Junior women aim high

ERIC BENDER -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

A junior women's hockey league that may eventually mirror the Ontario Hockey League is up and running with three local teams in the race.

The London Devilettes, the Bluewater Hawks based in Strathroy and the Chatham Outlaws are part of the 16-team Provincial Women's Hockey League.

"This league features the top level of competition at this age level anywhere in the world," said Fran Rider, executive director of the Ontario Women's Hockey Association. The league is for players under 22 years old.

Although the London Devilettes entry carries the name "junior," team coach Dani Isen said the women want to be distinct from male junior hockey. Technically it is intermediate AAA.

Until this season the highest level of "junior" women's hockey was intermediate AA, a division designed for 18- to 21-year-olds. Now the PWHL teams can use 15- to 21-year-olds, picking up the best of the bantam and midget prospects as the OHL is able to do.

"It's a true junior league," said Isen, who has coached girls' hockey in the Devilettes organization during 13 seasons from peewee to intermediate AA and had 25 to 30 players go on to university programs.

"It's the good young players you look for before they go off to university."

The Devilette juniors have drawn 10 players from the Devilette intermediate AA team that competes in the South Western Girls Hockey League.

Bob Bell of Oakville said the junior level has been the subject of "glass-of-beer discussions" for years.

Bell was chosen commissioner based on his connections with potential teams from Windsor to Ottawa when organization got underway for this season. "We want the cream of the crop. It will give the players more exposure for scholarships and educational opportunities and a higher profile should create an environment for sponsorship. It will create better exposure (to scouts) for the Olympic level."

The PWHL is strictly an Ontario league as opposed to the SWGHL, which has two U.S. teams.

But the PWHL has no image similar to the OHL at this point. The teams play a 30-game schedule in a season that is interlaced with tournament play. Typically, and like the Devilettes, the teams will play in five tournaments. In a season, teams will play about 90 games.

"Our goal is to ultimately cover Ontario," said Bell. "Right now the work is to get the league off the ground."

He and Isen feel the initial interest from so many teams will shake out teams whose ambitions are outrunning their abilities.

Bell said the average team budget will be about $35,000 in a range from $25,000 to $50,000.

Most teams, such at the Devilettes, operate under a community program where they have ice allotted by the municipality. However, a couple of teams, Windsor Wildcats are one, have secured their own home arena, dedicated dressing room and regular home game nights. "If you are not winning you may drop away."

The teams range from Windsor to Durham (Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax area). Ottawa is chomping at the bit to join and may be in next year, while there is interest in Sudbury and there are girls in Thunder Bay wanting to join the active teams.

The new league is not only designed to increase the competitive level of players, said Bell, but to elevate the level of referees. There are 44 officials assigned to the league by the OWHA and it will be a league in which future Olympic referees are developed.

"We hope to foster more female coaches too," said Bell. There are just two female head coaches in the league, with the Toronto Aeros and Stoney Creek Sabres.

Isen's take on the new league is that it will endure but undergo team changes with a tendency for the larger centres to continue. There are no boundary restrictions in women's hockey. The Devilettes team has players who reside in Sarnia and Woodstock and one, from London, who now lives in Toronto.

Isen expects eight players from his squad will gain scholarships.

The 10-player nucleus from the Devilettes intermediate AA team are blue-liners Vanessa Bennett, Laura Higgins, Amanda Shaw and Tina Vanderhoeven, along with forwards Morgan Marziali, Kristin Miles, Brittany Paton, Kelly Paton, Melanie Wallace and Shannon Wise.

Lifting the age restriction allowed Isen to sign bantam A goalie Kelsey Ricard and bantam AA goalie Shelby Goldie, bantam AA defence/forward Victoria Gemuska, midget AA Amber Beattie and Sarnia midget Kayla Hottot. Winger Christina Cornish joins the team after playing senior in Dorchester.

The team had 65 players attend an open tryout and is now down to three lines, five defence and the two goalies under the tutelage of Isen, assistant coach Chris Higgins, general manager Debbie Moulton and trainer Leslie Marziali.

The junior Devilettes have a perfect 3-0 record going into this weekend's tripleheader. They play in Burlington Friday, in Oakville Saturday afternoon and return home for a 4 p.m. Sunday game against the Mississauga Chiefs at Argyle Arena.

Only one goal has been surrendered as the Devilettes have beaten the Aurora Panthers 2-1, the Durham West Lightning 4-0 and the Chatham Outlaws 6-0.

"Women's hockey is still a hard sell," said Isen, who likes the game in many ways better than men's hockey. "There's more systems employed and it's more technical because there's no body checking. That doesn't mean there's no body contact, though."

The Devilettes have no established home. Games are played at Western Fair, Argyle and Nichols arenas. "It would be nice to have our own dressing room in the same arena," Isen said.


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