As you read this, the 2005 Canadian Women's Under-18 Hockey Challenge is already underway.
Manitoba, of course, is participating at the event in Salmon Arm, B.C., with the cream of the under 18-year-old crop competing against the likes of Ontario (which has two teams), Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Atlantic Canada, and the host province.
Everyone knows women's hockey is growing here, what with the start of the women's junior league this season and the growth of Winnipeg Women's High School Hockey League, but how does Manitoba women's hockey stack up against the other provinces in Canada?
"That's a good question," team director of operations Jennifer Everard said before her club left for B.C. earlier this week. "Obviously, women's hockey is growing in all the provinces and you can tell each year that this level gets more and more competitive. The girls are starting to play at an earlier age and are getting stronger each year they play -- a lot more so than when I played. The level of hockey has been raised consistently across all provinces."
"Look at Ontario now," she continues. "They used to be superior and they still have a great program, but the gap is closing."
In fact, the expectation for Manitoba success in this tournament is sky high.
Dare we say, medal-worthy?
"We'll be very competitive," Everard said of the team, made up of a selection of Winnipeg and rural players and coached by former Winnipeg Wesman women's hockey coach Jill Mathez. "I have no doubt that we'll be in the top four and we're hoping to contend for a medal. I feel like we're going to be there in the end."
The last time Manitoba skated in the Under-18 tournament (competing as a joint venture with Saskatchewan in 2001), they finished third.
With young players like forward Katherine O'Rourke (Manitoba Bisons) and defenceman Jocelyne Larocque (Calgary's Oval Extreme), Everard feels the local girls can stand on their own now.
The numbers are there, so why not?
"That's the reasoning behind it," she said of both provinces having more athletes in their women's programs. "(Hockey Canada) has given more girls an opportunity to compete at a high level and to be seen essentially by universities and colleges."
Everard admits that dividing the two provinces will no doubt lead to another chapter of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan rivalry.
"Oh yeah," she laughs. "We want to finish higher than them."
After taking on Ontario 1 to kick off the event yesterday, Manitoba plays B.C. today.