Fly Winterhawks, fly.
Whistler’s U15 girls hockey team has clinched the 2023-24 banner in their division of the Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association (PCAHA). The Winterhawks played in Blue Flight, arguably the most competitive of the PCAHA female C League’s three divisions, with four teams within two points of the regular-season title.
In fact, Whistler’s 12-5-3 record had them tied with the Langley Lightning (11-7-2) at 43 points apiece. The Winterhawks earned their crown by way of notching one more regulation victory than their closest rival.
“I’ve only been playing hockey for three years, and I’ve never won a banner so it’s really special,” said Bella Fruehwirth, who co-captains her squad alongside Tilia Neilson. “I think our team has worked really hard to get it.”
Several of Fruehwirth’s teammates also own a playoff title from their U11 campaign: a game assistant coach Jeremy Robb still hears about from members of the community.
“The girls, they work hard all year and they put a lot into hockey,” said Robb. “They make every practice, they make every game. It’s quite a big achievement for them, and they take it very seriously. The goal they set at the start of the year was to win banners.
“And for the program, it’s huge. We’re trying to really establish that female hockey players are hockey players, just the same as the boys. We always have our backs against the wall. These wins are important because it shows everybody that these girls are athletes and they’re here to play hockey.”
A new squad
About five years ago, Robb noticed the young ladies on his son Charlie’s minor hockey teams were frequently dropping out, and those who remained were often sequestered from their male peers at practice. That didn’t sit well with him.
Thus, Robb and his daughter Olivia decided to try building an all-girls roster.
Olivia, then 11 years of age, took her notepad to school and convinced many of her friends to sign “contracts.” Roughly 15 girls showed up for that inaugural season, which was already a big leap forward for an area that once had only five or six registered female athletes.
Today, Robb figures well over 50 girls comprise one-third of the Whistler Minor Hockey Association (WMHA). Olivia sports an “A” on her jersey alongside fellow alternate captain Thalia Tavuchis, and they’ve helped Fruehwirth and Neilson lead the Winterhawks through a challenging season.
“The team’s at an age where influence from their peers is huge,” said Jennifer Knowlton, who shared head-coaching duties with Kayla Dodson. “Our captains are very subtle, strong individuals. I commend their natural ability to calm the girls down when needed—and they’re also going to go out there and score a goal when we need them to. There’s so much energy in the dressing room … sometimes, a little too much.”
Explains Fruehwirth: “I think the main way I try to lead is to make sure everybody’s feeling comfortable and included, whether that’s during practice or before a game.”
Robb is willing to admit some of the players under his wing have already outgrown what he can teach them, at least from a technical standpoint. That’s why he brought in Knowlton and Dodson, former collegiate players from Ontario equipped to help the Winterhawks upgrade their game.
“The girls’ skills are far beyond me,” Robb said. “It’s kind of a good laugh for them every now and then. They give me a pretty hard time about my skating and stuff like that. I love it. It’s awesome.”
Knowlton, meanwhile, praises Robb’s continuing contributions to the team.
“Having Jeremy was huge,” said the University of Waterloo alum and first-year coach. “He’s known these girls and he’s run practices for years with them, so I can’t say enough about having him beside me. I definitely relied on my fellow coaches when I first stepped in.”
As a “house” level team, the Winterhawks include 17 players who live as far north as Pemberton and as far south as Britannia Beach. Some have been handling pucks since they could walk, while others only began their hockey journeys a year ago. Knowlton, Robb and Dodson faced the task last winter of molding this diverse group into a cohesive unit.
Some squads tend to rely on their best athletes to drive their offence, whether that’s quarterbacking a power play or dangling through the opposition from end to end. That’s not the case in Whistler.
“We’ve asked a lot of these girls to step up in learning how to play a really tactical, system-led hockey game,” Knowlton explained. “Pretty much all of them can shoot the puck in the top corner whenever they want, but we’ve been working on trying to slow it down, get our positions right, and be a tough team to beat. I think the girls have really bought into that idea … and the whole time that we’re teaching these things, they’re having a blast out there.
“It really does take a lot of patience as a 14- or 15-year-old kid to not just chase the puck when it’s near you.”
Switching positions can also take patience, and that was true for several Winterhawks who wished to play forward at first. Knowlton was perplexed by this, as was University of Windsor graduate Dodson. Yet the two former varsity blueliners managed to develop a crop of all-around defencemen—like Fruehwirth—who factored greatly into Whistler’s stretch run.
Despite a 2-2 start, the Winterhawks went unbeaten in nine of their final 11 games to win the C League title. Back-to-back defeats of Langley at January’s end proved vital in their quest to the top.
No doubt Olivia Robb and her teammates are raring to make some noise in the playoffs. Her father wants that too, but he’s also thinking a bit further down the road.
The next goal for him and his peers is to establish a competitive girls’ U18 “rep” program in the Sea to Sky.
Right now, the corridor’s minor hockey pathway funnels teenage players into a relatively high-level integrated team called the Sea to Sky Bears, which represents both Whistler and Squamish. The Bears’ roster is tough to crack even for talented boys, and there are only two total girls in separate age groups: Ella Rempel and Madison Seitz.
Yet there’s reason to believe a female-only U18 operation could stand.
“It is incredible that girls are joining hockey at 14 or 15 years old. This has never happened before,” said Robb. “Typically in the past, what we saw was girls leaving hockey around age 13, so we’ve done an incredible job of keeping them in sport.”
Female players who age out of peewee and are disinterested in remaining at the house level must currently seek stiffer competition in Vancouver. Robb has watched his son Charlie strive to make the Bears since he was 11 years old (a goal he has now accomplished), and knows Olivia would likewise benefit from having that type of goal to aim for.
Knowlton shares that sentiment.
“When I look at it on paper, we’ve got the numbers [and the talent] for a rep team, as well as keeping this house league team going,” she said. “There’s incredible value for girls in particularly the high school age range to have a team-based setting where they’re so fully involved. You don’t always get that on integrated teams, when there are so many changes happening in people’s lives.”
Having separate competitive and house squads for Sea to Sky-based girls would give all of them a chance to play with others of a similar skill level. It would enable them to master the fundamentals of the women’s game, which encourages a different play style from men’s hockey with its abundance of body checking. Just as importantly, it would allow girls to continue through the sport together.
“I would be so happy [to have a U18 team] because playing with girls is one of my favourite parts of hockey,” Fruehwirth said. “I’d be playing against better people. That would make me get better and build my own confidence.”