There was excitement in the air on Nov. 27, when the Ashcroft Warriors U9 (novice) hockey team took to the ice in Logan Lake for their first game in more than a year. After a season in which they were limited to skills and drills practice in Ashcroft due to the pandemic, the seven- and eight-year-old players were eager to play an actual match, and their coaches couldn’t have been more proud of them.
“After the last year or so of doing strictly practices, they played their first game last month, and we were all outstandingly proud of how the kids played,” says coach Chris Buckland. “They had never played a hockey game, so this was the first time we got to see our kids compete with other kids and see what we’ve done over the last year-and-a-half. Their development was outstanding.”
The 2019/2020 Thompson-Cariboo Minor Hockey season consisted of practices only, with no intermingling with other kids. Buckland says that different municipalities did different things: some shut down completely, while some had partial shutdowns.
“We were fortunate to run our program with COVID restrictions in place, and we had a good core group of coaches that were able to work together and work with the kids.”
Buckland has been coaching the majority of the U9 group since they first learned pre-school hockey, which he laughingly describes as “mostly getting on the ice and falling down.” Then there were two years of initiation coaching before the kids entered U9, where players are more into game-style hockey with a level of competitiveness.
“We get to see them playing as a team but showing their individual abilities and skills. It shows what we’ve been able to instil in them, and is a direct reflection of what the coaches have been able to teach them. None of the coaches have coached above this level before, but we must be doing something right. The game was incredible, and the kids were awesome.” (Scores are not officially kept during games, but Ashcroft beat Logan Lake 12–9.)
Buckland says that the players were eager to get the game going.
“All the kids were excited. They were there early and on time, dressed and standing at the door to go on the ice 10 minutes before the game.
”At the start they were on the ice enjoying themselves, but it soon became apparent they had something good going on. You could tell the excitement was there, and the kids were really clicking, and pounding the goals home, so we asked the team manager to keep score. They left it all on the ice, and had nothing left at the end of the game.”
Buckland says that the players have had a chance to reflect on the game, see what they’re lacking, and work on their skills. “We’ve had two practices since the game, and have identified areas of improvement, like players clustering around the puck. We’re trying to get them to separate, pass the puck around, use the full ice surface to develop a play into a scoring opportunity.”
He adds that developing their hockey skills will definitely help the players in other ways. “It will bleed over into soccer, as the sports are similar, but they also gain the ability to play as a team rather than as individuals, and learn how their individual skills can help the others. You can only be a solo person so long before you have to work with others in other environments, whether that’s during a school project or at work.”
Buckland notes that apart from two players who will age out into U11 at the end of the season, the rest of the group will be together this year and next year.
“We’re able to grow this group of kids together, so 10 kids out of the 12-person team will stay together and be a senior U9 group next year, and even more of a contender.”
He’s also noticed that, judging from the hockey bags many of the players have, they were part of the Canucks “Learn to Play” workshop that was held in Ashcroft in early 2018.
The free program takes children who have never played hockey before, gives them all the gear they need from head to toe (which the participants get to keep), and provides them with on-ice sessions and coaching to introduce them to the game. More than 30 local kids took part in the workshop.
“A lot of the kids stuck with it, and are still actively playing hockey and developing,” says Buckland. “For us as coaches it makes hockey fun, and makes them want to come back and play. As they get older it’s about learning and developing your skills as a hockey player, and it’s getting to the point where we’re cutting back on practice games. They’re asking to do drills rather than games, because they recognize this makes them better hockey players.”
Members of the public are encouraged to come out and cheer on the Warriors U9 team during their first home game of the season, on Saturday, Dec. 11 at Drylands Arena. The Warriors will be taking on Logan Lake again, with the game starting at 1 p.m.