Pre-COVID, the Whistler Minor Hockey Association (WMHA) had just seven girls registered across the entire minor hockey program. Now, just two years later, the association boasts 50 girls including two U13 all-girls’ teams.
“What we were noticing is after U13, girls don’t necessarily come back [when integrated with the boys’ teams], so we thought we would try a female program. It started with my daughter’s team in U11, and it was her and three friends and we grew that team to about 15 or 16 players … this year we’ve grown that team to 30 players,” said Jeremy Robb, coach of the U13 C2 women’s Winterhawks.
“So now there are 30 girls at the [U13] age and that’s why we divided into two teams, and then there’s about 20 girls that are starting to come up through the program too. So the growth on the female side is incredible. I believe the association only has about 150 athletes and 50 of them are now female.”
And with that growth has come success.
At first, the two U13 teams—which the coaches tried to split evenly at the start of the year—started in the same division and even tied their only Winterhawks versus Winterhawks matchup with a score of 1-1. But after a post-Christmas-break league restructuring, the two teams were split into different divisions with a C1 and C2 team.
While the beginning of the season was a bit up and down, after the Christmas break, the C2 Winterhawks found their form and started to “learn how to win,” according to Robb.
The C2 Winterhawks went 5-1 in their playoff round robin before winning a nail-biter in front of hundreds of fans at Whistler’s Meadow Park Sports Centre early in March to win the championship banner, something no one thought possible just a few months prior.
“Last year, we lost every single game. We only played about six games, and we were terrible, so I would have never thought we could win the league,” said Winterhawks player Carolyn Bachler. “It was so exciting, especially because there’s only two other girls banners and they’re from like, 2009. So to have this come back in [the] 2022 season it’s really exciting for the team. And it was crazy to see how many people supported our team.”
The final game, played against the North Shore Winter Club, stayed 0-0 until the Winterhawks opened the scoring with about six minutes left to play. However, North Shore would ultimately tie the game to force a shootout. After each team’s first shooter scored, the goalies closed the door on the next four shooters, forcing sudden death.
Once in sudden death, “my best friend Olivia shot first,” said Avery Maile. “It’s her first year of hockey this year. She shot right at the goalie and it went in and we won. It was awesome. I was so happy I started crying. It was so great for her.
“She was talking about quitting hockey to pursue swimming, but it was just so great because now she’s like, ‘I love hockey so much.’”
The C2 team took the momentum from the league championship and finished the season off strong by winning its division at the year-end Tri-Cities tournament.
Meanwhile, the C1 Winterhawks also started to heat up in the second half of the season. In the final game of their playoff double round robin they found themselves needing a win to also book their ticket to the championship game.
Despite their best efforts, the Winterhawks couldn’t pull off the win and ended up tying the eventual banner-winning Chilliwack team, missing out on the championship game by a single point.
“After Christmas, the C1 team was on fire—we were almost unbeatable in C1 hockey. It was just like this crazy push to the final,” said coach Trevor Burton. “It kind of came down to us, Chilliwack and Langley, and we went to Chilliwack knowing that we needed to win.
“With two minutes left they tied the game. We pulled the goalie, it was complete chaos and we ended up tying instead of winning. That was an emotional low, that was a tough tie to take.”
However, the C1 Winterhawks would go on to get their revenge on Chilliwack at the year-end Tri-Cities Tournament. After tying them again in tournament play, the Winterhawks faced Chilliwack once again in the tournament final and were able to get the monkey off their back and pull out the win.
“I’m incredibly proud,” said Burton. “You definitely have a moment where you are really invested with this group of kids because you’ve been there with them early mornings, you’ve driven down to the city with them, they’re a committed group. They show up to every ice that we offer them. They put in work, they’re happy to come, they’re learning to love the game.
“As a coach you can’t ask for anything more and it was great to see them rewarded for that effort.”
Moving into next year, Whistler’s girls’ hockey program looks like it will continue to grow and should even have enough girls to have a team in each of the U11, U13 and U15 categories. And for the members of the current U13 girls’ teams, half of whom will be graduating to U15 hockey next year, this season was a benchmark for what they hope will be sustained success for the program.
“Yep, [winning] would be the goal,” said Bachler. “Now that we can see that we have the ability to do it, I think that’ll motivate us to work hard in the forthcoming years.”