Breaking The East West Divide
Mention hockey in Canada and most people will think of ice-hockey. Kids grow up wanting to be Wayne Gretsky and the shirts worn bear the logos Montreal Candiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Edmonton Oilers.
Nowhere is this more true than on the snowy side of the country – the east. In Canada, there is a definite west/east divide when it comes to hockey. The sport is popular on the west coast, particularly British Columbia, where the temperatures and lack of snow mean the sport can be played all year round.
Head east and it is a different matter. With three months of heavy snow and temperatures reaching depths of -25C, playing hockey is a difficult ask. Indoor hockey is keeping the sport alive in the east, but for hockey fans, finding a club is difficult to say the least. In Ottawa, for example, the local league has dwindled down to a few clubs with a limited number of players.
However, two local players wanted their children to have a chance to play the sport they love and so they started, from scratch, structures to allow them to discover and play hockey. The upshot is two clubs which both have more than 100 players and field teams in various age group – U12, U14 and U16 – competitions.
One of the clubs is the Nepean Nighthawks FHC. This club was started by Sandeep Chopra, himself a national level umpire and his wife Maureen, who played for the Canadian women’s national team and participated in the 1995 Pan American Games). Maureen’s sister, Michelle Conn is an Olympian, having represented Canada at the Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992 Olympics.
Two other members of the Nepean Nighthawks were in the Canadian Team that won a silver medal at the last Youth Olympics, and a couple are on the provisional roster
of the U21 Canadian Team ahead of the 2016 Men's Junior Pan Am Championships.
Sandeep talks about the programme. “About seven years ago we decided to attempt to start a small programme to introduce field hockey to kids in our community, mostly friends of our own children.
“Nearly everyone of the kids who joined were ice hockey players in the winter and since this is Canada and kids will play anything with the word 'hockey' attached to it they began showing up in numbers that really surprised us specially considering field hockey had virtually gone extinct in Ottawa.
It wasn’t just about the hockey for Sandeep and his family. “We are really building a community and though our vehicle is hockey, we wanted to introduce our kids not only to a new sport but to a family-oriented culture that involved people of many backgrounds. That is the Canadian way for us.”
Such has been the growth of the Nepean Nighthawks that the club is struggling to provide for everyone. With nearly 200 youngsters in age group teams, plus a senior women and a ‘Mom’s learn to Play’ programme, the club is always on the look out for coaches and umpires. To fill this gap, the club runs certification courses for potential umpires and coaches, which in turn creates employment and volunteering opportunities.
The lack of hockey clubs in the region means that finding opposition is always a challenge. In the earliest days of the Nighthawks incarnation, the teams had to travel 500 kilometres to Toronto for matches. However, the birth of Chelsea Phoenix FHC just across the river, has led to a friendly but intense rivalry between the two clubs.
Ian Bird is the brains and driving force behind the Chelsea Phoenix. A former international and a double Olympian. Ian represented Canada in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and again in Sydney in 2000.
He moved from Vancouver to Ottawa 15 years ago for work, but was determined to bring hockey back to the area. History was on Bird’s side as there had once been an active hockey scene in Quebec, triggered by the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, but it had all
dwindled to extinction in the last 10 years.
Bird and his fellow enthusiasts have been rebuilding the hockey scene and the new club in Chelsea became the only active club in the province – the name ‘Phoenix’ refers to the rising of the club from extinction.
“We simply started and used what was available to us rather than worry about what was missing,” explains Bird. “The beautiful thing about hockey is that all you really need are a bag of sticks, a few balls, and a field. After a few years, and now that we have about 100 players and volunteers, the needs are growing and we're glad to have friends in hockey to help us. Our nearest hockey neighbours in Ottawa, the Nepean Nighthawks, have made such a difference for us. We hope to do the same for the next group.”
Bird is helped in his work by a band of enthusiasts, and no-one is more excited and driven by the thought of a growing hockey scene in the east than the Shelley Fraser, who is club chair for the Chelsea Phoenix.
Fraser explains the motivation behind her own involvement: “From a parent's perspective, we were looking for a new opportunity for the kids.An approach that was family friendly… meaning - multi-age drop offs, more collaboration, cultural exchange and richness, and an exciting experience in an inclusive environment.
“We soon discovered that getting the club off the ground was more about “Can-do", not ‘what are the obstacles?’.In the beginning, we played on a bumpy grass field, which technically, was not even a ‘real field’.Parents came out and helped. Ian ran skills development drills and a lot of "have fun" in the process.”
And all the hard work is paying off, in 2015, for the first time in years, there was a Quebec team in the U16 National Championship. The team lost out to Alberta for bronze in a match that Bird describes as a “heartbreaker.” The Olympian is also using his contacts with his former club, West Vancouver FHC, which is the largest club in Canada and with former teammates now coaching in the States to organise road trips for the young players. Closer to home the club have many fixtures with the Neapean Nighthawks and they will also head to Toronto for three to four weekends every spring.
Talking about his work with the Chelsea Phoenix, Bird explains: “Field hockey has had such a substantial impact on my life - the best of friends, great memories from training and matches, and grand adventures with club and Canadian teams. I thought we could create that kind of an opportunity in Chelsea, Quebec where I now live and where field hockey had slipped out of the public eye.
And Fraser adds: “It was never about the Nationals. It was always about the kids learning and having a good experience.The magic happened when the kids discovered that the game was fast ... it was like soccer on speed ... only with a stick in your hand.Girls loved it anyway but when boys discovered how cool it was, they were hooked.Endurance.Speed.Agility.Excitement.Summer+Hockey Stick +Soccer Strategy = Field Hockey Hooked. Who knew?”