Female hockey taking academy approach

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September 3, 2015 8:15 AM

Andrew Brethauer Photo The Lloydminster PWM Steelers are busy on the ice, while behind the scenes, their program is taking a drastic change to a more academy-like system in order to ensure that elite players stay in Lloydminster.

Lloydminster could be without female elite hockey within the next year if recommendations from Hockey Alberta lead to the elimination of the program. In an attempt to keep elite female hockey players in the province, recommendations were made to change major midget hockey teams into more academy-like programs, offering more ice-time, off-ice sessions and better coaching.

But it is the recommendations to eliminate four teams from the Alberta Major Midget Female Hockey League (AMMFHL) that is leaving some in Lloydminster wondering if they will have a program in the future, or will female hockey players have to find a new team away from home to play for if they want to continue a career in hockey. So in response, Lloydminster has decided to take an aggressive approach and adapted their program this season, rather than take a year to discuss how to make the changes.

“Hockey Alberta would like to see the league hang-on to our elite players,” said Steve Hughes, director of elite female hockey in Lloydminster. “They want to improve our clubs teams within the league to mirror more academy-like experiences. That is what we are trying to do. We want it to mirror an academy. We want to be able to attract players and to come to Lloydminster because our program is awesome. To do that, you have to put it out there and prove you can do that.”

In December, each of the 10 teams in the AMMFHL will have to submit a bid to Hockey Alberta describing what they will be doing to change their program in order to keep female elite hockey players in the province. Depending on what they submit and will be offering, some teams could be removed from the league. For Hughes, he would rather submit to the committee what Lloydminster is already doing and how it is already work.

Changes that have already been made include more on-ice practice sessions for the Lloydminster PWM Steelers (major midget AAA) team, who now will practice four-times a week in the morning starting at 7 a.m., compared to last year when they practiced twice during the primetime slots at the Servus Sports Centre, where ice-time was limited due to the amount of use the facilities’ two rinks get. So the Steelers will now get up to five hours of practice per week compared to the 2.5 hours they were having before.

Along with on-ice training, Clayton Conditioning won the contract for this year for off-ice training and nutrition, and will work with the Steelers two to three times per week. And this past summer, Lloydminster announced that Eric Morrissette, the master instructor of YourHockey, would be taking over as head coach of the Steelers and would offer professional coaching for the ladies.

“The driving force behind it was, why are we losing these players out of the league to go to the academies and these were the answers back,” said Hughes. “Because we are not providing enough development ice, we are not providing top level coaching with high certification, and a number of things an academy can sell. So if you want to compete with them and a hockey player wants to compete in a competitive environment ... we have to provide it for them.”

The fear, however, is that Lloydminster could be on the outside looking in if the recommendations to limit the amount of teams in the provinces becomes a reality. Teams from major cities such as the Edmonton Thunder, Calgary Fire and Red Deer Chiefs would be practically guaranteed spots due to their size and how well they have performed in the league, while other nearby programs such as the Sherwood Park Fury, St. Albert Slash, PAC Saints (Spruce Grove) and Southeast Tigers could see increased numbers when the borders are opened up next season. It makes teams like the Steelers and the Peace Country Storm (Grande Prairie) worry that they could be left out, simply due to the distance they have to travel in order to play.

Lloydminster has had elite players leave in the past to go to hockey academies, which has had an effect on the teams on-ice performance. While Hughes says the decision to go to an academy is a pure family decision, he hopes with the changes that have already been made, more players will want to stay in Lloydminster and play for the Steelers, rather than leaving home to achieve their goal of making a college or university level team.

“When we get all this up and running the way it should be, it will be a fraction of the cost of (academies),” said Hughes. “Not everybody can afford to go and play in those academies, so it is a win-win. There is a lot of things we are striving to do this year to improve to quality of the program and really on player development and focus on getting the kids to the next level.”

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