Forget the NHL if you want to see real hockey, watch the Middleton Regional High School’s girls’ team.
Tammy Belanger, team manager, says her players work hard to be at the top of their game and among the best in the league. And despite setbacks, they offer some of the best hockey games in the Valley.
Their recent 10-5 win in Barrington likely would have been a shutout had their regular goalie been able to play. Belanger added that this was a special game partly because, for the first time in her memory, the girls’ had a bus transport them.
Unlike the dedicated buses for boys’ hockey teams, usually her players need their parents to drive them to the games.
Three years ago this team was nearly dropped after too few girls showed enough interest in playing, and no one was interested in managing the team. Belanger met with the principal and made a case to give the team one more year, and by the end of that season, the team was in the play-offs.
Recently she recruited Keith Vienott to coach, while she continues on as manager.
Last year after several seniors graduated, the team was down to 11 players. Even though the numbers were small, the girls carried enough skill and spirit to win their spot at the regionals.
Belanger added that personally she’s proud of them, not only for their cutting edge plays, but for how well they look after each other and make sure everyone is included in the game.
Recently the rules have changed and now only students in Grades 7 through 12 are eligible for the team. In the past Grade 6 students could play with the older students.
Where the boys’ teams are broken down by age into junior and senior teams, the girls’ high school team is a range of ages. As a result of this rule change one student wasn’t able to make the team this year, but still wants to be a part of it.
While this mix of ages and skill levels is a competitive disadvantage in one sense, it fosters a tremendous spirit of teamwork and mentorship between the senior and inexperienced players.
Belanger admits that when the chips are down she uses her strongest players to win, but everyone on the team will have the same opportunity to play in each game, nobody sits on the bench.
She added her senior girls are very good at mentoring the younger players. The strongest players like Rachael Banks, Natasha Wotton, Jillian Bent and Taylor Peters encourage the younger ones to have the same opportunities to shine.
And aside from smooth passes and wicked-hard slapshots, these girls showcase a talent for fair play and true sportsmanship you don’t see often in any hockey, she added.
While anyone who’s watched them agrees this team plays strong, competitive hockey; for some reason, the crowds don’t turn out in support of the girls the way they fill the seats to cheer for the boys’ teams.
“These girls are playing a smooth, dedicated, precise passing game,” she said. “Even though they are at the top of their league, they don’t attract the crowds. The boys can lose and still get a lot of hype.”
She added that she hears people say that watching women’s hockey is like watching paint dry and nothing can be further from the truth. While girls have more opportunities to play than in years past, the boys’ road has always been paved and the girls’ road is still a rough and winding one that is still under construction.
“It seems the girls need to earn their right to play hockey,” she said. “For the boys, it’s a given that they can and they will play.”
A few years ago when her daughter Sam, who is now enrolled at the Ontario Hockey Academy, was trying out for the AAA team, Belanger remembers taking a quick trip to Frenchys to buy curtains.
The rink manager in Kingston had assigned Sam a dressing room with a window that was wide open to the arena. Despite the initial confusion, Sam played exceptionally well but didn’t make the team because at that time, girls just didn’t play at that level.
She finished the year on the AA team and went on to be among the female players scouted to Team Nova Scotia. Belanger thinks there may be one female now playing on the AAA team, but there aren’t many.
“The boys’ road is paved,” she said. “It seems the girls need someone in front of them, knocking the rocks away.”
Keith Vienott, the team coach, agrees the girls’ team doesn’t attract the same fanfare the boys have at the home games. He says his pet peeve is more with the referees, who don’t show the same level of interest when the girls play.
“The refs don’t show the same respect for the girls’ team,” he said. “They don’t make the same effort to watch the plays as they would when it’s boys on the ice.”
Vienott, who coached boys’ teams in the past, said he finds that the girls always give 100 per cent to the game and to each other. The girls will set their egos aside and will play in a way to make each other better.
“There’s some big time talent here,” he says. “People would be amazed at the show the girls can put on.”
Belanger says that while her team offers some of the best hockey talent in the Valley, it also serves as an example of what girls can do, and perhaps the best qualities of true sportsmanship.
“They play as a team, they are accepting and inclusive of each other and respectful of the other teams,” she said. “I want people to know that a girl can do anything she sets her mind to do, and I want the girls to know there is wide world of possibility waiting for them.”