Jill Mathez knows it will be a challenge but the Manitoba Maple Leafs head coach and her roster of 16 players are ready for it.
The Maple Leafs, an elite senior women's hockey team, will face off for their inaugural Western Women's Hockey League season Oct. 29 in Minnesota.
The four-team WWHL also includes the Edmonton Chimos, Strathmore Rockies (Alberta) and the defending champion Minnesota Whitecaps.
"When you start a new program, you want to certainly be competitive but as we go along we're going to learn a lot," said Mathez, who is the first woman inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame. The former coach of the University of Winnipeg senior women's hockey team (2000-2004), Mathez won 10 provincial senior women's hockey titles as a player.
"We're hoping that athletes develop throughout the program and then have a place to play an an elite level. At the end of the day, we want to make sure we put a program together that is not only competitive but is sustainable."
The Maple Leafs, whose home opener is Nov. 5 at a venue yet to be announced, also have a developmental program for younger age levels. It includes a summer hockey school and off-ice training programs.
The senior team roster includes several players who have played at the university level in Canada and the U.S., including Meghan Ross (University of Manitoba), Ashley King (Wayne State) and Chantal Larocque (U of M), who also serves as the team's governor at the league level.
The team will be rounded out when possible by midget-age (age 15-17) call-ups as part of the team's player development mission.
"This has a great fit here because we've got girls in Manitoba who still want to play at this level and if we have something to offer them here, why not play at home," said Larocque, who is also coaching the Rangers AA female midget hockey team.
"There's a lot people interested in seeing success for this level of women's hockey, we just have to go through the growing pains right now to get this team going and keep going. Hopefully, we'll be able to attract elite players from Manitoba to come back next year and in the future."
The WWHL season ends in March but the league champion continues on to play for the Clarkson Cup, the national championship of women's hockey, against the Canadian Women's Hockey League champion. The WWHL is looking to repeat as champions after the Minnesota Whitecaps won the Clarkson Cup in 2010. The Clarkson Cup competition will be held in Alberta.
The Calgary Oval X-Treme, a former WWHL team that had included numerous Team Canada players, is no longer operating. Hayley Wickenheiser, Team Canada captain and former X-Treme player, has left the WWHL to play for the University of Calgary Dinos while returning to her studies.
Delaney Collins, another former X-Treme and Team Canada player, is playing in the CWHL for Brampton (Ontario) while Sami Jo Small, former Team Canada goaltender, and Jennifer Botterill, a Team Canada forward, are both playing for Toronto. All three are Manitoba-born players.
"We're happy to have Manitoba, and it means a lot. Three teams wouldn't be much of a league," said WWHL president Byron Stephen in a telephone interview from Calgary.
"You have to take little steps but this is providing the opportunity to grow something to give the women an opportunity to still play the game at a high level once they're done at the college level."