Saturday, November 24, 2012

Hola from the Wickenheiser Festival

The Mexico Women's National Ice Hockey Team at Wick Fest

You know how most kids had a place growing up that they considered to be a second home? Either it was their grandparents’ place, their friend’s place, or, in the case of most Canadian kids, the ice rink. When I was about eight years old a new multi-purpose sports facility opened up just minutes away from my house. Eight ice rinks, a gym, physiotherapy clinic, dance studio, restaurant, and seminar rooms all under one roof. Appropriately named Burnaby 8-Rinks, the arena became a place where I spent every spare minute of my day, training to be a….figure skater. Yes, I said figure skater. 8-Rinks is the home of the BC chapter of Skate Canada– the governing body of figure skating in the country. At the time it was first opened, they were pushing hard to recruit anyone and everyone to go into figure skating. When a rather decorated former figure skater who shall remain nameless approached my parents, let’s just say I was being outfitted with a bright pink spandex skating dress before I knew what was going on. Days consisted of me spending countless hours in a sport that I knew wasn’t mine, working towards a goal I didn’t even want to achieve, and all the while dreaming of joining the boys who were playing hockey on adjoining rinks. But I was told that girls don’t play hockey and, judging by the hockey teams on the ice every day, this was true because there wasn’t a single girl on any of the teams. Girls and hockey did not mix.

Fast forward roughly 15 years to the weekend of November 15th, 2012 and 6 out of the 8 rinks at 8-Rinks were occupied by female hockey teams from Canada, the US, and one very special team from Mexico. Each locker room had a sign with a team logo and a message on it: “No boys allowed.” Girls were warming up by jogging around the facility while chanting, cheering, hooting, and hollering. On the ice they were putting on impressive efforts with their skills and speed. Off the ice they had taken over the entire building. And somewhere in all the mayhem was the world’s greatest female hockey player – the reason for all this excitement and domination of 8-Rinks – Hayley Wickenheiser.

For the third year in a row, 8-Rinks and the City of Burnaby has had the honour of hosting the Wickenheiser International Women’s Hockey Festival, known to most as Wick Fest. Wick Fest consists of on-ice hockey tournaments for all the different levels of minor hockey, as well as on and off ice skills workshops, leadership and training seminars, team building exercises, and one on one time between the players and Hayley Wickenheiser. It is truly a weekend of comprehensive exposure to the game for all its participants and it is a weekend where the girls rule the roost. One of the best things for me about being involved in Wick Fest is the ability to witness how the players operate. These girls aren’t THAT much younger than I am and yet it is obvious that they are growing up with a different school of thought in their minds. Their generation knows with 100% confidence that they belong in hockey. They’re loud and talented and energetic. They’re hockey players and they’re proud of it. In previous years, my role at Wick Fest has been pretty minimal. I’ve volunteered my time for a few hours during the weekend and have been assigned to tasks that did well in breaking me in to how the festival works. This year however, due to either a shortage of volunteers or perhaps just my own eagerness to be more involved, I was given more hours and more jobs to do. For the first time since I mercifully quit figure skating at age 12, 8-Rinks became my second home, at least for the weekend. Being more involved this year allowed me to meet more people and truly understand better the vision that Hayley has for the festival and the sport. Several times during the weekend I popped in to a locker room to deliver pre-game snacks only to find Hayley hanging out in the room talking to the players. How's that for a pre-game pep talk eh! From impromptu autograph sessions, to an hour of great country music tunes courtesy of Dean Brody, to a beauty corner where two kind volunteers were applying henna tattoos for the players, Wick Fest truly had it all. There was a great energy around the event - an energy that was apparent in its volunteers. I worked hard, yes, but so many others worked harder and longer than I did. Many volunteers were also parents who popped in to lend a hand in between their kids' games. Many others started their shifts at 5am and were still going strong at 7pm. And many others went home with their hands dyed blue or red or whatever colour the Gatorade coolers they were scrubbing out happened to be. The volunteers worked with a mantra - perhaps the same mantra as the festival's namesake - keep your head down and work hard. Not for the cameras or the gratitude but because you care.

One of the highlights of this year's festival was the participation of the Mexican Women's National Team.When most of us think of Mexico we think of sunshine, beaches, all-inclusive resorts, and possibly Salma Hayek. Ice hockey is not synonymous with Mexico and yet here they were - the Mexican National Team clad in long green jackets and colourful sombreros announced their arrival at Wick Fest. As volunteers we didn't formally discuss it but there was an unwritten, unspoken rule we all adopted for the weekend - make Team Mexico (and all the other teams) feel as welcome as possible. It was incredible that they had accepted Hayley's invitation and taken the effort to travel across the continent to be here. The least we could do was encourage them and let them know how inspiring they were. And they were a heck of a team too. In speaking to one of their coaches I learned that this was the first year that Mexico had a women's only league. In the past all the players have played on co-ed teams and they all came from an inline hockey background. Both these concepts were incredibly evident in their play. They were aggressive and not afraid to use their physicality to defend, and they were all terrific skaters. Their goalie was positionally sound and had exceptional rebound control and they played with a ton of confidence. Being involved in Wick Fest is humbling in many ways and one of the great things I get to witness every year is the coming together of the greater hockey family. In this year's case, a parent of a hockey player from one of the Vancouver teams noticed that Team Mexico didn't have enough pucks to practice and warm up with. They only had about 10 pucks whereas all the other teams had buckets full of them. He mentioned to me that he had been collecting pucks for years and had a crate full of them in his garage. He brought them in for Mexico to use and take home with them. Team Mexico, in return, were humble and had a great spirit to them. They quickly made friends with players on other teams and could be heard yelling "HOLA!" as they passed fellow competitors around the arena. They were gracious and allowed me to take a picture with them, and were more than willing to chat and answer the million questions all of us Canadians had for them. Their upbringing may be different, their culture may be different, and even their exposure to the sport of hockey may be different from ours. But their passion? It is identical.

Wick Fest is a weekend of doing good things all around. There is the obvious goal of growing the game of women's hockey, cultivating friendships, establishing leaderhip, and creating lasting memories, but there are other more global goals being pursued there too. There are silent auctions and 50-50 draws where 100% of the money raised goes to Kids Sport and Right To Play. This year the Fortius Foundation, which is in the process of constructing an elite sports medicine and development facility adjacent to 8-Rinks, stepped up and donated to the two charities as well. In addition, Fortius along with Tourism Burnaby announced a long-term partnership with events such as Wick Fest as well as other sporting ventures in the city such as the Esso Cup.

These showings of support from both individuals who donate their time and from companies and organizations who donate their funds is proof that Hayley is not alone in her vision. We all share in it and we support it and we want to be a part of it. There is no ego or hierarchy to this legend of our sport. She is as humble and as authentically Canadian as they come. Access to her is unlimited. She is always around and always makes herself available to chat with the girls who look up to her. She works hard, is disciplined, and is a tremendous leader. She has set the bar high. But that is part of the honour of getting to work with her - knowing that you have to work to those same standards. My pink spandex figure skating outfit has long since been stashed in the (very back of the) basement but I couldn't help thinking back to it during the weekend of Wick Fest. Thanks to Hayley and her team mates, we've come a long way since those days. It's a source of comfort to me knowing that girls are now free to chose their preferred sport rather than be forced into it. It is a sign of progress. Till next year's girl's only invasion of 8-Rinks I bid farewell to Wick Fest 2012 and all its participants and volunteers with a salute of my red Gatorade-dyed hand.