This weekend marked the sixth year of the IIHF’s World Girls Ice Hockey Weekend, which provides an opportunity for girls of all ages to be introduced to basic hockey skills in a fun, supportive and safe environment in an effort to continue to grow the game around the globe.
This year saw events being hosted by local clubs and rinks in over 40 different countries, with over 150 events being held in Canada alone. I, however, had the opportunity to go to an event about as far from Canada as you can realistically get -- attending the Girls Hockey Day hosted by the Newcastle North Stars in Newcastle, Australia.
Australia is home to 19 ice rinks, two semiprofessional leagues and the third-oldest perennially awarded trophy in all of ice hockey. With almost 4,000 registered players (450 of them female) it’s still a growing game, but it’s picking up traction; the sport has been getting more and more media attention as the years pass.
One of the coaches at the event was Amelia Matheson, captain of the Sydney Sirens of the Australian Women's Ice Hockey League (AWIHL) and two-time member of the Australia National Women’s Team.
“Seeing people smile, you give them that encouragement and you see them go ‘oh, I can do this.’ That’s what it’s about,” she said when reflecting on the afternoon, which saw around 37 girls of various capabilities descend on the rink.
The youngest were around 4 years old, with a smattering of adults like myself, but at the end of the day it didn’t matter if you were four or 40 -- we were all playing three-on-three against each other by the end of the session (I may have scored a goal before running into the glass because, while I can now shoot, stopping is by no means my forte).
With an interest in ice hockey growing, brought in by the age of social media and an expanding Australian League, Matheson spoke of how try outs for the Sydney Sirens this year were a little different than years past.
“There were close to 50 girls there, and I’ve never been on the ice with that many people at once. As a veteran in the sport I was just so happy and overwhelmed to see that many young girls coming through.”
Michael Sinclair, who coaches the new Australian Tier 2 Women's Ice Hockey League (A2WIHL) NSW Bombers team, joined in to say, “It’s about developing girls and giving them more training and more games. Just giving them the opportunity to get to the next level.”
With opportunities for girls to play ice hockey in Australia growing, there has never been a better time for players to start. Everyone I spoke to mentioned the family feeling that the sport provides. Jane Craker, who is both the secretary of the North Stars club and player on the women’s team, got involved after watching her kids play from the sidelines. She was the organizer of the event and spoke highly of its success.
“The event itself was awesome and the coaches were amazing. It’s just about building awareness for women’s hockey; my daughter is 15 and I just want to see the opportunities for her. It’s like a family here, and everyone is just brilliant.”
While for many the event marked their first time skating, or touching the puck, for others it was a family affair. Matheson’s daughter Mikayla was among the ranks of skaters on the ice.
“I started skating with gear on when I was 3, and started playing organized hockey last year,” she said when I spoke to her after the event. “I really liked today and I thought the other girls really liked it as well.” Mikayla, who is only 9, definitely wasn’t the smallest player on the ice, however she is one of the ones who have their eye on eventually representing women’s hockey at a higher level -- looking to join the ranks of rep players in year to come.
At the end of the day everyone left with smiles on their faces and a spring in their step. Many of the first-time players looking to begin lessons in the near future or asking when the next event was.
And with events also being held in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, organizers can only hope that by this time next year the number of registered female players in Australia will be over 500 -- and while that is nowhere near the almost 90,000 registered in Canada, it is growing by leaps and bounds for a country that forms the driest continent in the world. With players like Amelia Matheson for young girls to look up to, hopefully we will see more players donning the green and gold in years to come. Some of those may even be girls who only touched a puck for the first time this weekend.