One of the most impressive things over the past few years — at least to me — is the amount of young hockey players who have been given the chance to head south and get a shot.
I can think of players like Jacob Schofield, Tye Hand, Steven Hodges, Connor Fleming, Sarah Fleming, Abby Webster, Tehnille Gard, Annie King — I’m sure I’m missing a few but those are just a handful. And I’m not talking about just going down for a tryout, I’m talking about playing either AAA or junior or collegiate hockey. Hockey that will get them either a shot at making it to the big show or give them a chance to get a diploma/degree at some stage.
This season is no different and there are several players who are in the midst of doing their thing, or will be doing their thing, in various parts of North America. You have Ethan Anstey with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and you’ll have read about Carter McLeod in Moose Jaw on the page before this one.
The other Western Hockey League attendees include Matthew Gillard at camp with the Victoria Royals, Logan Cunningham back with the Spokane Chiefs and Jonah Bevington being slated to suit up with the Portland Winterhawks this season. Both Cunningham and Bevington got the chance to play a truncated 24-game schedule in the WHL last season so, like Anstey, this will be their first full season playing major junior, provided they make the team, of course. I don’t see why they wouldn’t.
On the scholastic side of things, we have Jack Works set to play his first full freshman season with the University of Denver in the NCAA. Works did get in a few games at the tail end of last season and was lucky enough to be the beneficiary of an extra year’s worth of eligibility thanks to the powers that be giving everyone the extra season due to Covid-19. The scheduled return of action for U Sports, Canada’s version of the NCAA, means that Zach Zorn may get back on the ice at Concordia University in Montreal while Kiah Vail of Fort Smith would get to suit up with the University of Ottawa’s women’s team.
Had this been anywhere in the provincial realm, this would all be met with either a shrug of the shoulders, a kind word — and I mean, a singular kind word — or amazement that so few have been given the chance. But we aren’t a province and our young athletes don’t get those opportunities in a regular basis. I can remember the days when we heard of one, maybe two, getting the chance down south and that was a cause for celebration. The fact that we have this many, and several more playing with either club teams or at sports schools, says we’ve done something right.
I will harken back to the start of the Wolfpack development program, which was heralded by many as the best chance ever given to young hockey players to get the chance to get noticed and crapped on by just as many as elitist and exclusionary. Not everyone will get the chance to play and that’s not fair, said the participation brigade. Well, yeah, it was meant to be elitist because it’s for the best players. Not everyone can play on the team and just because your kid didn’t make the final cut doesn’t mean they’re a bad player — it just means there are those who happen to be better. Some players happen to be faster and stronger. The cool kids call that biology.
And it isn’t just hockey, either. The Yellowknife Bay Soccer Club, known as the Sundogs, under the tutelage of Joe Acorn has done a wonderful job of giving young athletes a pathway through a club program while the Eagles girls basketball program has adopted a club model for its athletes by bringing together all of the girls league programs in town and putting them under one umbrella so they simply move up an age category as opposed to jumping into a new club. It’s only a matter of time, I predict, when I’ll be writing about the amount of young basketball or soccer players making waves down south on a regular basis.
Until then, we’ll watch this crop of young hockey players do their thing and marvel that they’ve managed to make it this far in their career. I’m pretty sure they won’t mind being used as examples for what you can do and how you can make it, even if you come from one of those far-off Northern places where no one comes to watch you.
Just ask Jordin Tootoo.