By Mike Pearson, News staff
They’re already guaranteed a spot at the upcoming Esso Cup. But the Stoney Creek Midget AA Sabres are proving they belong at the National Female Midget Championship, slated for April 20-26 at Gateway Ice Centre.
Heading into April’s tournament, the Sabres have already advanced deep into the provincial championships and the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League playoffs.
The team is coming off an impressive regular season, posting a record of 20-1-1.
As they prepare to face the top teams from across Canada, defender Mallory Young knows her team will have to play at its very best.
“We want to be able to prove to ourselves that we’re meant to be there,” said Young, an Orchard Park Secondary School student.
Amanda Butterfield is using this month’s playoff experience to sharpen her game.
“Every day, we try to work harder and get better, on ice and off ice,” she said.
With five regional champions, plus a host team, the Esso Cup includes top teams from Ontario, western and Atlantic Canada. National playdowns will continue into next month to determine which teams will advance.
For one week in April, Stoney Creek will bask in a national spotlight, culminating in a gold medal game televised from coast-to-coast.
Women’s hockey has enjoyed a tremendous boost following the 2014 Olympic Games. An estimated 13 million Canadians saw part or all of the gold medal game and Hockey Canada hopes to capitalize on that exposure at this year’s Esso Cup. Brianne Jenner, who opened the scoring for Canada in its 3-2 gold medal victory over the U.S., is a former Stoney Creek Junior Sabre. Laura Fortino once played for the Sabres as well. Fortino assisted on Marie-Philip Poulin’s golden goal that gave Canada its fourth straight Olympic championship.
Fortino continues to inspire many of the current Midget Sabres.
Several Sabres spent time practising with Fortino before she embarked on her first Olympic experience.
Butterfield was impressed by Fortino’s solid work ethic, which she displays during each practice.
“It was amazing to watch her with each drill,” said Butterfield.
“She treated every practice like it was a game,” said Sabres defender Sarah Jerome.
As Jerome explains, the ultimate goal for every female hockey player in Canada is to one day don the Maple Leaf, as Fortino and Jenner did earlier this year.
“I think it’s every female hockey player’s dream, to play for your country.”
Success at the Esso Cup can go a long way in making that dream a future reality.
Along with the pressure of national exposure, the Midget Sabres will be vying for the attention of NCAA Division 1 scouts. Coveted scholarships will be up for grabs, like those that were awarded to Fortino and Jenner in years past. Both players ended up signing with Ivy League powerhouse Cornell.
But personal accomplishments aside, Jerome made it clear the Sabres’ ultimate goal is to win as a team.
“One person can’t win a game,” she said.
Golatender Serena D’Angelo hopes fans will come in droves to support the Sabres team in its quest for a national title.
“We know the ice really well. We’re well adjusted to it,” she said.
When it comes to the competition, the Sabres already have an idea of what to expect, based on a preseason tournament last September.
“We’ve seen a couple of the teams at our Stoney Creek midget showcase,” said D’Angelo. “It’s going to be tough.”
The Sabres faced strong challenges from western teams like Regina and Edmonton, along with provincial rivals like Oakville and Whitby.
With no junior level outside of Ontario, teams in the west traditionally feature older athletes, many of whom are completing their Grade 12 year of high school.
By comparison, the Sabres are expected to be one of the younger teams at the Esso Cup, with four Grade 9 players on the roster.
“We have to play physical and stay on the puck,” said Jerome.
Butterfield said the Sabres will play tough and capitalize on the team’s strong skating ability.
“We know we have speed, so we like to take advantage of that when we can,” she said.
Many of the current Sabres, including Jerome, D’Angelo, Butterfield and Young, grew up playing on boys teams. In years past, especially in smaller communities, boys teams were the only option for girls who wanted to play. The future Midget Sabres could have played on girls teams. After all, the Stoney Creek Girls’ Hockey Association has a long and storied history that dates back 40 years. Instead, they chose to compete with the boys, to take their training to a higher level. And they proved they belonged.
Midget Sabres head coach Brian Cleary said endurance wlll be a key factor during the Esso Cup. With a round robin and playoff medal round all jammed into one week, the Sabres will play six games in six nights.
Cleary believes his team is up for the challenge.
“We’re as good as anyone in Canada right now,” he said. “The majority of our team could be playing junior. They’re that good.”
Every round-robin game is slated to air locally on Cable 14. Broadcasts will also be carried by local cable providers in the communities represented in the tournament.
TSN will carry the gold medal game on April 26, which will be sandwiched between two NHL games.
“We should have a pretty big audience,” Cleary said.
This year’s tournament is also the first time the Esso Cup will be held in Ontario. No host team has ever won the national championship.
“Hopefully we’ll be the first,” said Jerome.
The Stoney Creek Sabres Midget AA team will begin its quest for the 2014 Esso Cup on April 20 when the team takes on the Atlantic Canada representative at Gateway Ice Centre. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are now on sale.
Full tournament ticket packages are available for general admission to all 19 games, including the semifinals and both medal games.
A full-tournament package is $45.
The gold medal game will air on TSN/RDS, the official broadcasters of Hockey Canada.
The puck drops for the gold medal game at 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 26.
Preliminary round games can be seen online at www.hockeycanada.ca/essocup.