By CHRIS OCCHIUZZI
Girls hockey in Huntsville saw tremendous growth in participation this season and organizers are hoping for more in the future.
The Huntsville Girls Hockey Association has around 100 skaters spread over five teams this year, a huge growth from previous seasons when it struggled to even put together one full team in any age group.
Kerri Vallentin, who coaches the younger girls teams and is the HGHA tournament director, says they went from zero to five Huntsville Sting teams in a very short period of time.
“This year it’s exploded, the popularity with girls hockey, and I think a lot of that was because the U18 came to town,” says Vallentin. “People saw the level of women’s hockey out there and a lot of the kids said they want to be part of that. We worked really hard to get girls programs going this year as well.”
Support from the U18 tournament in the form of funding from Hockey Canada helped purchase more ice time and needed equipment. As well, Vallentin says some of the funding has been earmarked for skills development programs to be offered to the community at large.
“Every week there are more girls who have seen us out and want to join,” she says. “Some of the funding from Hockey Canada was to run some development, recruitment skates. It’s an opportunity for those who are interested to come out get some skills development practice and a skate with the girls.”
Each of the Huntsville Sting teams practices one day and plays one day each week. The ages of the players run from five to 17. There is also a women’s senior team, which has been traditionally known as the Huntsville Honeys.
Right now the Sting are playing in a Muskoka-Parry Sound local minor hockey league loop featuring teams with both boys and girls. Vallentin says if the interest in girls hockey continues to grow at this pace, it won’t be long before they will be able have a league of their own.
“We would eventually like to grow into our own all-girls league,” says Vallentin. “It’s difficult getting all-girls games right now simply because there aren’t a lot of all-girls teams in the area. We’re starting the program and, very kindly, minor hockey allowed us into the loop. The girls are doing amazingly well in the loop, they’re loving playing the games.”
Lauren Dupuis, aged 16, has been playing hockey for around five years. She says it has been a wonderful experience being on the Sting.
“I really like it, I used to play on a boys team,” says Dupuis. “I really like being on a girls team and having all my friends here.”
Abby Boon, 14, has played minor hockey for around eight years on both the Sting and for boys teams. She says she finds the girls are actually a touch more aggressive than the boys players.
Having played on boys teams she says it’s a unique experience playing for the Sting against her former teammates.
She also took the opportunity to kid around about boys teams.
“With the boys, they’re all we’re so tough but they just think they’re tough,” says Boon, only half-joking. “They’re actually not as tough as they think they are.”
Meanwhile, 14-year-old Elina Robinson is playing organized hockey for the first time ever and says she’s been welcomed with open arms by her Sting teammates.
“I just wanted to start because my family is really into hockey and I’ve been wanting to play for a while,” says Robinson. “So I figured I could start now and try it out. I’ve made a lot of new friends along the way so far . . . It’s a really good way to learn to play hockey with the girls and I like the opportunity to make new friends.”
The HGHA isn’t just about offering a great opportunity locally, it also welcomes a huge amount of visiting teams to Huntsville each year. The HGHA 39th annual tournament took place from Jan. 8 to 10 and it was the biggest one yet with 66 teams participating, surpassing the previous high of 54 teams.
The HGHA needed to use arenas in Huntsville, Baysville and Burks Falls to accommodate the over 1,000 skaters competing. Along with the players there were around 250 coaching staff members as well as the families of each player. Vallentin estimates there were around 3,000 people in Huntsville on what would normally be a very slow weekend for tourism operators.
“This is our biggest tournament we have ever hosted,” says Vallentin. “The community has really received our tournament well, we have a lot of local businesses who support the tournament.”
Chris Occhiuzzi aka Mr. O will be providing stories and photos for Huntsville Today on a weekly basis. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisOWhatsUp. Those with story ideas or comments can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org