The Hay River hockey season is well underway, with the parking lot of the Don Stewart Recreation Centre full to capacity and spilling onto Woodland Drive every night last week.
While there is no doubt hockey has always been a popular sport in the community, rec league organizer Stephane Millette told The Hub there are more people coming out this time around than there have been in recent years, and that the energy seems to be high.
“We have four teams in the rec league,” he said. “With at least 15 players on each, but more like 16 and 17, we’ve had a really good turnout so far.”
One of this season’s developments was the inclusion of midget players in the rec league draft, in addition to a weekly game in which the entire midget team plays a rec league team. While midget players have been on teams with adults before, this is the first year their team plays in the league as a whole.
“It raises the level of competition,” said midget coach Quinn Groenheyde. “The speed of the game is the most important thing for our kids and this gives them a chance to test their skills against some really good older players.”
Groenheyde said that, while the midget team used to play teams from the oldtimers league and last year began playing in the rec league, the new system allows for a variety of ice time depending on how much the individual player wants. Between practices, the midgets versus rec league weekly game on Wednesday nights, and regularly scheduled games, young players can choose to be on the ice nearly every night.
“It’s really the best of both worlds,” said Groenheyde.
According to their coach, the midget team has about 15 players coming out to practices so far.
Groenheyde said he is pleased with the strong turnout and expects some of the players will be motivated by the Arctic Winter Games early next year in Alaska. Kids from Hay River are at a bit of a disadvantage compared to those from Yellowknife who have ice time all year long, but he is confident his team and the community will have a strong showing on the territorial teams.
As for the future of the rec league, Millette said it’s already looking pretty good.
“The big thing is that guys are already talking about the second half of the season,” he said, referring to the idea of possibly switching to a different system of play after the holidays as a result of habitual waning interest at that time of year. “If we keep getting a good turnout, I would like to see us continue with the league, but the guys are pretty open to the other style if that’s what’s going to happen, too.”
Millette said the main frustration for players is when games are cancelled with little to no advance notice and it becomes a gamble as to whether they will play on any given night or not.
But according to Groenheyde, both energy and confidence are high right now.
“Not only the kids and the rec league,” he said. “The women’s league and the oldtimers are excited, too.”
Groenheyde noted the yearly anticipation and excitement surrounding the beginning of the season, saying that with the summer months as short as they are, it’s remarkable how enthusiastic people get for the beginning of the hockey season.
“There are all kinds of opportunities for kids in sport in Hay River,” he said. “But I think it’s fair to say we’re a hockey town.”
— Sarah Ladik