The Toronto Leaside Wildcats (also known as The Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association) are the largest female hockey association in Ontario, in Canada, and potentially, the world. Think about that. This volunteer-run, not-for-profit association formed in 1974 has just shy of 1,600 members and continues to grow.
The Wildcats Junior team competes at the highest level of female minor hockey in the province. This team, comprising women under 19 years of age, participates in a 38-game season, playing against the top competition from Windsor to Ottawa. These young athletes are destined for varsity hockey at Canadian and American universities and colleges. In fact, seven players have already accepted scholarships for next year and three of them represented Ontario in the under 18 Nationals held in Regina this November.
The Wildcats start with programs for girls as young as 3, but there are programs for interested women of any age, as long as they can skate. Creating access to the game is a priority for the Wildcats, so much so that even after interest in women’s hockey peaked after the 1998 Olympics in Nagano (the first time women’s hockey debuted in the Olympics), the Wildcats continued to grow their membership by offering after-school and weekend programs for a younger audience, ranging from 3 to 5 years of age.
Jennifer Smith, president of the Toronto Leaside Wildcats association, began volunteering when her daughter Sarah was 6, after her first season of house league. Fast forward 13 years, and Smith has worn many hats, including coach, trainer, player, fan, mom and president.
Part of what makes this association special is the engagement of the volunteer force – with 90 teams and each team requiring between four and seven volunteers – and the composition of the volunteer base is shifting. While men still constitute a large part of the base, women who have a strong hockey foundation are getting involved in bigger numbers, which Smith says “is wonderful because not only does it expand our base of coaches, but it also fulfils a huge part of our mission for our players to develop a life-long love for the game and open hockey leadership roles for women.”
Smith recalled a recent conversation she had with a local parent, who was asking her about “this hockey thing she does,” wondering if his daughters should/could play. Smith says, “That made me really proud. Here are two girls who don’t come from a traditional hockey-playing community, but their non-hockey-playing dad knew he could ask me the question because we’ve created the reputation as the place in the community for girls to experience hockey.”
For more information about programming and the teams, please see Toronto Leaside Wildcats.