By Laura Lennie, News Staff
The head coach of the Stoney Creek Midget AA Sabres says his squad is feeling calm, cool and collected as the clock winds down to the 2014 Esso Cup.
“I think I’m more nervous than the players are,” Brian Cleary laughed. “I’m really impressed by how calm they are about the whole thing. They’re feeling confident, they really believe in one another and they know what they need to do.”
The Sabres will begin their quest for the Esso Cup this Sunday.
The cup gives the best female midget teams from across the country the chance to compete for a national championship, much like the top male midget teams compete annually for the Telus Cup. The event runs April 20 to April 26 at the Gateway Ice Centre.
The Stoney Creek Girls Hockey Association won its bid to host the female midget national championship in May 2012.
Cup hosts, the Sabres will face off against five champions from the Atlantic, Ontario, Pacific Alberta, Pacific BC and West regions – the Moncton Rockets, Sudbury Lady Wolves, Edmonton Thunder, Fraser Valley Phantom and Weyburn Gold Wings – in a five-day preliminary round, followed by semifinals and medal games. The gold medal game will air on TSN.
Cleary said the team has been preparing for the event since last April.
“The thing that we’ve worked on the most this year is player skill – skating, passing and shooting – tactics has been second. We don’t want to fill their heads with a bunch of stuff, we want their talent to lead the way for them,” he said. “All we’re really trying to do is give them a little bit of guidance and a whole bunch of encouragement. That’s the way it’s been all year.”
The Sabres’ hard work has certainly paid off.
The team recently finished second at the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association provincial championships.
It also won the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League championship for the second straight year last month.
The Sabres automatically qualified to compete in the Esso Cup because they’re the hosts.
Cleary said being guaranteed a spot doesn’t change anything.
“I don’t think we have anything to prove to anybody; I think our record this year speaks for itself,” he said, adding the team had 71 wins, 11 losses and seven ties overall going into the OWHA provincials last weekend. “We just got to prove it to ourselves. We got to worry about the way that we’re playing and that’s all the matters.”
Cleary said the cup brings together the best of the best.
“The hockey is going to be out of this world, just knowing the teams that are going to be there. It’s really going to come down to whoever shows up to play,” he said. “When we’re on, we’re as good as anybody. We just got to do our thing and I think we’ll be fine.”
Cleary said the Sabres’ game plan heading into the event is simple.
“The strategy is work your rear-end off and work for one another, that’s it,” he said. “We’re just keeping it really simple. We know we have to work hard and we know if we don’t work hard, it won’t matter what we know, we’re not going to win.”
Cleary said no matter the outcome, though, his team is excited and honoured to be a part of the Esso Cup.
“For a lot of the players this is going to be one of the biggest things that’s ever going to happen to them and for the younger ones, this is the first thing that’s happened to them, so they’re all pretty excited about it,” he said. “I think this experience will prove to be something they will never forget.”
How they qualified for the Esso Cup
Host: Stoney Creek Sabres
The Stoney Creek Midget AA Sabres were already guaranteed a spot at the Esso Cup heading into last weekend’s Ontario Women’s Hockey Association championships. But after the opening round, it was clear the team was still hungry for a coveted provincial title. The Sabres ended up just one win short of the provincial crown, losing to the Sudbury Lady Wolves 3-0 in the gold medal game. After winning the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League Championship in late March, the Sabres continued their strong play at the provincial tournament, where they dominated their round robin opponents. After a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Thunder Bay in the semifinal, the Sabres had to settle for silver. Despite the setback, the Sabres won’t have to mull over the result for long.
The Sabres and Lady Wolves, representing Team Ontario, will meet again on Tuesday, April 22 at 7 p.m. at Gateway Ice Centre.
Team Ontario: Sudbury Lady Wolves
The final piece of the Esso Cup puzzle was placed on Sunday when the Sudbury Lady Wolves advanced to the OWHA gold medal game against the Stoney Creek Sabres. With Stoney Creek already guaranteed an Esso Cup berth, the Lady Wolves were automatically named Team Ontario before Sunday’s championship was contested. Sudbury squeaked past the eventual bronze medal winners, Whitby, winning 1-0 in overtime in their provincial semifinal. The Lady Wolves are expected to bring a sizeable contingent from Northern Ontario when they visit Stoney Creek.
Team Atlantic: Moncton Rockets
After winning the New Brunwick provincial championships, the Moncton Rockets found themselves in a five-team round robin tournament from April 3-6 with an Esso Cup berth on the line. The team went unbeaten at the Atlantic regionals, with a round robin record of 3-0-1. They outscored their opponents 14-3 before knocking off East Hants 2-1 in the championship game.
Team West: Weyburn Gold Wings
The West Region team at the Esso Cup played its best hockey when its back was against the wall during a best-of-three qualification series. After losing game one 3-2 to Pembina Valley, the Weyburn Gold Wings of Weyburn, Sask. won the second and third games by 4-1 and 3-0 scores respectively. The Wings and Lady Wolves will kick-off the Esso Cup festivities in the tournament’s opening game on Sunday, April 20 at noon.
Team Pacific BC: Fraser Valley Phantom
The Fraser Valley Phantom will represent Team Pacific BC after sweeping Thompson-Okanagan in the best-of-three provincial championships from April 4-5. The Phantoms used stifling defence to shut out their opponent in two straight games by scores of 2-0 and 1-0 respectvely. The Phantom begin their Esso Cup quest during round robin action on April 20 at 3:30 p.m. against Pacific Alta. representative, the Edmonton Thunder.
Team Pacific Alta.: Edmonton Thunder
The Edmonton Thunder emerged victorious in a hard-fought best-of-five Alberta championship series against the Highwood Raiders to win the Pacific Alta. Esso Cup berth. The Thunder won the series three games to one, with the only setback occuring on March 28 in a 7-6 double overtime loss. The Thunder could be the most experienced team at this year’s tournament.
The team is making its third straight trip to the Esso Cup. In 2012, led by defender Jessica Healey, the team defeated Metro Boston Pizza from Nova Scotia for the bronze medal. Healey is also a member of the National Women’s Under-18 team. Last year, the Thunder won its second consecutive bronze medal while playing on home ice.