Growing the Game Starts at Home

Written by Dakota Woodworth

Ask any Calgary Inferno player why they continue to play, volunteer, and serve as ambassadors for the game and you’ll likely hear the same response – for the future of the sport.

With a mandate, both team and league-wide, the Inferno and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) place a focus on both promoting and growing the game. For the Inferno, that is where a partnership with Girls Hockey Calgary (GHC) was developed from in the Fall of 2016 and the relationship has provided a response beyond what many could have expected.

GHC began re-branding their teams as the Girls Hockey Calgary Jr. Inferno, complete with an updated team emblem and jersey. The Inferno, in turn, attached their players to teams as hockey ambassadors.

A professional women’s player front and center for young girls to both learn from and look up to. Ambassadors mentor the young players, make appearances at Jr. Inferno practices and games, and stay in communication with the teams all season long, providing advice and inspiration.

“It has truly been amazing all around, I can’t speak enough to how much our organization has flourished from it, how female hockey in general in the city has flourished,” said Jody Forbes, President of the Executive Committee and Operations Committee for GHC.

With a direct link between the professional and youth ranks, GHC and the Jr. Inferno has quickly become a leading organization, not just in Calgary, but in all of Alberta. They are one of just two organizations in Calgary to record growth over the last few years. Whereas a majority of programs don’t grow at all, GHC has seen numbers go up by roughly 100 players per year – a staggering number for hockey programs.

At the same time, the relationship also serves to remind both the Inferno and the CWHL exactly what all their hard work is for.

Brittany Esposito, a forward in her fourth year with the Inferno, recently stopped by her GHC’s team practice the day after a tough road trip in Toronto. The Inferno dropped both games to the Furies, one of which served as the first of three nationally televised CWHL games this season on Sportsnet.

“I was disappointed, we didn’t play very well on TV, but then I went to my Jr. Inferno practice and at that moment it didn’t matter. The girls were just so excited to see a female hockey player on TV,” said Esposito.

Samantha Holmes, a former CWHL player for the Inferno when they were known as Team Alberta, remembers how important it was to have female role models to look up to as a young player.

“I was fortunate enough to look up to Angela James when I was a kid,” said Holmes, who coaches her daughter’s Jr. Inferno Timbits team. Now she’s able to watch the Calgary Inferno become that model for her young daughter.

“The girls are playing hockey and their parents can say to them, ‘Hey you can play for the Inferno in Calgary one day if you keep playing’. It’s tangible for them,” Holmes added.

It’s a unique position for some Inferno players, who may not have had the same opportunity, growing up during a very different time in women’s hockey.

“It’s pretty meaningful to me in that I never had a female coach growing up,” said Jacquie Pierri, a five-year Inferno veteran serving as an alternate captain this season. “I didn’t even have a female player from New Jersey that I could try to emulate,” she added.

Fiona Part, a PeeWee in her second year with the Jr. Inferno, has been a warm-up skater with the Inferno twice this season. Walking into the Calgary locker room before her second time with the team, she quietly but comfortably joked, “I’m back!”

“When Fiona was the warm-up skater they really welcomed her. Now she walks through WinSport and all these people say, ‘Hi Fiona’ or ‘how are you today Fiona?’“ said Karen Part, Fiona’s mother.

“All the players on the Inferno just treat the girls like fellow athletes, they remember what it was like and they just want the girls to be able to play,” she added.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of all is the sense of community that the partnership has fostered, largely in part to the adoption of the Inferno logo across all levels of GHC hockey. In one significant move, all players from Timbits to the professional ranks were united under one image. When a member of the Inferno sees a Jr. Inferno hoodie in rink or on the street, the look of recognition is unmistakable.

Everyone is on the same team.

The communal feeling runs deep throughout both organizations.

“Seeing the logo around town is pretty neat and seeing the kids and actually having them recognize you and know you by name is pretty cool,” said Pierri.

“I’m dropping my kids off at school and [my daughter] sees a kindergartner walking by in a Jr. Inferno hoodie – it’s the immediate sense of community like: ‘oh yeah, she’s one of us,’” explains Forbes. “I love that she feels that sort of sisterhood with the other players, both younger and older.”

An eye always on the future, with the future of women’s hockey looking brighter than ever.