No Skates, No Skills, No Problem

I had been in Fort Smith for about two months when the questions started. I’d be out interviewing someone for work and suddenly it would be my turn to answer:

“So are you going to join hockey?”

Women’s hockey. I recall it being a thing for the most hardcore of players, the university athletes, the girls who were lucky enough to have grown up playing hockey all of their lives, who had mastered their slapshots when they were kids and could dangle like the boys.

I got my first pair of skates when I was three. Growing up in a rural Saskatchewan family meant we watched — and played — hockey. At least, we knew how. We had a dug-out for watering our cows that would freeze in the winter. Our feet would freeze along with it as we scraped our way over the yellow, cracked ice in -40 temperatures, back when the Prairies were cold.

It was then that I learned there is not a single excuse that can work for you when trying to avoid being scooped up by women’s hockey in smalltown NWT — apart from “Hell no.”

I could sit on my dad’s lap and yell “off side” — correctly, I might add — at the refs on Hockey Night in Canada before I’d ever actually pick up a stick and play. We could really only afford one tiered, traveling hockey player in our family, and my brother had already unofficially called that spot. Besides, I was already busy in almost every other sport.

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Here in Fort Smith, at the age of 25, I was getting my first chance to move my game off the frozen lakes and shinny rinks into a real arena.

“But I don’t have any equipment.”

It was then that I learned there is not a single excuse that can work for you when trying to avoid being scooped up by women’s hockey in smalltown NWT — apart from “Hell no.”

The ladies behind the Fort Smith Fury, which celebrated its official 10th anniversary last season, will do pretty much whatever it takes to help you get on the ice.

You need gear? Some of our retired players will throw their second-hand stuff at you. You can’t skate? Everyone falls. You have no idea how to play? Tell us that at the end of your first season, long after you’ve scored your first goal.

According to the team’s founders, it’s always been that way. Shari Olsen, now a veteran defenceman and outgoing Fury president, had never played hockey until about 12 years ago, when she’d started aging past the ability to run and train like she used to, and thought hockey would be a lower-impact cardio sport. Having been a figure-skater growing up, she had some on-ice experience.

Not that it mattered.

“We had literally people who walked around the boards when they started to people who played hockey as a kid or came over from ringette,” Olsen says. “A lot of the women who started way back when, and even now, weren’t the most physical or sporty women, but it was a chance for them to participate in a sport and have fun with it.”

The author, in her Ft. Smith Fury finery

The fact that there are few barriers to getting involved makes it an attractive draw for adult women, who generally lack access to team sports, especially in rural communities.

“The huge thing is the social aspect,” says Jennifer Thistle, president and one of the original members of Fort Simpson’s Moosehide Mommas team, which got going 11 years ago. “Sometimes you build lifelong relationships. Like for me, I met one of my bestest friends. Every time I meet someone who talks about wanting to join, I say, ‘Come out! Once you try it, you’ll love it.’”

There are even legendary stories from the early days of women’s hockey in the territory of games that would come to a halt so players could breast-feed.

For moms with little ones to nurses and teachers new to town, hockey offers a network of friends and a means of embracing the long, dark winter.

Jeanette Kakfwi started playing hockey when she was 11 back in Fort Good Hope, but as one of only two female hockey players in town, she was subjected to playing with the bantam and midget boys. In some ways, it was great for skill development; in others, a tough place to be.

“It was pretty rough but good,” she laughs. “But you can’t get too competitive or the guys take it the wrong way.”

Moving to Fort Smith in 2014 marked her first time playing on a women’s team, and she’s loved the physical activity and bonding the sport provides. While she sometimes brings her kids along with her, hockey also serves as the occasional “little getaway” from her family.

It’s also a way for her to continue her love of athletics despite now approaching her mid-20s, going to college and having a family.

“When I grew up, I used hockey so I could travel, as a gateway out of an isolated community,” she says. “After growing up there’s not that many opportunities to continue.”

Tournaments and travel

In a lot of ways, adult women’s hockey is still about getting out of town.

Because of the small number of women players, teams in small Northern communities often have to split in half to play against themselves, minor hockey, or occasionally the men’s Old Timers league.

“Sometimes the attendance isn’t there and so it’s tough to have a great practice or scrimmage,” says Stephanie Cudmore, also a Moosehide Momma. “You often have to rely on men to help if you want to learn the ‘game’ components.”

The only time most of us are able to play someone that isn’t us is when we drive anywhere between three to eight hours to do so.  

That’s where tournament season comes into play, and NWT women’s hockey takes its tournaments seriously. Almost every second weekend from January to March, you can find yourself facing off with teams from northern Alberta and B.C. to as far north as Inuvik during the day, and sharing potluck meals and drinks in the evenings.

“Tournaments are pretty important, because then you get to meet other teams,” Thistle says. “I think they’re really important to actually bring that team-building together and show the skills that we’ve learned over the season, and really get accomplishments out of it.”

Although many of the newer players are often nervous to go to tournaments, the inclusive and fun-focused atmosphere means most do end up not only playing, but improving and excelling in ways they don’t get a chance to during regular play.

“When they are done playing, they are ecstatic,” Thistle says. “They didn’t even know they could do what they did on the ice. So it’s rewarding for them to see how far they’ve come that season with practice.”

The friendly — albeit sometimes fiercely competitive — atmosphere is what continues to draw people in and make women’s hockey such a uniquely special scene. There is a camaraderie even among competing teams, who will more often than not compete for who can buy the other team more drinks when it’s all said and done.

Kids are also more than welcome to tag along to games and tournaments, hanging out in the dressing rooms and cheering on their moms from beside the bench. There are even legendary stories from the early days of women’s hockey in the territory of games that would come to a halt so players could breast-feed.

“Where else can you open up a hockey bag and find a breast pump?” Olsen says.

Like Thistle, Olsen enjoys witnessing the rewards that come with improvement in her teammates’ game.

“Watching those new-to-us people come out and have such a high challenge and succeeding, being able to skate and stop and get the puck and make their first goal — that’s the most exciting thing,” she says. “It’s like childhood thrills coming out. Where else do you see that?”

For Thistle, those joys resonate long after the natural ice in her community’s arena has melted.

“You get to share your hockey experiences and stories, and it’s about growing personally,” she says. “You learn different skills. For me, it helped me grow as a leader and also, not only as a teammate, but in my personal life, it’s influential. I find it really inspiring to find a connection that’s positive, that’s an inspiration.”

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