Kiwi learns hockey in Leaside

[attach]6620[/attach]Jamiee Wood was in the right place at the right time when her love affair with hockey began.

Nine years ago, Wood was watching a girls’ hockey practice in her native Dunedin, New Zealand, supporting her best friend, when the team needed someone to fill-in as a goalie. Wood volunteered, and loved it. She asked her mom to sign her up for skating lessons.

“I’ve tried playing out, but I’ve never enjoyed it as much as playing in goal,” said 17-year-old Wood, who has since took part in elite national competitions, and gained a spot on the New Zealand Ice Fernz national squad. “I can get further playing in goal, I can play in more men’s leagues. Personally, I feel better about saving goals than scoring them.”

Her connections to hockey have brought her to Leaside, practicing with the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association’s midget-aged squads. A first-time initiative by Leaside, Wood will get to practice and play while staying with two host families —the McStays and the Mollenhauers.

Spending her summer break here until February, her Canadian stay will be Wood’s first time receiving instruction from specialized goaltending coaches.

“You wouldn’t get anything like that in New Zealand,” said Wood, who arrived in Toronto in December. “Having a goalie coach is definitely pushed me because I’m not used to having a goalie coach.

“Talking to somebody that actually understands and knows goaltending is really good. It’s not just being put in the net to take shots, I like the technical side.”

Leaside has become close to several Kiwis, including a board member who was born in New Zealand. Kiri Langford, a Kiwi who plays for the York University Lions women’s hockey team, suggested bringing Wood to Leaside.

“She said ‘Hey, I know this goaltender who would kill to come here and do some training on her summer break,’ ” said Jennifer Smith, president of the Leaside organization. “We got together one night, and asked ‘What would it look like, and why would we do this?’ ”

Bringing in athletes from other countries is common in collegiate and professional circuits. But, the apparatus to make this happen in women’s hockey, and to ensure Wood is actually allowed to play rather than be an observer — Leaside’s roster had already been set — wasn’t in place.

In the bigger picture, Leaside is interested in elevating the women’s game globally. Citing comments by Olympic organizer Jacques Rogge, Leaside wants to help emerging women’s hockey markets like New Zealand with their development.

“More countries had to get stronger,” Smith said.

It was a whirlwind to get permission from the proper hockey bodies, and to work with various partners to sponsor her, but the process took mere weeks, rather than months.

“The families were comfortable having her, we made sure her health insurance was covered,” Smith said.

The relationship developed between Leaside and the Ice Fernz is budding, and there’s room for growth. Smith says there are future chances for more player and coach exchanges. There is also talk of a development tour for the New Zealand national women’s team in early 2014.

When Leaside sent out email inquiries for potential host families, Maureen McStay replied almost immediately.

“This whole experience has been amazing, what a way to welcome into an organization,” said McStay, whose daughter, Meghan, began her stint with Leaside in October, after many years with the Scarborough Sharks. “As soon as I got that email, I ran up and talked to my husband, and asked Meghan if she’s interested, and everyone was like ‘Yeah, for sure.’ ”

Between daytime shinny and a little bit of tourism, the McStays are keeping Wood busy.

“It’s a great benefit for my kids to meet someone new from another country and live with them,” said McStay. “We can go back and visit as well,” she added, laughing.

Wood returns home, for school, Feb. 7.