After three seasons with the University of Manitoba Bisons, Chantal Larocque thought her hockey career was over — there simply wasn’t anywhere else for elite women to play in this province.
As of this season, that’s no longer the case.
The Manitoba Maple Leafs — with a roster of 15 players who all have experience at the CIS or NCAA level — are set to join the Western Women’s Hockey League, a five-team circuit that promises to showcase the female game at a quality exceeded only by international competition.
The rosters from Calgary, Edmonton, Strathmore and Minnesota are sprinkled with Canadian and American national team players. The top two teams take part in a season-ending series for the Clarkson Cup (named, like another famous hockey trophy, for a former Governor General) against teams from a similar circuit in the east, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
"Before this we had nowhere to play. Not competitive, at least," said Larocque, who was a second-team Canada West All-Star in 2007-08 for the Bisons. "Getting to play against other elite players is what it’s all about.
"There’s going to be Olympians (on the other teams), and they’re all NCAA and CIS players, so it’s going to be a pretty competitive year."
Melissa Jaques, a 22-year-old centre from Oak Bank, recently returned home after four seasons at the University of North Dakota.
"I heard some talk going around about this for a year or two, and it’s so nice to see it actually happening," said Jaques, who played some of her minor hockey in East St. Paul.
While the Maple Leafs are fielding a senior team in the WWHL for the first time this year, the club was established a year ago with player development a major component. About 120 players as young as 10 years old took part in the Maple Leafs’ summer-league teams, camps, and off-ice training sessions.
Ken Westman, who is in charge of player development for the club, said the goal is to create an atmosphere similar to what’s been offered for boys’ hockey for years.
"We’re trying to start with them at the youngest age, and to make sure the elite players get to college," said the Norwood resident. "There’s a lot of diamonds in the rough…we just need to find them."
Walter Shefchyk, the senior team’s head coach, said the ideal path would see players come up through the Maple Leafs system, head off to college or university for four years, and then return to play for the senior team in the WWHL.
"Once you’ve gone to school and played at a high level, this is the next step," said Shefchyk, a Transcona resident.
For now, life in the WWHL is far from the glamorous life of the NHL. The team is hoping to find enough sponsors to cover travel and equipment costs, and has its own bus, but so far players are dipping into their own pockets.
While there have been some rumblings about potential interest from the NHL in backing a women’s league, but nothing appears imminent.
"We’re not even looking right now at trying to make a living at it," Larocque said. "Realistically, for me, getting travel and jerseys and sticks and skates…we’d be very happy."
The Maple Leafs open their inaugural WWHL regular season on the road with a series of games against the Minnesota Whitecaps from Oct. 29 to 31.