All systems go: Seals, Reign have girls’ hockey ready for takeoff

If the Vancouver Island Seals need any female sports role models, they don’t have to look too far. This is a notable week for Canadian women’s sport, especially at the international level.

The Langford-based rugby sevens national team returned to the Island with back-to-back World Series silver medals in New Zealand and Australia, buoying hopes for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Christine Sinclair became the all-time leading scorer in international women’s soccer as she leads Canada into the crucial CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinal against Costa Rica on Friday for Tokyo 2020. The Kia Nurse-led world No. 4 Canadian women’s basketball team opens its Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualifying tournament today in Belgium.

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On Monday, 7,006 enthusiastic supporters of women’s sports filled Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre for the Canada-U.S. Rivalry Series hockey game.

“Female sports is reaching critical mass,” said Kyla Hartnell, who coaches the Seals in the B.C. Hockey Female Midget Triple-A League.

“We are seeing huge growth. Viewership of things like the WNBA is increasing across North America. The response Monday to the Canada-U.S. hockey game was fantastic. None of my players needed prompting. They all bought tickets on their own and they brought friends with them to the game. This followed on the heels of the women’s three-on-three game during the NHL all-star weekend.”

It wasn’t always like this. Hartnell remembers having to choose ringette growing up in Saskatchewan while brother and 17-season NHLer Scott Hartnell got to play hockey.

“It wasn’t easy for females to choose hockey back then,” she said.

“The movement has been about reducing barriers to participation and having more girls play multiple sports. There are so many more opportunities now, including college and university scholarship opportunities.”

Hartnell is doing her part to facilitate the growth of female hockey. The Nanaimo physiotherapist guides the best female 15- to 17-year-old players on the Island. The Seals play in the five-team B.C. Midget (U-18) Triple-A League with the Greater Vancouver Comets, Fraser Valley Rush, Thompson-Okanagan Lakers and Northern Capitals.

This is the provincial elite level U-18 league. If B.C. players are to join the likes of Micah Zandee-Hart of Saanichton on the Canadian national team, they will come out of this league.

The grassroots level is represented by the Capital Region Female Minor Hockey Association’s Victoria Reign program, which this season became the first all-girls’ youth hockey association on the Island.

“The aim is to foster growth at all levels,” said Hartnell.

With the Seals being the elite team to shoot for on the Island for female youth hockey players. The team has done well the past few seasons. But with heavy graduation from last season, the rebuilding Seals are by far the youngest team in the B.C. league and winless in their first 25 games. This youthful set is looking to grow together as a group over the next few seasons.

“We are developing as a team and play with a ton of pride,” said Hartnell.

“We are small in size but mighty in heart. We have a real growth mindset looking toward success in future years.”

The same might be said of women’s hockey in general.

Everybody agrees a key will be the establishment of something like a WNHL for these elite U-18 B.C. players to aspire.

“The WNBA is really paving the way for us and is something we are looking to model ourselves after,” said Canadian national team veteran Natalie Spooner, when in Victoria this week, for the Rivalry Series game against the U.S.

“The [female] players are so much more faster and skilled now and we want to get out there and get our product shown,” added the 2014 Sochi gold medallist and 2018 Pyeongchang silver-medallist Winter Olympian.

“Hopefully, the WNHL is happening in the future.”

Hartnell hopes so, too. Her brother had the NHL to shoot for and he made it. Maybe her young charges on the Island Seals, and the rest of the players in the B.C. Hockey Female Triple-A Midget League, might be able to harbour the same dream one day for a WNHL.

“A WNHL would be wonderful to have,” said Hartnell.

“But the challenge will be to find a feasible business model.”

Until then, the women’s game must try to grow in any way it can.

The elite provincial level of play in U-18 will be on display this weekend when the Island Seals play the league-leading Comets in a tripleheader Friday at 5:30 p.m. at the Panorama Recreation Centre, Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at The Stick in Duncan and Sunday at 9:30 a.m. at Fuller Lake Arena.

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