The Pembina Valley Hawks already know where they’ll be come April 23, 2017.
As the host team of the 2017 Esso Cup, they’ll welcome five regional representatives to Morden, Man., for Canada’s National Female Midget Championship.
How they get there, though – that’s still to be determined.
In the eight-year history of the tournament, no host team has entered the Esso Cup as a provincial or regional champion. The Hawks are off to a good start
in their attempt to become the first; Pembina Valley opened its 2016-17 Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League season with a pair of wins over the Eastman
“The girls worked hard both games,” says Dana Bell, the head coach of the Hawks. “Of course, every year we kind of get the home-opener jitters, so there
was a bit of jitters the first game, but the second game they came out, worked hard and dominated for 60 full minutes.”
In their season opener the Hawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead; less than 90 seconds after the Selects had tied it early in the second, defenceman Cora Falija
snuck in from the point for the game-winner.
The next night, Makenzie McCallum scored twice and the Hawks rode a four-goal second period to a 4-1 win.
Pembina Valley outshot Eastman 74-43 over the two games.
“What I’m seeing right now is drive and determination,” says Bell. “They show up and immediately they’re focused and ready to go. It’s nice because
everybody is feeding off of everybody [else]. It’s made for a good couple of weeks.”
The team came into its opening series with a lot of confidence, having fared well in a pair of pre-season tournaments. They won four games, tied two others
and lost only once, to the defending MFMHL champion Yellowhead Chiefs.
The team graduated nine players last year, but returns eight for this season. This includes their entire leadership group: captain Mackenzie Hutchinson,
and alternate captains Sage McElroy-Scott, Katelyn Heppner and Alyssa Alderson.
Hutchinson, whose sister Madison captained Pembina Valley to the national title in 2012, was recently named to Team Manitoba for the 2016 National Women’s
Under-18 Championship in November.
The focus this year, Bell says, will be on conditioning, as well as making sure the players don’t get ahead of themselves – or the schedule.
“We’re trying to keep the girls grounded, level-headed, not thinking about the Esso Cup so early,” he says. “Concentrate on league play and winning the
provincial banner, then carry on and work toward the Esso Cup from there.”
That’s not to say the subject hasn’t been broached. It would be hard not to, what with the host banner hanging at the Access Event Centre and
signs already up across the community.
“We did a lot of mental prep because there’s big hype right now being the host team,” says Bell. “Keep focused on the task at hand right now. We’ll take it
one practice, one game, one series at a time and build from there.”
This will be the first time the Esso Cup will be played in Manitoba, but not the first time the trophy has called the province home. Westman won the
inaugural event in 2009 and Pembina Valley won it in 2012.
For the second year in a row a previous champion is hosting. The Weyburn Gold Wings, titlists in 2014, had the honours last year, but the event still
awaits its first host-turned-champion. The Red Deer Chiefs are the only host team to ever make the gold medal game, falling to the Sudbury Lady Wolves in
Playing in the gold medal game on home ice would be huge, says Bell. “It would probably be one of the biggest highlights of my coaching career,” he says.
“I do believe that we have the team to get there.”
The team resumes its regular season Oct. 21 against Westman, then returns home to face the Norman Wild for two games.
Up first, though, is its own Female Hawks Thanksgiving Classic. This year eight teams will be in Morden. And for the first time the tournament is a
registered event for World Girls’ Hockey Weekend, three days dedicated to celebrating and growing the female game.