When Jesse Williamson of Pemberton reached out to the Whistler Minor Hockey Association (WMHA) this season about coaching a team, he wasn’t expecting to be saddled with an oversized roster including both high-end talent and youngsters who have never skated before. After all, he’d never been thrown that kind of curveball in seven or eight prior years of coaching.
Yet that’s exactly what happened, and Williamson ran with it as best he could.
On Jan. 29, the WMHA’s U13 A1 Winterhawks concluded the regular season at the very bottom of their division’s standings. At 3-15-2, they owned as many wins as first-place Aldergrove had losses.
Today, those very same Winterhawks are headed to the Tier 4 BC Championships from March 17 to 24 in Windermere.
“We’ve had a really weird season,” said Lee-Anne Kaufman, a parent who volunteers her time managing the team. “It’s a bit of a Mighty Ducks story.”
Starting from the bottom
Most Canadian minor hockey associations operate both a competitive “rep” team and a recreational “house” squad (which have been rebranded as “A” and “C” respectively by Hockey Canada). The WMHA did not have enough U13 registrants to fill two rosters for the 2022-23 season, causing parents and team personnel to decide that the Winterhawks would forge on with just a rep team.
While this was a favourable decision for the development of more skilled players, it elicited questions regarding those who aren’t as competitive. House skaters only play about half as many games as their rep counterparts each year, with no midweek away contests and a more relaxed travel schedule limited to the North Shore. Many house players do not skate or attend hockey camps in the offseason because they do not intend to pursue the sport at a high level.
Furthermore, having 19 kids on the same team means that Williamson has to exclude one of them from every game in compliance with Hockey Canada regulations.
“That’s never fun, especially with minor hockey—you don’t really want to be sitting kids,” Williamson said. “But in the end, I think the most important thing is that we [as coaches] are teaching them life skills through the sport of hockey.”
In order to accommodate the wide range of ability on his team, Williamson thought outside the box. Many of his drills are meant to be completed as a unit, but instead he divided his kids into multiple groups during practice. By setting up various activity stations, Williamson put players of similar skill levels in position to compete against one another, ensuring that everyone could remain involved.
Kaufman also did her part, returning as a team manager for the fifth time. Her 13-year-old son, Laine, is one of the oldest and most developed skaters on the squad and has BC Championships experience from 2022. Meanwhile, Kaufman is the only U13 Winterhawks parent this year whose child has played rep hockey before.
“I told myself and family that I wasn’t going to [manage] again,” Kaufman said. “But when it came down to getting a call from a board member saying: ‘Hey, we don’t have a manager yet’, I thought I had to do it.”
That, of course, meant signing up for a boatload of responsibility: organizing everything from jersey numbers to budgets to game schedules.
The campaign looked like it was going to be a write-off at first. The Winterhawks dropped game after game, including a 6-0 shutout setback to Semiahmoo on Dec. 7, an 8-3 defeat to Aldergrove a week later, and an especially ugly 14-1 trouncing at the hands of the Langley U13 Eagles on Jan. 21. Needless to say, the parade of losses had an impact on team morale.
“At the start of the year, it was brutal,” Williamson recalled. “Kids were just getting on each other’s cases about missing a pass, or this or that.”
Yet the season, though difficult, was far from a waste. Over time, players began responding to Williamson’s leadership and emphasis on the importance of mutual support regardless of circumstance. He began to notice a change on the bench—a change that would pay dividends.
The Winterhawks rebounded from their blowout loss in Langley, managing a 4-2 win over Semiahmoo and two ties in the final four games of the regular season. In spite of their dismal record, they were eligible for the Tier 4 playoffs—and they peaked at just the right time.
“The kids just really buckled down and started to work together. They killed it all weekend,” Kaufman remembers. “For [Williamson] to actually take this group, you know, he’s really risen to the occasion. I think we, as parents, just had to trust him.”
Two straight wins over West Vancouver brought the Winterhawks to the regional Final Four, where they rolled to a 6-3 triumph over Semiahmoo. That set up a pivotal rematch with Langley, a team that had blasted them by a combined score of 30-7 across three regular-season meetings.
With championship aspirations at stake, the Winterhawks pushed the Eagles to the limit in what Williamson called “a huge dogfight.” Langley would narrowly escape with a 6-5 win by scoring in the last 30 seconds of the contest.
“We played an amazing game,” said Williamson. “We got to the change room afterwards, and every single [Winterhawks] kid was bawling their eyes out. I’ve never seen anything like it from a group of kids that just bonded together. Everyone was so supportive of our goalie, who just felt terrible, but played an outstanding game.
“That was the turning point for me, when I realized: OK, this is an actual team now.”
The Winterhawks bottled their emotions, using them as fuel for a 10-2 victory over the Vancouver Thunderbirds. With the Final Four thus concluded, Kaufman and several of her fellow hockey parents began to drive home, intending to get their kids in bed by a reasonable hour.
But their season wasn’t over.
Kaufman noticed a text message from a BC Hockey representative while on the highway. Pulling over, she learned—much to her shock—that her son and his peers had won the playoff banner.
It had taken statisticians three attempts to verify the numbers according to BC Hockey’s postseason advancement formulas, but Whistler had broken an apparent tie with two other squads. Their win over Semiahmoo, combined with Semiahmoo’s 6-5 takedown of Langley, had pushed them over the top.
The underdog Winterhawks had become Final Four champions.
“My life just got so much busier at 9:15 p.m. that night when the call came through, because all of a sudden, I’m organizing a team of 19 to go to Windermere for seven nights,” said Kaufman. “The kids [who would have played house] this year have developed so much.
“We’re going to Provincials now, and nobody can really fricking believe it.”
It is indeed a turn of events pulled directly from the script of a Mighty Ducks film, a comeback that would make Rocky Balboa himself proud. Now, the Winterhawks are surely eager to see what they can do against six of B.C.’s top teams: Kitimat, Nelson, Revelstoke, 100 Mile House, Elk Valley and Windermere.
Yet, results have never been of primary importance to Williamson.
“My values in coaching are hard work, discipline and communication,” he explained. “I don’t care what the score is in a game, if we win or we lose. As long as the kids give me those three things, I’ll be happy.”
And Williamson has a strong message for any hockey parent who loses sight of the bigger picture.
“It’s really important, especially at this young age, to keep the game fun for the kids,” he said. “So many times, you see parents who seem like they’re living vicariously through their children, like they want them so desperately to make a career out of hockey. And really, if you look at statistics, you’ve probably got about as good a chance of winning the lottery as you do of playing in the NHL.
“That’s not to say I don’t think you should be committed to the sport and try to get better,” Williamson continued. “But I think sometimes parents forget that the most important reason for putting kids into team sports is to teach them how to play well with others, how to compete, and how to win and lose with class. I really, really stress that [parents] need to constantly remind themselves why they put their kids in hockey.”