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Young phenom lights it up for Balmoral Hall

Houston's game draws comparisons to NHL star Kane

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Balmoral Hall's Ryleigh Houston leads her team into an elite female tournament this weekend.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Balmoral Hall's Ryleigh Houston leads her team into an elite female tournament this weekend. Photo Store

There are those beautiful moments, in youth hockey, where all eyes in the arena are arrested by the bright and flickering light of a rising new star.

For instance, there was this moment, deep in the third period of the Balmoral Hall Blazers' 7-0 rout of the visiting Banff Hockey Academy Bears at the MTS Iceplex on Thursday.

Blazers forward Ryleigh Houston danced in, puck clinging to her stick, and sliced neatly through the crowd that closed in around her.

She rifled off a shot on the doorstep, but it struck the Banff goalie's outstretched leg. Houston tapped her stick on the ice in a flash of disappointment, an instant before her linemate Leona Sim scooped up the rebound and deposited it into the net.

It was a beautiful play. In that moment, Houston looked a little like Patrick Kane, how she made it look like opposing defenders just melted away.

Her coach, Gerry Wilson, calls her that sometimes: the Patrick Kane of the Junior Women's Hockey League.

"She might be a little better defensively," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "You guys will be writing about her a lot over the next few years. Her name will be known... it's just a matter of time."

To be clear, this player is just 15 years old. Houston is in Grade 10 now, and already in her second year on the Balmoral Hall prep squad, which is one of eight elite teams competing in the Female World Sport School Challenge at the MTS Iceplex this week. Just last weekend, she was named the JWHL's Offensive Player of the Year after potting 27 goals and adding 26 helpers in just 28 games. Last month, she was named a JWHL first-team all-star.

You can sort of guess the hockey resumé. Houston is the only child of a hockey-loving family, and so she started skating when she was just a little girl.

And she was just little in 2002, when she watched Hayley Wickenheiser and Jennifer Botterill help carry the Canadian women to Salt Lake City gold.

"I told my mom I was going to go win a gold medal for her," Houston recalled, and didn't waver when her parents warned it would take a whole lot of work.

"It was just something that I wanted. I saw them so happy, and I want to feel that. I want to represent my country."

So Houston went to work. She scrimmaged with guys, she played spring hockey with older girls, and cut her teeth on a AA team. Last year, she made the jump from small St. Alphonsus private school to Balmoral and the JWHL; She didn't expect to make school's prep team in Grade 9, not when most of the girls in the league were two or three years older.

But Wilson surprised her with a spot on the roster, and she stepped up to shoulder the new academic and athletic weight.

"The jump from AA to the JWHL is, I can't even explain it," she said. "It's more physical, it's faster, you have to think on your feet."

So now, she is lacing up her skates at the edge of a dream. Scouts are watching her closely, Wilson said.

He swears some have told him they think she's the best 1998-born female player in the world. That can change, of course. So there is yet a whole lot more work ahead for Houston, before it will be time to talk about what her ceiling could be or about national teams or Olympic golds.

"We're trying to work her through certain things like adversity and dealing with difficult games," Wilson said. "We're working with her on a lot of defensive skills, things that can make her much more attractive to scouts. They know she can score a lot of goals, but they're looking for more than that. She has a lot of game for such a young player, but that doesn't mean she can stop."

That's fine by Houston, who still looks at other players in wonder.

Indeed, when asked who she models her game after, she picked Blazers captain Kati Tabin. When asked about her offensive outburst this JWHL season, she pointed to her teammates. "I honestly couldn't have done it without any of them," she said. "My offensive ability came from working at it in my basement, stickhandling, everything. But really it's my team, it's not just me."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2014 C7

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Updated on Friday, March 14, 2014 at 12:01 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of Kati Tabin

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