In 2008, six-year-old Delaney Unger stepped onto the ice for the first time as a hockey player and proceeded to go…pretty much nowhere.
Delaney, like many of her fellow tykes, had barely skated before she strapped on her hockey gear for the first time. Her first few outings were “fun but challenging,” she remembers. But within a couple months, Delaney was feeling more comfortable and her older sister McKenna was starting to reconsider her previous disinterest in hockey.
Fast forward six years and Delaney is blazing around the MSA Arena Ice alongside her teammates on her pee wee rep team. McKenna, meanwhile, is in Kelowna, where she is enrolled at the Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy with an eye on a university scholarship.
As Abbotsford and the rest of the puck-playing world celebrate Girls Hockey Weekend over the next few days, stories like that of the Unger family are becoming emblematic of the development of female hockey.
Minor hockey enrolment by boys across Canada has sagged in recent years, but more girls are playing the game than ever before.
Now in its eighth year, the Abbotsford Female Hockey Association (AFHA) ices nine girls teams and around 120 players and the growth of the female game can be seen everywhere from local rinks to national television.
Girls, of course, have been playing hockey for decades. But the emergence of teams exclusively for females has broadened the appeal of the sport, many parents say.
Linda Howe, whose 12-year-old daughter Carli had played on boys teams for three years before joining a girls’ squad last fall, says the female teams have given her child an experience not possible elsewhere.
“The hockey is still good, but she feels she has more friends on her team,” Howe says.
Friends and a vibrant dressing room social life are a constant theme among players speaking about their love of the game.
Ask Robyn Ellis what she likes about the sport and she mentions playing with friends in the same breath as her love for scoring goals. Likewise, Delaney Unger cites the game’s competitiveness, but also the ability to play with other girls.
Enrolment by girls has grown over the years, but like many associations its size, the AFHA faces an annual challenge to get enough players to form teams at younger ages.
The association’s president, Darcy Forcier, says the organization is looking in a few different directions to grow the player base.
PHOTO: Robyn Ellis, Delaney Unger and Desi Wiens suit up for the AFHA’s pee wee rep team.
The association has received a grant from RBC to host learn-to-skate programs for young girls, and it also encourages players to bring friends out to try hockey.
“We’re hoping…we can appeal to some of the people who are now missing out,” Forcier says.
In any discussion about hockey participation, the cost to play the sport is always the elephant in the room. But Forcier says there are also some misconceptions.
“When you look at competitive soccer or some of the other sports kids are playing, it’s in the same ballpark, it’s not dramatically different,” he says, given that seasons run for six months and can include twice-weekly ice-times. In the AFHA, fees run from $300 for tykes to $670 for midgets.
The other challenge is skating. Everybody who signs up for, say, soccer knows how to run, while hockey requires skating skills many kids don’t have.
But while previous skating ability is helpful, it’s not required.
Marilyn Nair’s daughter Maya was in Grade 1 the first time she hit the ice.
“She probably fell at least 20 times … but she had the biggest smile on her face,” Nair remembers. “By Christmas, you would never know that she was that beginner skater.”
At last week’s pee wee rep practice, many of the players blazing around the arena had originally found themselves tottering on the ice.
Desi Wiens, for one, had played a lot of sports before giving hockey a try. She too didn’t know how to skate the first year, but today, she plays rep hockey and is enrolled in the Mennonite Education Institute’s hockey academy, along with several other girls.
And the boys are taking notice. A year ago, she says some in her grade though it was weird that a girl would play Canada’s national past time.
“They’ve kind of accepted that girls can play hockey.”