Erin Riley
Ladies of the League

The list of female role models in Canadian sport got a lot longer this summer thanks to record performances in Rio, but female athletes in the GTA needn’t look any further than the local rink to find inspiration. Girls are making their mark on co-ed teams in the GTHL and rising the ranks of hockey’s elite.

It’s fitting that Canadian women found such great success in the pool at the Summer Games. After all, Canadians have come to expect success on the ice at international competitions, in part because the National Women’s Team has captured four straight Olympic gold medals. These triumphs have inspired thousands of young players to lace up their skates every day with aspirations of continuing the success of the female program.

For 17-year-old Brooke Bonsteel, the path to playing competitive hockey started with a friendly sibling rivalry against her older brother, Ryan. Following in his footsteps led Bonsteel to the GTHL’s Mississauga Braves – one of many options for girls interested in hockey – where she played AA for six seasons beginning in minor atom.

“The Mississauga Braves organization is amazing,” said Bonsteel, who won three GTHL championships with the team. “[Braves general manager] Gord Murphy always gave me inspiration, telling me stories of the successful hockey players who have passed through his organization.”

“I used it as motivation knowing that one day, I wanted to be the player that Gord is telling his young athletes about.”

Bonsteel no doubt is now woven into the fabric of Murphy’s stories. Now playing for the Mississauga Chiefs in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League, she has committed to Quinnipiac University, a top NCAA Division I school, for the 2017-18 season. She credits her time in the GTHL with helping improve her game.

Photo by Erin Riley

“I was taught how to play the game physically and to use my size as an advantage,” reflected Bonsteel. “Though it is often misjudged, women’s hockey is very fast and very physical. I found myself playing just as physical [in women’s junior] as I would in a boy’s hockey game.”

Former Mississauga Ice Warriors goaltender Kayla Wormsbecher, who competed against Bonsteel in the GTHL and now in the PWHL with the Toronto Aeros, agrees that playing with the boys until her bantam year prepared her for playing with women at the junior level.

“The speed of women’s junior is similar to when I had played with the boys in the GTHL. A lot of people say ‘stay with the boys for as long as you can,’ and that’s what I did.”

Despite boys dominating in numbers, the girls who play competitively among them in the GTHL have seen great success in their hockey ventures.

“It’s great hockey,” said Tony Reale, whose daughter Cassie Reale, a goaltender committed to Princeton University, began playing in the GTHL at age 11. She will join Bonsteel on the Chiefs this season.

“When the girls talk about the GTHL they say, ‘oh you played boy’s hockey.’ The reality is it’s not boy’s hockey, it’s co-ed hockey,” emphasized Mr. Reale. “For my daughter it was awesome. She got to meet her goal which was NCAA Division I.”

Unlike boys who are drafted from Minor Midget AAA directly into junior leagues, girls have been known to commit to breakoutNCAA programs as early as age 14. Mr. Reale, who is himself involved with the PWHL and Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, recalls his daughter committing to Princeton while playing Minor Midget AA with the Toronto Aeros, but also credits both women’s hockey organizations on the “tremendous job” they do to promote players to NCAA and CIS schools.

Beyond the collegiate level, the options for competitive women’s hockey are expanding. The National Women’s Under-18 and National Women’s Development Teams have each recently seen former GTHL players on their rosters, and the growth of female professional leagues like the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and its U.S. counterpart, the National Women’s Hockey League, have provided players with the ability to compete professionally.

The growth of the OWHA has steered many girls toward all-female leagues, but some still choose the co-ed path for minor hockey. In 2015-16, nearly 100 girls played on GTHL rep teams alongside male teammates.

“Since I have always played ‘boy’s hockey’, I only think of it as hockey,” said Mackenzie Alexander, a forward for the Minor Atom AAA North York Rangers last season.

“I love the game itself. I want to play for Harvard University and my ultimate goal is to be on the National Women’s Team and to go to the 2022 Olympic Games,” said Alexander while chatting with Breakout during a break in her schedule at a summer co-ed tournament in Beijing, China.

The determined group of girls playing for GTHL rep clubs includes many who share the same hockey dreams as Alexander. Many of them are turning heads and making a case early in their careers, like forward Makayla Mistry who tied for the team lead in goals last season while playing with the Minor Peewee A Hillcrest Canadiens.

“My girls have had a great experience in the GTHL,” said Makayla’s father Zubin Mistry. His youngest daughter, Natassia, also plays in the league as a goaltender with the Atom AA Goulding Park Rangers.

“Both have their sights set on the NCAA, so we’ll see what happens.”

Hey Team Canada (and beyond), your future remains bright.

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