Fort Frances U13 girls Leafs bring home provincial gold

By Allan Bradbury
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
abradbury@fortfrances.com

They went a long way from home but it was worth it, the Fort Frances Girls and Womens hockey Association (OWHA) U13 team were C division champions at last weekend’s Ontario Women’s Hockey Association provincial Championships in the Toronto area.

Aimee Matheson is one of the team’s managers and her daughter Abigail also plays on the team. She says that given the scale of the tournament it was surprising to make the finals let alone win.

“It’s such a huge tournament,” Matheson said. “Everybody kind of works to get into OWHA provincials. I think there are 34 teams that did play downs to get into provincials in our category and then out of that 16 teams made it. We were hoping to make the semis (semifinals) out of it because there’s quite a few bigger city teams and lots of kids to pick from and get there. We ended up making the finals and it was a close one. They pulled their goalie and scored with two minutes left and tied it up in the final game. We went to sudden death overtime and we ended up winning.”

Willow Mason scored in OT to lift the Leafs over the Mitchell Meteors from Mitchell, near Stratford, to take the crown.

The team from Fort Frances didn’t have to qualify for the tournament which draws girls and women’s teams from U11 and up past U22. With a U9 jamboree also incorporated. According to OWHA, 652 teams participated across the municipalities of Brampton, Etobicoke, Mississauga, North York, Oshawa, Oakville and Ajax.

“We didn’t have to qualify, there was nobody in our region that wanted to go in our category, so we got a bye to get there,” Matheson said. “The scary thing about that was we had no idea what we were coming up against.”

There are different categories based on team strength from AA, A, BB, B, and C the team from Fort Frances ended up entering in the C division.

“We went into the C category, there’s a lot of smaller towns in the C category because we don’t have the levels that everybody else has,” Matheson said. “We don’t have 1,000 girls trying out for four different teams.”

Along those lines the third place team in the C division was the Hearst Ice Cats. Hearst is just west of Kapuskasing in northeastern, ON.

Over the course of the event the Leafs went undefeated but Matheson says there were a few tense moments.

“We won all six games but some of them were nailbiters,” Matheson said. “But we also got a couple of shutouts too from our goalie Ava Burns. The whole team worked really hard and worked together,” she said. “They all played their butts off.”

Matheson also relayed comments from coaches Boomer Redford, Chuck Arpin, Matt Burns, Rhyse Mandamin.

“The coaches said that every one of our girls played harder than they have all year and really worked together as a team. As a team we have grown a lot in their abilities and their team support and togetherness was top notch. They put in the work throughout the year and their hard work and commitment to the team paid off. [It was a] real supportive group of girls that understood how to work as a team. [There were] solid contributions right from the goalie to the defence, to the forwards that led to our success as a team.”

The team flew out of Winnipeg to the GTA and for some of the kids and even parents it was their first time to visit Toronto. The whole group was 35 in total with 12 players and the rest being family members, like caregivers and siblings.

“We flew down there and rented a bus, there was a lot of team building,” Matheson said. “We got to go to the CN tower and take the kids downtown to see Toronto and some had never been so they were pretty pumped. There’s not a lot of grade eight trips any more so this was kind of a good outing for parents and kids to get to go somewhere they’ve never been.”

Matheson also lauded the support that the team received from back home, the trip was partially funded by the FFGWHA’s radio bingo as well as a gift card raffle the team held.

“This was a first for our district to have an OWHA team, FFGWHA has been an OWHA organization for over 25 years and haven’t brought a team to provincials,” Matheson said. “We have talked about going in the past and the travel costs and distance has always been a challenge. The support from the community, district wide for girls hockey is phenomenal. FFGWHA Board used funds raised from radio bingo to support our travel costs and we had a shop local gift card raffle that was really successful.”

Matheson is hopeful that the success of this team can show that FFGWHA teams can represent at a high level in big competitions.

It’s such a positive experience and great for girls hockey in our area. Our success shows what we can do and that our teams can compete. FFGWHA hockey is growing every year and getting stronger.

“It’s nice to see that our teams can compete at these higher levels of hockey. The girls were excited that they gave us a banner to hang in the arena. There is such a momentum and the younger kids are looking forward to getting a chance to go in the years to come.”