Nipawin’s Centennial arena on Nov. 18, 2017. Players include, clockwise from top left, Ella Topping, Brooklyn Sorenson, Natasha Gyoerick, Jordyn Fidler, Sienna Spence, Laine Miller and Kaitlyn Richmond. Evan Radford/Daily Herald

“I was happy to meet them,” Jordyn Fidler said.

“Yeah it was so cool,” teammate Laine Miller agreed.

The pair was soon joined by five of their teammates, which included Brooklyn Sorenson, Natasha Gyoerick, Kaitlyn Richmond, Ella Topping and Sienna Spence.

The girls were eager to share their insights and experiences as female hockey players.

Even at a young age, they said they have to put up with harassment from their male counterparts.

They said it’s important to have a girls tournament and to focus on girls playing hockey, because boys frequently try to discourage them.

“Boys always think that girls aren’t fast,” Fidler said.

She and her teammates said they often hear taunts like “you’re not good,” or “we’re faster than you,” and “you suck.”

But they disagree with that. “We’re better,” Miller added.

Through some discussion and consensus, the teammates agreed that their age group is the right time for girls considering hockey to try it: There’s little chance of injury because there’s no body checking, and it’s an early enough age to prepare for the physicality that comes at higher levels.

They also said it’s fun and gives them a chance to meet new people.

Bears’ rookie goalie Lexi Beuker had similar words of encouragement.

“Just try it, and even if the first game isn’t the best, just try it for a month at least and then see how you like it.”

The 16-year-old, now in her seventh year of hockey, had a detractor of her own to prove wrong in her hometown of Melfort, which sits about 95 kilometres southeast of Prince Albert.

“One of my guy friends – we’d just chirp back and forth all the time, because he’d say he’s better than me, just because he’s played hockey for longer or he’s at a higher level than me.

“But now I’m at a higher level; he’s playing double-A.”

Beuker said perseverance is key, because “it’s hard at the beginning, but you can tell if you enjoy it.”

Coaches and players with the Prince Albert Northern Bears (white jerseys) and the Melville Prairie Fire (black jerseys) hold the Female Hockey Day banner while posing for a photo after their Nov. 18 game in Nipawin, Sask. Evan Radford/Daily Herald

Melville’s captain, 17-year-old Erin Armstrong, found herself mentoring a young hockey player in a similar position last year.

“(She) was getting discouraged with boys on her team, and she came to me for advice … I told her, ‘keep going, because you’re not going to play with boys always,’ and ‘prove yourself to them, and persevere through it.’”

Armstrong also described how boys she played with in peewee AA didn’t think she should be on the team and that she wasn’t good enough to be there.

“But you just kind of have to prove yourself.”

Meanwhile, Bears coach Jeff Willoughby emphasized the equal dreams and passion that girls and women have for their hockey careers, as compared with boys and men.

“You know we always talk about boys wanting to win a Stanley Cup, and a lot of these girls we have here, they’re no different. They want to take their game as far as they can, and they all have the same dreams.”

Willoughby has coached the Bears for the past seven years. He also has two daughters – Kaitlin and Morgan – who play for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team.

When comparing male and female hockey at the more advanced levels – like bantam, midget and beyond – there’s more skill demanded of female hockey players, he said.

“I feel women are probably more challenged to play the game at a high pace, without being able to body check.”

If a player is out of position or makes a mistake in men’s hockey, “you can throw your body at a play, you can make a lunge to kind of fix a mistake.

“And in girls hockey you just simply can’t do that, without going to the penalty box.”

In his mind, it takes a large degree of skill to play and succeed at women’s hockey.

“I’m not sure if many people realize that. If they did, they might have a new understanding, and maybe latch onto the game a bit more.”