Women’s junior hockey takes off

Manitoba league the template for others

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In the winter of 2003, Kirk Kuppers was watching a Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League game in Stonewall when, during a break in play, his daughter Carly looked up at him and posed a question.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/03/2019 (1301 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the winter of 2003, Kirk Kuppers was watching a Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League game in Stonewall when, during a break in play, his daughter Carly looked up at him and posed a question.

“Why,” she asked, “isn’t there a league like this for women?”

In the moment, Kuppers, who was well-versed in the women’s game, having coached various teams at various levels over the years, including his daughter’s team, didn’t have much of an answer.

The Silvertips (in black) beat the Prairie Blaze 5-2 Tuesday to even up the best-of-five championship series to a game apiece. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Soon, though, he’d have a plan.

“It was like an epiphany,” Kuppers says, speaking over the phone from his Westwood home Tuesday. “Then things just seemed to fall into place.”

Now, the Manitoba Women’s Junior Hockey League is nearing the end of its 15th season. There are 135 players, aged 18 to 21, across seven teams, each playing a 24-game schedule, plus playoffs. Each year begins with a draft — a three-day tournament followed by a banquet and formal selection process, where coaches can pick up rookies and veteran skaters who opt to enter the player pool. Much like the MMJHL game Kuppers was watching years ago, it offers players a chance to play at a competitive level, while also having time for school and work.

Kuppers, the league’s president, was on hand for Game 2 on Tuesday to watch the Silvertips avenge a 9-3 drubbing by the Prairie Blaze with a 5-2 victory at Bell MTS Iceplex, levelling the best-of-five championship series to a game apiece.

“The calibre just gets better every year,” Kuppers says, crediting that to, among other things, the rise of women’s hockey in recent years. “Girls are starting the game younger and younger. If you put your skates on and try to skate with these girls, you’d be shocked with the talent. The quality is really good.”

His daughter no longer plays in the MWJHL, but Kuppers remains a familiar face in the stands. He can often be seen with his wife, Sonia, collecting admission at the front door. Single passes for adults run for $4, $3 for seniors, while a season pass is $60 (kids 12 and under get in free).

A lot has changed since the league started in 2004, when it consisted of 76 players on five teams. Games were played out of the Winter Club, running a double-header Sunday evenings. Linda Benson, a retired teacher who still substitutes at 74 and has a sharp wit, recalled the league’s modest beginnings.

“The stands were crappy. It was just awful because it was just kind of a grubby facility,” she said.

The facilities, however, weren’t enough to stop Benson from enrolling her daughter Stephanie in the league. In fact, with the help of her husband, Christopher, the two of them pretty much forced her to play.

Unhappy with the level of skill playing in the women’s midget league, Stephanie made the decision to retire early from the game. She dropped her bag on the ground of the basement, leaving it there to rot. It eventually did, until it was revived after Benson saw a clipping in the newspaper.

“My husband, Chris, sees the add in the paper and he doesn’t even tell Stephanie and just sends a cheque to Kirk,” Benson says, “and then tells her she’s playing.”

They eventually took Stephanie’s hockey bag — “we didn’t even open it,” Benson remembers — to a professional cleaner. She went on to play three seasons in the league, loving every minute of it.

As for Benson, she remains in the league, even though Stephanie is years removed from her playing days. Her husband, who was the league accountant, passed away from cancer a few years back, so Benson inherited the role, taking care of the books.

“I’m proud about the fact that it runs so smoothly,” she says, pausing for a second to hand out the last two pieces of candy on a table to two young girls donning hockey jerseys. “The fact that it runs and people don’t even realize the work that goes into it.”

The seven teams in the Manitoba Women’s Junior Hockey League play a 24-game schedule, plus playoffs. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Kuppers can remember launching the league and feeling the nerves as TV cameras crowded him for a press conference. He was media-savvy enough to hold it on a news-deprived Monday afternoon, only to be taken aback by how many people showed up. Soon, they had a website running with the help of Randy Dalton, a longtime referee in high school hockey and someone ahead of the ever-evolving technology curve of the early 2000s.

After temporary stops at Gateway and Keith Bodley arenas, the league has finally found a permanent home. The MWJHL plays a majority of its games out of the Iceplex — the “Ice Palace,” as Kuppers calls it‚ which he believes gives the league an added element of legitimacy.

He chuckles now about how seamlessly it went, cold-calling Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment and co-owner of the Winnipeg Jets, after news broke that the new multi-arena facility would be built in time for the 2010 season. Not knowing where the conversation would go, Chipman put his mind at ease — after all, he, too, had girls in hockey and wanted to see the league flourish.

“He says ‘Kirk, you won’t be at the end of the line, you’ll be somewhere in the middle and I’ll tell you why: I’ve got three daughters that play hockey.’ Kuppers said. “I’ll always remember that, and it’s always music to my ears when I’m talking to somebody and then they mention they have a daughter in hockey. Then you know you have an ear.”

Taylor Boehlig is in her fifth season in the MWJHL, all with the Silvertips, playing as one of three overage players allowed on each team. At 22, she hates that her time is almost up, but feels fortunate a league like this existed at all. Outside of university hockey, women have a hard time finding competitive leagues to play in. To date, only Manitoba, Alberta, which has modelled its league after the MWJHL, and Newfoundland have established junior leagues for women.

Boehlig said the league has gotten more competitive with each season. When she first started, there was one powerhouse team that rolled to a championship. This year, her Silvertips finished in sixth place and are now battling for a league title.

“I don’t think a lot of girls knew about it in my first year, and more girls from AA and AAA are coming into this league instead of going away to play at school,” she said. “The level of play is going up, and we’re getting more publicity and it’s becoming a bigger thing, which is really awesome for women’s hockey.”

Kuppers hopes to continue to build on what he’s started, always looking for new ways for a brighter future. By building a better relationship with the city’s high school league he hopes to add an eighth team — a nice number for playoffs. He also aims to build on the annual Lieutenant Governors tournament to make it an international event in 2020, with multiple teams from overseas. Most of all, he wants to give young women a chance to continue their playing careers, to continue to have an answer to the question his daughter asked him many years ago.

“You watch them play, you watch the game tonight, and they don’t back off anything. They bring their own game and it’s just a delight to watch,” he says. “The thrill is being a part of creating something. You’re not thinking about it while you’re doing it, you’re not asking questions, you just do it because you love it.”

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

History

Updated on Wednesday, March 13, 2019 10:42 AM CDT: adds photos

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