This was a banner season for female hockey in the Cowichan Valley, in more ways than one.
Not only was the Cowichan Valley Minor Hockey Association the only organization on Vancouver Island to field female teams at all four levels — atom, peewee, bantam and midget — but the teams all won their league banners, including the atoms, who were the only all-girls team to play in a mostly boys league. All four teams also made their respective playoff finals last weekend, with the bantams also claiming their playoff banner.
The atom team went undefeated in league play, with 13 wins and two ties. Their playoff semifinal on Saturday went to double overtime before they finally upended Nanaimo 3 by a 4-3 final score.
Brad Scafe, who coaches the atoms along with Kris Kennedy, Scott Wing, Jaret Irving, Natalie Ellingson and Karlee Poznecov and also coaches the bantams along with Darrin St. Amand, has become a mainstay in female hockey in the Cowichan Valley since 2016, when he and St. Amand started an all-girls atom team after coaching their daughters on a mixed team. He admitted that his views on female hockey have changed since his own daughters started playing.
“After being part of the female program in Cowichan Valley for the past three years, I have seen first-hand how powerful and how big an impact girls hockey has been on my two daughters that play the sport. The team bond that I have witnessed for both girls on their teams is the biggest reason I believe girls hockey is important. Both had played on a mixed team previous and both now play on all-girl teams.”
According to St. Amand, the female program in the Cowichan Valley dates back to 2013-14, when Rob Windsor, Lorne Winship and Craig Douglas coached an all-girls peewee team.
“At the time, they had 15 girls playing,” St. Amand said.“The team struggled but were having a great time.”
Another eight girls played integrated hockey in the Valley that season. More players moved from integrated to female hockey the next year. Female hockey coordinator Kris Kennedy started getting more ice time for girls development, and took a team to Powell River for a female peewee tournament.
St. Amand started coaching female hockey along with Windsor and Winship the following season — 2015-16 — as his daughter and two other players “dual-rostered,” playing with both boys and girls teams.
“That was all they needed,” St. Amand recalled. “Right from the start, all three made the girls team the priority right through playoffs. The team had great success, winning both banners and playing in tourneys on and off the Island. We had them hooked.”
Scafe and St. Amand coached an atom boys team together that season, and made steps to coach an all-girls team the next year.
“We could see the success of the girls team,” St. Amand said. “And decided it was time to move our girls into female hockey.”
In 2016-17, the original group of older players started playing female midget hockey, while Cowichan Secondary School also fielded a girls team. By this time, the majority of the girls in the Cowichan Valley were playing female hockey.
Cowichan had teams in all four divisions for the first time in 2017-18. Every midget-aged female hockey player played for the all-girls team, coached by Windsor, Winship and St. Amand. Scafe, St. Amand and Kennedy coached the bantam team that went undefeated to win both league and playoff banners. The peewee team was coached by Kennedy, Scafe, St. Amand and Windsor, while the atom team started by Scafe had to play in the boys league with a roster that included several underage novice players.
This season, Cowichan again had powerhouse teams in all four age groups: a midget team coached by Windsor, Winship and Douglas; a bantam team coached by St. Amand and Scafe; a peewee team coached by Kennedy and Graham Cousins; and an atom team coached by Scafe, Kennedy, Wing, Irving, Ellingson and Poznecov. Only one atom-aged girl in the Valley played boys hockey.
Based on the experiences of his own daughters, Scafe understands the reasons girls want to play female hockey rather than integrated.
“If you asked them, they would never go back to a mixed team, simply because of the bond they have with their teammates and the time they spend together as a group in the dressing room and away from the arena,” he said. “This factor is the same for male or female; if you ask anyone who has played and what they miss the most about not playing the game, some will say it’s the games but most say the time in the dressing room spent together as a team. The girls get to have this opportunity playing all-girls hockey, but they do not if they play integrated, as they have to change in a female-only change room. That’s why I believe girls hockey is important: the friendships.”
St. Amand agreed, and acknowledged how much he has learned from coaching female hockey.
“For girls to be able to play with their peers is the ultimate experience,” he said. “When my oldest daughter started, I said ‘No way is she playing girls. It’s not competitive enough.’ It took me five or six years to realize it’s not just about the competition. As a coach, when I saw she wasn’t allowed in the change room with her teammates cause she was a girl it took part of the team sport away. Now I fully support female-only sports.”