There was a time, not that long ago, that many River East Kodiaks women's hockey players had only just started to skate, were still learning how to drive to the net and were shaky taking a pass. There was a time, three years ago, when they lost every single game.
Now, they can rightly call themselves city champs, undefeated across 22 tilts and, for now, on top of their game.
On Tuesday, while Queen's We Are the Champions crackled and blared over the MTS Iceplex speakers, the 12-member Kodiaks squad gathered on the ice to savour the title. They'd just capped a perfect best-of-three series against the St. Norbert Celtics with a triumphant 4-1 win, a victory that put them on top of the Winnipeg Women's High School Hockey League's developmental Division B.
The game almost ended in a second consecutive shutout for Grade 12 goalie Sydne Valiquette, but for a late third-period strike by the Celtics' Kennedy Hutcheson. It was a convincing win.
"It's unbelievable," assistant coach Pat Carroll said of the team's remarkable year. "We didn't expect that. We just wanted the girls to have a lot of fun, and they did... and they ended up winning, a lot."
Now, the school could be figuring to make the jump up to the league's Division A next year. "I think it will be good, it'll be more competitive," said Grade 11 forward Cassandra Szczepanski.
"We'll be losing our goalie, who's the whole reason we've gotten this far. But we'll get better as a team, and it's good for the school."
This evolution is a bellwether of sorts for the whole WWHSHL, which was founded in the mid-1990s to give young women more places to play hockey. At the beginning, the league had only four teams. Today, 382 players from 20 schools battle it out on the ice, and several more are looking to ice squads next year.
Every year, more teams climb up from the developmental division to the competitive one.
"What we're hoping is that people can learn, and then as they grow as a team they make that move to a competitive position," said WWHSHL registrar William Gardner.
"It's been growing, particularly in the last few years. More and more people who try high school hockey like it... We've really seen a general increase in the quality of play."
The swell in the WWHSHL comes as interest in the women's game is growing, clear across the board. Only a couple of hours after the Kodiaks had gold medals hung around their necks, another set of young women strapped on their skates for their own moment in the spotlight.
A full house of fans turned out to the Iceplex rink to watch the Manitoba Blizzard go head to head with the Western Predators in the second game of the Manitoba Women's Junior Hockey League finals; the Blizzard had claimed the first in a 3-2 overtime thriller.
After three chippy periods, they took the second one, too, turning in a 4-2 victory that made them the 9th annual MWJHL champions.
The kicker for the Blizzard came in the dying seconds of the second period during a late power play. The Preds whiffed an attempted clear, there was a goal-mouth scramble, and Morgan Prendergast found the puck and put it in the net.
The Preds never managed to tally another, despite some beautiful chances smothered by Blizzard goalie Carly Gacek. When the final buzzer sounded, she leaped from the net as her teammates smothered her in their arms.
The WWHSHL playoffs continue today with the second game of the Division A final between the Dakota Lancers and the Louis Riel Voyageurs. Dakota took the first game by a score of 4-1. If the Voyageurs can win the second, the final game will be played Friday afternoon at the MTS Iceplex.
men's B final
THE St. Paul's Crusaders survived sudden death to take a lead in their best-of-three men's Winnipeg High School Hockey League Division B final against Sturgeon Heights on Wednesday.
The teams battled on the MTS Iceplex ice to the final buzzer. The score was tied at 2-2 with only minutes to go in the third when Crusader captain Simon Garfinkel scored with only 54 seconds left in regulation. Incredibly, Sturgeon Heights's Ashton Fogarty struck back with 15 seconds left on the clock to send the game into overtime. But Garfinkel secured the win with an overtime goal, his third point of the game, assisted by Drayton Mendrun.
Earlier at the Iceplex, the Murdoch MacKay Clansmen won the first game of their Division C final against the Linden Christian Wings with a 4-2 win over the Wings. Clansmen player Justin Pokrant had a two-goal night, and the game-winner was scored by Josh Berdon, with assists to Tod Fraser and Jesse Bakker. Mark MacKinnon and Matt Mantler scored for the Wings.