The 2011-12 regular season was still three weeks away, but head coach Jeff
Andrews sensed something special about his Pembina Valley Hawks.
At a pre-season tournament in Melville, Sask., the Hawks – two-time
defending Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League champions – earned a couple
of easy wins before facing the Weyburn Gold Wings, one of the top teams in
the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League.
“We beat Weyburn 5-1,” says Andrews. “It started right there. That was
Sept. 18, 2011. It was evident to me from that point on that we could do
something real special with that group.”
The team went 18-1-1 during the regular season to sit atop the MFMHL
standings. Four players finished among the top 10 in scoring. Including
league play, the Hawks had 72 games that season. They won 54.
“Usually every year a team has to battle through something, but there
weren’t any major road bumps,” says Madison Hutchinson, the Hawks’ captain.
“We had a strong team. We played for each other every game.”
Right before the provincial championship, the team played a tournament at
Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn. The Hawks tied the Thunder Bay
Queens – the 2010 Esso Cup champions – and fell 3-1 to the girls prep team
from Shattuck. They next faced the Chicago Mission, another U19 team. The
final score: Chicago 7, Pembina Valley 1.
“That was a point for us to look in the mirror and say, ‘We think we’re
pretty good, but that team just dismantled us and made us look pretty
ordinary,’” says Andrews. “It was a real wake-up call.”
The Hawks returned home and swept three straight best-of-five playoff
series, taking out the Yellowhead Chiefs, Winnipeg Ice and Winnipeg Avros
to secure a third-straight MFMHL championship.
But the biggest hurdle awaited in Wilcox, Sask.
The Notre Dame Hounds had made back-to-back appearances in the Esso Cup,
winning Canada’s National Female Midget Championship in 2011 and taking
silver in 2010. Both times they beat the Hawks in the West Regional to get
All season long the Hawks sought out tougher competition – like at
Shattuck-St. Mary’s – to test themselves, taking the hits that came with
the losses. “We tried to match up against teams that would push us and
allow us to grow,” says Andrews, “to face some adversity so if it happened
again we’d know what we needed to do and how to respond.”
The Hawks went up early in Game 1 and closed out a 2-1 win. They took a 2-0
lead in Game 2, only for the Hounds to send it to overtime.
“You just had that feeling of, ‘Uh-oh,” says Andrews.
But there would be no ‘uh-oh.’ Lauren Keen’s slap shot from the top of the
circle ended the series in the extra period.
“When that puck went in you kind of felt like you’d just climbed a
mountain,” says Andrews. “Beating [Notre Dame] gave us a big shot in the
arm heading into nationals.”
Pembina Valley entered the Esso Cup having won 22 straight league and
playoff games. Up first in Charlottetown, P.E.I., was the Edmonton Thunder,
making its fourth straight Esso Cup appearance.
The teams played 65 minutes of scoreless hockey before Jessica Kaminsky’s
goal in the seventh round of the shootout finally gave the Hawks the win.
“[That game] set the tone for the week,” says Hutchinson. “Right off the
bat it opened our eyes and we saw how we needed to play.”
Goaltender Brittni Mowat was perfect again the next day, a 4-0 win over the
Rebelles du Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean. When Metro Boston Pizza scored in the
second period on Day 3 it snapped Mowat’s shutout streak at 157:08, still
an Esso Cup record. It was the only shot that beat her that day, a 2-1 win.
Back-up Kristen Hunt made 24 saves in a 4-2 over the host Capital City
Cyclones to push Pembina Valley to 4-0.
The winning streak ended with the preliminary round. The equally-undefeated
Thunder Bay Queens continued their offensive roll in a 5-4 win. The Queens
scored 36 goals in five games, or 22 more than the second highest-scoring
team, the Hawks.
“It was interesting because Thunder Bay cruised through the tournament,”
says Andrews. “There was a definite feeling that they were going to win.
Everyone was talking about how good they were. It was pretty easy for us to
fly under the radar.”
But losing only once in the preliminary round showed the Hawks that they
were right there with them.
“We didn’t consider ourselves to be favourites [going in],” says Andrews.
Building themselves up too much would inevitably lead to a letdown. But the
belief was there all along: if the team played the way it did all year, it
would have a shot to be there at the end. “So don’t be surprised when you
are,” Andrews said then. “And seize the moment if you get that chance.”
Cassidy Carels scored both goals for the Hawks in a 2-1 semifinal win over
She scored twice more in the gold medal game against Thunder Bay, and Mowat
– named Top Goaltender – turned aside 35 shots.
The final? Pembina Valley 4, Thunder Bay 2.
“We knew we were the underdogs going in,” says Mowat. “I remember the last
couple of plays just standing there and believing we finally did it.”
The sign hanging by the end boards proved prophetic: “12 Towns = Pembina
Valley = Esso Cup!”
“I never did Team Canada stuff,” says Hutchinson, who earned Top Defencemen
honours, “so to be able to hold the trophy for our team, for our little
towns, from a bunch of places in Manitoba that probably no one had ever
heard of, was pretty cool.”
Mowat was fêted at a community gathering in her hometown of Glenboro, and
Hutchinson was celebrated at her high school in Manitou. The team was
invited to several parades. “We toured the towns with the Cup and our
banner,” says Mowat. “It was cool to go to a few people’s hometowns and
show what we earned.”
Hutchinson continued to skate with the team when she’d come home for
Christmas from Bemidji State University, where she and roommate Mowat are
Both will be cheering on this year’s Hawks when they host the 2017 Esso
Cup. Five years ago Hutchinson’s younger sister, Mackenzie, watched from
the stands as Madison accepted the cup on behalf of the team. Mackenzie is
now the Hawks’ captain, and Madison has shared what she learned.
“Play every game like it could be your last game,” says Hutchinson. “You
can’t say ‘I wish I did this, I wish I did that.’ Leave it all out there
In other words, seize the moment when you get the chance.