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The games of their lives

There's more than a championship at stake at annual hockey challenge; elite female players have opportunity to showcase their skills before university scouts

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/1/2020 (242 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

From the beginning, organizers of the Female World Sports School Challenge aimed to put elite hockey players on a bigger stage.

It was a local hockey tournament intended to inspire lofty ambitions.

Now, eight years later, enthusiasm is high and the event is bursting at the seams with 16 teams (double its original size). The challenge has been met.

Rocky Mountain Raiders’ Makena Welby (8) hits St.Mary’s Academy Flames’ Ashlynn Stitt (17) during a Female World Sport School Challenge game. (Trevor Hagan / Free Press files)

Rocky Mountain Raiders’ Makena Welby (8) hits St.Mary’s Academy Flames’ Ashlynn Stitt (17) during a Female World Sport School Challenge game. (Trevor Hagan / Free Press files)

The growth in female hockey is due in no small part to tournaments such as the FWSSC, which is the signature event hosted annually by the St. Mary’s Academy Flames prep hockey team.

College scouts attend in healthy numbers, all 33 games are being streamed online and competition is fierce. This weekend’s tournament at the Bell MTS Iceplex has attracted teams from four provinces and Minnesota and many of the young women taking part will take what they’ve learned from the game to further their academic and hockey interests at U.S. and Canadian universities.

College bound

In nine years of the program, 38 St. Mary’s Academy prep hockey grads have earned college scholarships:

2020-21
Ashley Keller, Manitoba

2019-20
Aimee Patrick, Manitoba
Lainie Nichols, Trinity Western
Kate Bumstead, Trinity Western
Chloe Oleksiuk, St. Francis-Xavier
Meaghan Relf, Manitoba
Gabi Dawyduk, Minot State

In nine years of the program, 38 St. Mary’s Academy prep hockey grads have earned college scholarships:

2020-21
Ashley Keller, Manitoba

2019-20
Aimee Patrick, Manitoba
Lainie Nichols, Trinity Western
Kate Bumstead, Trinity Western
Chloe Oleksiuk, St. Francis-Xavier
Meaghan Relf, Manitoba
Gabi Dawyduk, Minot State

2018-19
Sydney Cancilla, ACC
Sarah Dennehy, Manitoba
Kennedy Frank, Lindenwood-Belleville
Kate Gregoire, Manitoba
Julianna Thomson, York

2017-18
Logan Angers, Quinnipiac
Kaitlyn Chatyrbok, Manitoba
Lexi Cheveldayoff, Bemidji State
Hailey Karbonik, Ottawa
Ashley McFadden, UBC

2016-17
Hailey Cloutier, Windsor
Karlee Mazor, UBC
Holly Reuther, Calgary
K.K. Thiessen, Mercyhurst

2015-16
Morgan Burr, Alberta
Kayla Friesen, St. Cloud State
Cecilia Lopez, Dartmouth
Tory Micklash, UBC

2014-15
Christian Higham, Cornell
Kate Mackenzie, Quinnipiac
Randi Marcon, Quinnipiac
Meike Meilleur, Penn State

2013-14
Shelby Audet, NAIT
Danielle Krzyszczyk, Harvard
Callie Paddock, Mercyhurst
Madison Patrick, UBC
Saige Rempel Patrick, Wisconsin-Superior

2012-13
Annie Chipman, UND
Kelly Matarazzo, Mount Allison
Jenna Thompson, Grant MacEwan

2011-12
Nicole McGlenen, Manitoba

"It’s fun being in a league and having something to compete for and I think that’s what made the Sports School Challenge so exciting," says Kate Mackenzie, a St. Mary’s alum who spent four seasons playing for the NCAA’s Quinnipiac University Bobcats. "We had the opportunity to play teams we hadn’t played before and we could play for a championship. For a competitive group of people, it always makes it so much fun."

While participation rates for female hockey in Canada have plateaued (Hockey Manitoba had 6,245 registered female players in 2018-19, a slight increase from the previous two seasons), the quality of the players, says former St. Mary’s star Randi Marcon, is still improving.

"There are more girls competing at a higher calibre," says the 22-year-old Marcon, who graduated with Mackenzie from Hamden, Conn.-based Quinnipiac in the spring of 2019. "When I think back, going to high school you could pinpoint the top players.

"It’s fun being in a league and having something to compete for and I think that’s what made the Sports School Challenge so exciting," says Kate Mackenzie, a St. Mary’s alum who spent four seasons playing for the NCAA’s Quinnipiac University Bobcats. (Rob Rasmussen photo)

"It’s fun being in a league and having something to compete for and I think that’s what made the Sports School Challenge so exciting," says Kate Mackenzie, a St. Mary’s alum who spent four seasons playing for the NCAA’s Quinnipiac University Bobcats. (Rob Rasmussen photo)

‘Now you see the whole team is competitive and has that level of skill. The game in Canada and at university is growing tremendously. Every year in the States, we started the year with an exhibition game against a Canadian team and it was a good game. You don’t see much difference anymore."

Long-time St. Mary’s head coach Larry Bumstead says the female game is evolving.

"Is it growing?" says Bumstead. "Not as much as it once was but the interest and the commitment of female athletes is greater than ever. They want to be that player… The commitment level is definitely growing. Girls are training more and they’re training harder."

Mackenzie, also one of Marcon’s high school teammates, says the idea of playing at St. Mary’s inspired her when she was younger. At SMA, they became a band of sisters.

"That was always a goal for me," says the 23-year-old Mackenzie, who earned a Health Sciences degree at Quinnipiac and is planning to qualify for medical school in Canada. "Growing up, I was surrounded by all my friends and when it came to SMA, my friends all had that prep goal in mind. When we finally got on the team — me and Randi, Meike (Meilleur) and Christian Higham, who all ended up playing Division I hockey — it was really exciting to all play for the prep team and going forward knowing our next step could be Division I."

"You grow a lot just being a competitive athlete. Just having that demanding schedule is a lot for a student," Randi Marcon said. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

"You grow a lot just being a competitive athlete. Just having that demanding schedule is a lot for a student," Randi Marcon said. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Marcon, who aspires to become a high school teacher, says the discipline and camraderie of playing a team sport at St. Mary’s and later in the NCAA had a long-term impact. She employs many those lessons in her current life.

"I was a good student, but I was a procrastinator," says Marcon. "But it teaches you so much and I think that comes with hockey or any competitive sport. It’s so much more. Time management is key. We missed our first two days of school (for hockey) so you’re starting every year behind. You’ve got to communicate with your teachers and you’ve gotta communicate with your classmates.

"You grow a lot just being a competitive athlete. Just having that demanding schedule is a lot for a student."

Bumstead, a volunteer at SMA for the entire nine-year run of the prep program, takes great pride in what the FWSSC has become.

"We have all the teams under one roof, all four rinks are going," says Bumstead. "The volunteer base is all from the SMA family and alumni. We’re just trying to promote female hockey... We had teams on the waiting list to get in this year."

 "To think, when I was young if I wanted to play good hockey or really compete and develop, I played boys hockey," Marcon said. (Rob Rasmussen photo)

"To think, when I was young if I wanted to play good hockey or really compete and develop, I played boys hockey," Marcon said. (Rob Rasmussen photo)

Higham, 22, remembers the tournament giving credibility to the SMA prep program and its players.

"It was really exciting because we has such a great facility at the Iceplex," says Higham. "It was a great venue to host such a big tournament and given that a lot of the time we’d be on the road and in tournaments in other cities, it was nice to have one here in Winnipeg and get a lot of support from the people and school and friends and family.

"With all the work put in by organizers and volunteers, we were really given a memorable experience and made to feel like our athletic and academic pursuits were being taken seriously."

Five years removed from her Winnipeg playing days, Marcon is back in her hometown. She’s doing graduate work in education at Université de Saint-Boniface, while also maintaining close ties to the female hockey scene.

So much has changed.

Long-time St. Mary’s head coach Larry Bumstead says the female game is evolving. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Long-time St. Mary’s head coach Larry Bumstead says the female game is evolving. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"In Winnipeg, the growth has been crazy," says Marcon, who has a sideline gig as an instructor with Vigier Hockey, former NHLer J.P. Vigier’s skills training company. "To think, when I was young if I wanted to play good hockey or really compete and develop, I played boys hockey. I played ringette to start, then one year of girls (hockey) and I switched to boys hockey at 10. It was awesome but it’s not the same.

"You want to play against girls, right? My younger sister (Tessa) never played boys hockey. She always had a competitive girls team to play for and she’s only four years younger."

The college options for top high school players have also expanded since Marcon and Mackenzie went south to pursue their dreams. Marcon’s sister plays at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., a U Sports school.

"They’re going into U Sports more and I think it’s for a couple of reasons," says Bumstead. "(The Canadian schools) are offering better scholarship packages and they’re recruiting and the league is better. Manitoba winning a national championship (in 2018-19) has been great for the sport."

Higham, who earned an arts degree while playing at Cornell, an Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y., will soon be embarking on a Masters degree, probably in her hometown. Her playing career may be over, but the discipline of a hockey player’s life remains.

"I definitely see those habits formed over the years of playing hockey are still playing a big part in my life," says Higham. "It was a pretty smooth transition to university where the format of class and then hockey was similar to how it was during my years at SMA."

Marcon (right) mixes it up with Banff's Caitlin Sweet at the third-annual challenge in 2015. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Marcon (right) mixes it up with Banff's Caitlin Sweet at the third-annual challenge in 2015. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Marcon admits she’s a retired player (for now) but the idea of staying in the game as a coach stirs her imagination. Teaching in a high school would be a natural place to become dedicated coach.

"I was a competitive person and I loved hockey but it was so much more than just the hockey," says Marcon. "The moments you have in the dressing room or on the ice with your teammates is something, when you’re retired and done, that’s so special."

Mackenzie is focused on a medical career but she believes there’s a lot of value in giving back.

"I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in women’s hockey," she says. "Once I’ve found and settled on a career that I like… then I would start volunteering and maybe if I had time, take an assistant coaching job. I do think that giving back is important after having the experiences I’ve had and all the people that supported us along the way. I hope that other people have the same mindset."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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