Leaside Wildcats president Mark Schrutt called it a happy coincidence — the convergence of International Women’s Day on March 8, the Leaside Wildcats tournament on March 8-10, and the appearance of four female professional hockey players at the NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 26.
The newly minted executive took the helm this season and within that time he has seen the Wildcats send 12 alumni to the USports Women’s Hockey tournament, as well as hosted 177 girls hockey teams and over 3,000 players in the 40th Annual March Break Madness tournament at 12 arenas across the city.
But that’s not what he says he’s most excited about.
The league has started an alumni association and is moving its high performance, Double-A program forward. That means a focus on skills development, paid coaching, good ice time and training.
“It’s not just at the university level, but really at the younger level, at two, three and four years, so instead of six alumni, we have 12 or 18 alumni at the U Sports tournament,” Schrutt said.
The 2019 USports Women’s Hockey Championship started March 14 with eight university teams competing for the title. Guelph Gryphons won, and on that team were former Leaside Wildcats, Kristen Jay, Kaitlin Lowy, Gabby Smyth and Gabi Underwood.
Also playing were Rachelle Champion and Shana Walker for McGill; Florence Awde, Meghan Pardy, Olivia Reid and Alex Woods for St. Thomas University and Mackenzie MacDonald and Jessica Robichaud for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.
With all these alumni pursuing competitive avenues, it helps to build an alumni association that can help them into their professional careers.
“The concept here is when you age out or come back from university to get a job, there’s a pathway you can reconnect with people who might have been your coach and to give back to the younger generation,” Schrutt said of the fledgling group.
He noted the only restriction for the Wildcats is the need for more ice time, but they work in concert with the Leaside Hockey Association, as many girls play within the boys league, and current president Grant Worden has two girls playing in the Wildcats system.
Former Canadian Women’s Hockey League members, Kim McCullough and Karolina Urban are already involved in the coaching side.
It’s an encouraging sign that Sportsnet Hockey Central Tonight anchor Caroline Cameron is excited about.
She hosted the Canadian Women’s Hockey League awards on March 22, as well as sat on the panel at the Clarkson Cup on March 24, where Calgary Inferno beat Les Canadiennes de Montreal at the Coca Cola Coliseum in Toronto.
The challenge for women’s sports in general, she said, is visibility.
“If we look at the next generation, and in terms of popularizing this league and the sport, it’s important for young girls to see themselves,” she said, pointing out Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker Renata Fast and Rebecca Johnston’s appearance at the All-Star Game.
“On television, especially, at Scotiabank Arena or Coca Cola, wherever it is, if they see themselves and see the opportunities that are there for them, then there’s a better chance that they will go into the sport and hope for that same future.”
Cameron played sports herself growing up in Etobicoke. Though she didn’t play hockey, her friends played for the Etobicoke Dolphins, she still remembered saving money and going to Canadian Tire with her dad to buy a new baseball glove, tennis racket or even a hockey stick for road hockey.
She recalled a posting on Twitter where a parent said their four-year-old daughter was inspired by Coyne Schofield’s performance during the skating skills challenge.
“That’s the perfect example because when I was growing a lot of athletes, I looked up to were male because that’s who was on TV,” she said. “There are great role models Cassie Campbell, but the ratio is heavily in favour of the men.”
Still, there is more progress to be made.
“The one thing I thought was funny was how surprised people were at how fast she was, which goes to show how far we have to go,” she said.
“Well, yeah, she’s a professional hockey player. We shouldn’t be surprised.”