City of Red Deer Recreation Parks and Culture employee Brad Mann eyes the next spot for a banner at the Arena on Friday. Preparations at the Arena are well underway as city workers and volunteers prepare to welcome the teams playing in the Esso Cup girls hockey tournament beginning Sunday.

Esso Cup great for girls’ game, say organizers

Fourteen months of work is about show its face for Todd Thiessen.

Fourteen months of work is about show its face for Todd Thiessen.

The president of the Red Deer Minor Hockey Association has been busy preparing to host the Esso Cup, the midget AAA girls hockey national championship, which begins on Sunday afternoon.

What began as a three-man brigade, charged with developing the women’s game in Central Alberta, has grown to an army of about 100 volunteers.

The mission began two years ago when former national team head coach Melody Davidson called a meeting with Thiessen, Sutter Fund Chiefs head coach Tom Bast and RDMHA general manager Dallas Gaume.

“She pointed at me and said ‘Just on an aside, you guys should think about hosting the Esso Cup, it would be great for Central Alberta from a business standpoint … but it would be great for female hockey development,’” said Thiessen. “We’re seeing if we can get more girls into the game and more girls excited about the game.”

Thiessen has also worked closely with Hockey Alberta on the same mandate.

One of the big changes likely coming down the pike in the next couple of years will be the removal of regional boundaries for female players at the midget AAA level. While there is the chance this could be in play for next season, Tim Leer, senior manager for Hockey Alberta, says it will likely take until the 2016-17 season to implement, as they iron out all the details and concerns over the next year.

It is just one of the major changes Hockey Alberta is looking at to grow the game, including the introduction of a midget AA feeder league and strengthened regionalization at the grassroots level.

“It’s time to look at things, it’s been a certain way for many years and I think it’s an opportunity now to throw everything on the table,” said Leer.

“Let’s learn from the past but let’s not be handcuffed by the past either. Let’s look forward and how the world has changed and is the game keeping up to those changes that we’re seeing in society?”

The tearing down of the regional boundaries at the midget AAA level is what interests Thiessen the most, in terms of developing a more competitive Alberta Major Midget Female Hockey League.

What this will do is allow a girl from Grande Prairie or Fort McMurray or other locations, to come play midget AAA hockey in Red Deer, or any other centre, while attending school here and being billeted. It will help keep major midget as a viable, more financially affordable, option to the private academies like Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask., and the Warner hockey School.

“We will be able to do it for their $1,000 registration fee instead of their $35,000 to go to a private school,” said Thiessen. “If you equate female hockey to the male model, this is their junior hockey. To go any higher than this, you’re going to go CIS or NCAA and that’s the female version of professional hockey.”

Another big step taken by girls hockey in Red Deer this season is the move to an almost academy-style system, working with Erik Lodge at École Secondaire Notre Dame High School. During the school day the girls get to work on their on-ice skills and off-ice training and then go to practice with their team in the evening.

Thiessen has seen this payoff in a big way as the Chiefs turned into one of the top teams in the province this year, making it all of the way to the provincial final before bowing out to perennial national contender Edmonton Thunder, who advanced to the Esso Cup out of the Pacific Region.

But his goals are more altruistic than just grooming athletes.

“We all do this because of what these kids turn out to be once they are done playing hockey, what they’re like when they’re employees, neighbours, spouses, parents, community leaders,” said Thiessen. “That’s what we’re developing here. We’re in the people development business, this isn’t just about hockey.”

The Esso Cup will also be a vehicle for the local hockey community to change the perception of the girls’ game.

Thiessen, in just doing the ground work for the championship, has already seen those perceptions evolve.

“It’s massive in the sense that the ability of the female athletes has improved exponentially over the last 10 years, they take their training more serious, they take their development more serious, they take their practice time more serious — these are athletes,” said Thiessen.

The tournament will cost about $170,000 to put on — Hockey Canada is covering travel, hotel and food for the visiting teams — but those costs have already been covered through grants like the Daryl K. Seaman Foundation, the Community Initiatives Program, Red Deer Hotels, and through many tournament sponsors like Birchcliff Energy and Stantec.

Though Thiessen is happy with pre-ticket sales, he is expecting large walk-up crowds, especially for the Chiefs home games — requesting everyone to wear red — all of which are at 7 p.m.

The tournament opens on Sunday at noon when the Sudbury Wolves take on the Saskatoon Stars, followed by the Central Plains Capitals and Edmonton Thunder at 3:30 p.m. The Chiefs open their tournament schedule in that evening’s prime time slot against the Moncton Rockets.

For Thiessen, there is only one appropriate ending to the tournament.

“We want a national title,” he said. “I’ve got two others under my belt as president with the Telus Cup, Id’ love nothing more than an Esso Cup.”

jaldrich@bprda.wpengine.com

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