Yellowknife proves the perfect host for a para hockey reunion
Rarely are national team rosters decided inside Yellowknife’s Shorty Brown Arena.
This week, however, the Canadian women’s para hockey team has been holding its first in-person selection camp in two years – and giving residents the chance to try their sport.
Before around 20 elite athletes took to the ice, Yellowknifers spent an hour trying to master a sport that requires balance, core strength and, at the highest level, phenomenal arm capacity to drive a sled across the ice.
“It was awesome. It was super hard. Kudos to everyone that plays, it’s unreal,” said resident Katie Santos of her first experience. Santos, who came down on the spur of the moment to try the game, now wants an adult league she can play in.
“It was hard,” exclaimed Ben Mager, one of many Yellowknife kids who stopped in to try para hockey. “It was hard to stop, and turn and stuff. I tipped over a lot.”
Canada’s top para hockey athletes are in Yellowknife in part because the city has already taken the sport to its heart, thanks to the Oldford family.
Riley Oldford, born with cerebral palsy, and mom Sharon have not only adopted para hockey as their sport of choice but gifted that passion to many of Riley’s friends, too. Their enthusiasm earns a place for Yellowknife on Canada’s para hockey map.
“We had applied for funding to go into more remote regions, to support growth and development,” said Janice Coulter, president of Women’s Para Hockey of Canada.
“Yellowknife was one of our chosen destinations, partly because we have a relationship with Sharon and Riley.
“We travel a lot throughout the country. We’ve been to lots of interesting places. I would say this is probably in the top one.”
On Wednesday, Sharon was signing up more people for Yellowknife para hockey as they left the ice.
“I am so excited to see people come out and try it,” she said. (Another session runs from 1pm to 2pm on Saturday.) “Hopefully we’ll get some more people out. It is pretty exciting to see somebody come and try something that we love so much.”
The taster session over, Canada’s elite women emerged to battle for places at this year’s Women’s World Challenge – considered a step toward creating a women’s world championship.
Para hockey has been a Paralympic sport since 1994 and open to women since 2010, but being open to women is one thing. Encouraging female participation is another.
While women are technically eligible to play, Paralympic teams to date have been almost entirely male. (One female athlete took part in the eight-team para hockey tournament at the Beijing 2022 Paralympics: China’s Yu Jing.)
The encouraging thing for veteran team members in Yellowknife this week is seeing the standard rise not only of women’s para hockey, but of the Canadian team, too.
“When we started, we were lucky to get eight or nine women together,” said Christina Picton, who has spent 17 years in the program. Without an opportunity to play hockey at the Paralympics, Picton competed at Beijing 2022 in biathlon and cross-country skiing instead.
“You saw how competitive it was tonight,” she said after a training game ended in a 3-2 overtime defeat for her team. “Like, bodies flying everywhere. It was so competitive. Everybody’s hardcore. Everybody’s here to earn their spot and and show what they’ve got.
“It’s so exciting to see and be a part of.”
It’s a thrill in part because these players haven’t seen each other in person for years.
The last time this many of the team were in one place? February 2020.
“Covid happened and we weren’t together for a full two years on ice,” said Picton, who instead joined her team-mates for strength and conditioning training a few times each week via Zoom.
“The skills have only gotten better from players I played with two years ago. And then we have new women coming up and they’re really impressive. We had a really great rivalry with the States before and we’ve only improved.”
No traffic, new experience
Yes, Yellowknife was chosen for this camp as a means of spreading the word about para hockey – and thanking the Oldfords for their promotion of the sport in the North. (Riley joined the elite athletes for the Wednesday game.)
But the city’s proving a fantastic host, Coulter said.
“You can stick to a schedule,” she told Cabin Radio. “Everything is less than 10 minutes away. I love it. Your schedule never gets messed up, because there’s no traffic.
“Small communities are always better, honestly. They support you in a whole different way. Media are interested in what you’re doing because they’re not distracted by a million other things, so you get media support, you get community support. Everybody knows you’re in town, and they’re really kind and helpful.
“Also, because none of our women are actually from this community, it’s a new experience for everyone and everybody gets that shared experience of being somewhere new.”
Thursday was a chance for the players, aged 14 to 43 and from all corners of Canada, to explore the city and meet Indigenous residents.
“Yellowknife is one of those places that ends up being a bucket-list item for you. And the people are just great. The city is amazing,” said Claire Buchanan, who scored the game-winning goal on Wednesday night.
“We’ve never been this far north before,” said Picton. “To be here in Yellowknife and to experience this territory, and see a little bit of what you guys have going on up here, is so exciting. It’s a really great facility and everybody that’s helping us has been phenomenal. I can’t say enough.”
This is not the first time a national para hockey team has come to Yellowknife.
Sharon Oldford remembers the men’s team holding a development camp in the city in 2011, a visit that helped bring equipment to Yellowknife and nurture the sport locally.
“It feels like we’ve come full circle,” she said.
Everyone had a reason to smile on Wednesday. First-timers coming off the ice at the end of the try-it session. Elite athletes shooting for a national team place in a closely fought game, laughing with friends they haven’t seen in the flesh for an age.
“it’s just like a huge family reunion,” said Picton. “I’ve played with these women for more than 10 years.”
“This is my seventh season trying out for the national team,” said Buchanan, “and it’s been great because there are a lot of new faces here trying out. The next generation has so much fire in them.
“You can’t put into words how great it feels to be back around your team-mates and back on the ice together, working toward that goal of representing Canada.”