Female high school-age hockey players in Manitoba have the world at their feet.
Never has there been more opportunities to play elite hockey, compete for a national championship or earn a hockey scholarship.
Now the inaugural Female World Sports School Championship, an eight-team tournament featuring girls' preparatory teams from sport schools across Canada, will be played at Winnipeg's MTS Iceplex from Feb. 21-24.
Backed by Hockey Canada, which already hosts a similar event for boys' prep teams, the Female World Sports School Championship will be hosted by the St. Mary's Flames and include the Shaftesbury Titans.
The tournament will also feature the Edge School from Calgary, the Banff Hockey School, the Okanagan Hockey Academy from Penticton, B.C., the Pursuit of Excellence from Kelowna, B.C., and the Rothesay Netherwood School from Rothesay, N.B.
"Having this event in Winnipeg is going to be so great for all the teams here. There's going to be so many scouts and such great competition," said St. Mary's forward Danielle Krzyszczyk (say Kriss-i-chuck), 16.
A Grade 11 player, Krzyszczyk was a member of Manitoba's female national under-18 silver-medal team. With an 88 per cent average, she has verbally committed to Harvard for 2014-15.
"Playing prep hockey at St. Mary's was a big step for me, and it's helped me take a huge step in my hockey career," Krzyszczyk said. "I've learned so much here.
"Our program helped me with my confidence going to the Team Manitoba tryouts. Because hockey is right after school, it helps you manage your time to make sure you're doing well in school also."
Larry Bumstead, head coach of the host St. Mary's Flames, said this tournament will provide local exposure for prep hockey because those teams usually play in events outside the province.
"The idea behind the Female World Sports School Challenge is it's a Hockey Canada championship for prep schools. The AAA teams play for the Esso Cup national championship, but we really didn't have an identity nationally until now," Bumstead said.
"The No. 1 goal for all of us (in female hockey) is to give girls as many opportunities as possible, no matter who they play for -- that's the key. The more girls we get playing and the more events we have like this, the better."
Female players in the 15-17 age group can also play in the Winnipeg Women's High School Hockey League at the same time they're competing in the Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League (MFMHL), an option not available to male players, who cannot double-roster. The eight-team MFMHL, which includes the Avros and the Ice of Winnipeg, boasts two national female midget champions in the past four years. The Westman Wildcats won the inaugural Esso Cup in 2009, and the Pembina Valley Hawks won the 2012 Esso Cup last May.
If university or college hockey is a player's goal, both the AAA and prep-school programs offer plenty of opportunities to be scouted and at least 20 are expected to descend on the Iceplex this month. If Team Canada is the goal, it is a fairly even split as to which is the best route.
Of the seven Manitoba players on the rosters of Canada's three national female hockey teams -- the under-18, under-22 and senior teams -- four played AAA (or community-based hockey) and three came from prep programs. The current national women's U-18 roster includes just two Manitobans and both are playing in the MFMHL -- Cassidy Carels of Pembina Valley and Ashleigh Brykaliuk of Westman.
Manitoba's provincial female under-18 team, which won silver at the 2012 National Women's Under-18 Hockey Championship, included 12 AAA and eight prep-school players. Even the goaltenders come from different programs -- Brittni Mowat plays for Pembina Valley and Rachel Dyck plays for Shaftesbury.
"We have to look at building a strong foundation in order to maintain the competitive levels of all the hockey within our branch, whether that's the sport schools or minor hockey," said Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods.
"This event is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate and expose our players to that level of competition," Woods said.
"The face of female hockey has certainly changed, and certainly in Manitoba we've had our share of players who have gone on to participate and excel at the national level.
"We're proud of that, and certainly the advancement of coaching and the opportunities for players to participate in top levels of competition has played a role."
The Balmoral Hall Blazers team, Manitoba's flagship female prep-school program, which started in 2006-07, was invited, but will not participate due to a prior commitment to its Junior Women's Hockey League schedule.
Head coach Gerry Wilson said it's "a great thing for female hockey in Manitoba that there are many options."
"But along with that comes the onus on families to really do their research and find out what really is the best fit for their daughters," Wilson said. "There are differences between all of the programs and all of the teams."
At MTS Iceplex
Feb. 21: games at 9:15 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 12:30 p.m., 7:15 p.m.
Feb. 22: games at 9:30 a.m., 9:45 a.m., 10 a.m., 3:15 p.m., 3:30 p.m.
Feb. 23: 10:45 a.m., 11 a.m.; semifinals 1:45 p.m., 2 p.m.
Feb. 24: Bronze medal 10:15 a.m.; gold medal 1:30 p.m.