Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

An opportunity on ice: Puck drops tonight for young hopefuls

Olympian Botterill thrilled about high-level girls hockey tourney

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There's already a winner before the puck goes down this morning to start the inaugural Female World Sport School Challenge at the MTS Iceplex.

Eight prep-school teams from across the country, from East, Central and West, will contest Hockey Canada's first event of its kind, but the game is way ahead no matter who gets the gold.

"When you have these development opportunities, you're just going to continue to see the level of play increase," said Jennifer Botterill, the much-decorated Winnipegger who's the official tournament ambassador this weekend. "It's very much a contagious effect.

"From my experience, just look at how much better the level of play on the national team got every year. Compared to when I made the team in 1998, the level of play, the skill and the speed and the consistency and the depth, all were vastly improved by the time the 2010 Olympics came around. It's just a reflection of the grassroots."

The grassroots of female hockey has broadened the base, and up the line it goes, Botterill said.

"Over the course of five or 10 years, well, I've done a lot of programs and been in some development roles to see first-hand the number of girls who are playing, and it starts at the grassroots," she said. "Girls who are six or seven or eight, they have a choice of which girls teams they want to play on. That wasn't the case 10 or 15 years ago. And it then just trickles up."

This tournament will attract eyes from all around the game, and that means scouts, especially from post-secondary programs in Canada and the United States.

"You see it with the expanding sports-school options for girls, at the university level," said Botterill, a five-time world champion and three-time Olympic gold medallist for Canada. "The NCAA is always adding more programs and the levels are getting more competitive.

"Every team doesn't just have one or two players who are good now, it's three or four lines.

"This tournament, it's a great representation as far as how the game is growing. It shows there are lots of opportunities for girls who are playing this game. To have this option for girls who are playing in high school and to see the success rate, how many of them have competed at the provincial level or national level, this is a pretty rich history for those who have played at the high school, sports-school level."

Botterill, now 33 and officially retired as a player, continues to influence the game via roles with programs such as RBC's Play Hockey, Hockey Canada events like this and even the IIHF.

She'll be the guest of honour for tonight's official opening ceremony at the Iceplex (7 p.m. prior to the St. Mary's-Okanagan game) and the keynote speaker at Friday's tournament banquet. The tournament runs through Sunday.

When you see her smiling around the tournament, and you undoubtedly will, it will be in part because this, in many respects, is some of her handiwork, the foundation she has helped set with her playing career and her advocacy for the game of hockey.

"Well, it's certainly an honour to be involved," she said Wednesday. "Me, I think of all the people who paved the way for us during my career, people like Danielle Goyette, Stacy Wilson, Susie Yuen. These are people who really put in time before the game really exploded, got the awareness going. When I look back, I feel really grateful for the opportunities that I had.

"It all just makes me excited to see how good these players are and how excited they are to be involved and the choices they have for their future."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 21, 2013 D4

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