Lancers hockey players 'Bringing Hockey Home' with new skills program
The new program aims to inspire an interest in university-level women's hockey
Arabella Belanger played on boys ice hockey teams for six years. As the only girl on those teams, Belanger was often fodder for jokes, although she says they were always made in good spirit and were never harmful.
But when she switched to playing on a girls' team, she says she was struck by the change in both team culture and the game itself.
With growth in the women's hockey game in Windsor-Essex, the Lakeshore Lightning player had the opportunity to be a part of the first-ever Lancers Players Club and Bringing Hockey Home, a new initiative of the University of Windsor's Lancers women's hockey team.
The goal of the program is inspiring more girls to get into hockey and explore U Sports, as they work with Lancers hockey players during their off season.
"There's a lot more girls playing now than there was then," Belanger said. "It's really amazing to see the growth in women's hockey over the past 10 years."
Belanger was one of eight successful applicants for the club, which was only open to Windsor-Essex players. As a member, she received eight weekly skills training sessions with assistant coach Amy Maitre and was able to participate in a team workout and the team's on-ice practice on Tuesday.
"It's been awesome," she said. "I got to train with a lot of girls that I already know, which is cool, but also some of the younger ones that I don't know."
But the Lancers are not only trying to lure local talent.
Players on the team from four other provinces and the Greater Toronto Area participated in on-ice sessions during their off-season to get young players in their home communities interested in playing U Sports hockey. That, and the Lancers Players Club, formed Bringing Hockey Home.
Devynn Dion, who plays defence for the Lancers, said the opportunity to help shape the lives of young girls in her hometown of Surrey, B.C. was inspiring.
"As a program, we have a mentee-mentor mentorship in our own team," Dion said of the Lancers. "So being able to facilitate that in other teams and show what our team culture is about was really important.
"It was nice to see an outside perspective that I didn't have growing up."
Dion's experiences working with the next generation of players in her local community and Windsor-Essex have sparked an interest in a career in coaching and recruitment, she says.
"I obviously would love to help give back to the community and help female hockey develop more," she said.
Bringing Hockey Home was made possible as a result of a one-time grant of $44,280 from the Calgary Foundation.
Deanna Iwanicka, the head coach of the Lancers' women's hockey team, said the inspiration for the program was to build better connections with communities across Canada and get young girls thinking about playing for the Lancers.
"I think we've done a really good job of building a network here," said Iwanicka. "There's people from across Canada coming together for four or five years of their life. They're getting a great education; they're getting this great athletic experience they're building this network of people that they're going to know and be with probably for the rest of their lives."
Iwanicka says women's hockey always needs more support to grow.
"Anything we can do to create exposure to the game, build that network around the game is going to be impactful."
The Calgary Foundation said they chose to grant the team the money because they were impressed by the Lancers' goal to inspire the next generation of players.
"They recognized that this program had a lot of potential to get more girls, especially in rural areas, interested in hockey and potentially pursue their own post-secondary athletic career," said Jason Bates, the foundation's vice-president of grants and community initiatives, in an email. "The Lancers' drive to do this speaks to the team's leadership, not only on the ice, but in the wider community."