Only halfway through her teens and already with a rocket shot, Kayla Friesen landed on St. Mary's Academy's prep squad this season hunting for a new hockey challenge.
She got it, as the young Flames team battled AAA female midget teams at home and travelled abroad to play tournaments against some of North America's top women's squads. Wherever they went, college scouts were watching. "It's a huge difference from high school," said Friesen, 16, who played for Dakota last season. "It's a lot more physical, a lot more team play. It really pushes you to be better."
Now, Friesen and her Flames teammates are hoping to showcase their talent for hockey fans across Winnipeg, as the Flames get ready to host the second annual Female World Sport School Challenge at MTS Iceplex. Eight teams will battle for the tournament title, including Balmoral Hall, Shaftesbury, and Calgary's Edge School for Athletes, which won the whole shebang last year. All the teams hail from Hockey Canada "sport schools," which integrate academics and sport performance.
The action kicks off on Thursday with the preliminary rounds. The top two teams from each preliminary-round group will move on to the semifinals on Saturday, with the gold-medal game slated for Sunday afternoon.
"It's huge for our team and huge for our school," Friesen said. "It opens doors up. It shows other people what we're about, what our school's about."
This is their second time showing it. The Flames prep squad hosted the inaugural event out of MTS Iceplex last year, and recently got the green light to hst it for years to come. It helps that Winnipeg is centrally located, as teams from New Brunswick to British Columbia are making the trip. That's just the beginning of it, as girls' hockey registrations continue to grow worldwide.
"Someday, we have the potential to go international," said St. Mary's Academy director Sister Susan Wikeem, who helped push for the sport-school designation, which St. Mary's was awarded three years ago. "(Female) hockey is growing in Europe as well. This tournament has raised the profile of the school, and it also just raises the profile of women's hockey... it's exciting."
It is also a big opportunity for the young women who will take to the ice this week. The MTS Iceplex is expected to be rife with CIS and NCAA scouts, and that exposure can mean big things: All five seniors on this year's Flames team have secured scholarships to play hockey in college. Among them, blue-liner Callie Paddock is headed to NCAA powerhouse Mercyhurst Lakers and forward Danielle Krzyszczyk is riding her game all the way to Harvard.
"Every time they go out to a venue, there are eyes watching them all the time because of the type of team we have," said Flames prep team coach Larry Bumstead, who sits on the Challenge steering committee. "They're getting used to it."
By the by, there's more to the Female World Sport School Challenge than what happens on the ice. There will be a banquet at the Victoria Inn on Saturday night featuring a keynote speech from Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice. Tickets are $75 each, available at www.stmarysacademy.mb.ca. There is also a meet-and-greet session with Team Jennifer Jones second Jill Officer at the Iceplex on Friday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.