When Erin Sorhaug first approached Henry Stachelbeck, the manager of Leaside Gardens, three years ago, she was looking for a deal. Stachelbeck, with the backing of the board, gave them one: time on the ice at below-market rates, because there were only 10 women, some of whom had never skated with hockey skates, or played hockey.
Now the Chicks with Sticks, as Stachelbeck likes to call them jokingly, pay the full rate and are playing like harridans.
What happened between then and now?
Starting out by asking women in the Rolph Road schoolyard if they were interested in playing hockey, Sorhaug, new to the neighbourhood and not knowing a soul, soon discovered that getting a chance to play hockey was something of interest to a surprising number of local women.
I spent a Wednesday morning at the new ice pad at Leaside Memorial Community Gardens chatting with some of the women and watching them do drills and a short scrimmage. There are more than 40 women on Tuesday and/or Wednesday mornings for a cost of $20 each a week.
They have become ROCS Hockey, an incorporated small business, using the initials of Raquel O’Halloran and Christine Smeeton, the organizers for the past two years. The weekly fees pay for ice, coaching and insurance.
Two requirements to join: have basic skating ability and provide your own full equipment. Jerseys and socks are red, blue, turquoise, black, pink, some with numbers and names (not necessarily theirs), others completely blank. As I watched them scrimmage, I was really confused, because I couldn’t tell who was on which team, but they had it figured out – or at least, I think they did.
Christine Smeeton, not counting her own hockey-playing time, spends more than 15 hours per week at Leaside and other arenas with her three hockey-playing sons. She was a speedskater, but never played hockey when younger. “Learning to play gives me an appreciation for what my kids are doing. This was something a lot of us wanted to do, but in a non-intimidating environment.”
Raquel O’Halloran says, “There were not a lot of beginner programs in the city. It was also important to be very inclusive, and not daunting.”
Carolyn Armstrong lives across the street from Christine Smeeton and is also one of the original players. She enjoys that it is “nothing too serious,” but gets enough out of it that she now plays for the Leaside Wildcats in league hockey as well.
Julia Armstrong (not related to Carolyn), is one who has no wish to play in a league, even though Raquel O’Halloran says,“If she wanted to play league, she’s ready”.
Julia’s reply to that? “Self-preservation is my way of life. I’m happy to stay where I am. This is the best part of my week.”
Robin Dickie stopped playing when she was injured, but “misses the camaraderie and the endorphin high like no other.” Sorhaug, who started it all, is on a break for this year, but she vows she’ll be back.
As for coaching, the road seems to go through being a professional hockey player and being injured. That’s what happened to David Trombley, who was with the Quebec Nordiques when he was injured in 1991. Now, he owns Hockey Extreme, with coaching jobs across the city. His start with ROCS was for a five-game trial period two years ago, and he’s been with them ever since. Lori Antflick, a coach with Hockey Extreme, is the usual Tuesday morning coach. She says, “They are my favourite group to teach.”