Hockey at the AAA level has arrived in the female game with 34 Winnipeg girls leading the way.
Two Winnipeg teams -- the Winnipeg Avros and the Winnipeg Ice -- have joined the nine-team Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League, which has been granted the AAA designation by Hockey Manitoba and Hockey Winnipeg.
The teams, including players aged 15-17, will play a 20-game league schedule. The Avros, coached by Ashley Van Aggelen, and the Ice, coached by Mike Demidiuk, each have 15 skaters and two goalies. The players were drafted from a general tryout last month that attracted 85 players. There were 12 goalies vying for four positions.
"Every time I step on the ice with these girls, my jaw hits the floor, because of the intensity, the pace and the level of competitiveness," said Van Aggelen, who played four years (2000-2004) with the University of Manitoba women's hockey team. "This is our year to showcase that talent we've got here and hopefully we'll draw from here to keep the Winnipeg program growing."
The champion of the MFMHL will represent Manitoba in a interprovincial playoff series against the Saskatchewan champions, with the winner representing the region at Hockey Canada's 2012 Esso Cup national championship.
Hockey Canada uses the same model in the male game that last spring saw the Winnipeg Thrashers win the the 2011 Telus Cup national championship.
"I think this is something that girls hockey needed in Manitoba and I'm happy I can be a part of this huge step forward in female hockey," said Cassandra Jorgenson, 17, a left-winger with the Avros. "It's my last year so I'm really fortunate. In the future, it's going to get better and better because more girls can stay in Manitoba to play at this level because of this league."
MFMHL president Mike Kohli said the Winnipeg Female Council established the two Winnipeg teams so girls can to play at a high level for a reasonable cost.
"Manitoba was the only western province without a female AAA midget league until now so this really brings us up with other provinces," Kohli said. "It's a true provincial league and we're really excited about this."
The MFMHL, now in it's fourth season, did not include Winnipeg teams until this year. Previously there were six Winnipeg AA midget teams but at provincials, none of them could unseat the powerful rural teams.
The Westman Wildcats won the first ever Esso Cup in 2009 as an independent preparatory program. In the past two years, the MFMHL's Pembina Valley Hawks couldn't get past Saskatchewan. The Notre Dame Hounds, who won the 2011 Esso Cup, included four Manitobans.
"Our Manitoba teams will get better and get to that level where we can go after the Esso Cup," said Demidiuk. "There are prep teams in Winnipeg (Balmoral Hall, St. Mary's) but not everyone has the wherewithall to go to the private schools. This league gives players who aren't in those programs the opportunity to play at a higher level."
The league opened play Saturday when the Avros beat the Ice 8-2.
Jorgenson scored three goals while her linemates, 15-year-old right-winger Nicole Carswell, 15, and 17-year-old centre Vanessa Klimpke, 17, had three and four points, respectively.
"This league is going to give girls more opportunities at an intense level and a chance to play with other girls who are really good players and who we can learn from," said Carswell, a first-year midget who played last season with the AA bantam Victorias.
"It's already made me realize that there are a lot more opportunities for girls and this is where it starts. I'm hoping that one day I'll be able to go somewhere with hockey like a university and be able to play at a higher level."
Teams from the MFMHL will have the opportunity to participate in "showcase weekends," which are major tournaments outside of Manitoba that are heavily scouted by American and Canadian post-secondary schools.
The top guns
Teams playing in the inaugural season of Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League:
Central Plains Capitals
Pembina Valley Hawks