August 1, 2013

JWHL elevates women's game


The North American Hockey Academy won its fifth championship since the league began in 2007.
 

Hockey fans in 2013 were treated to an incredible Stanley Cup where two of the Original Six teams in the National Hockey League — the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins — dueled in a tightly contested fight to lift the Cup this year.

 While Boston and Chicago squared off in the NHL, another founding member of a hockey league recently won a championship.

The North American Hockey Academy, a founding member of the Junior Women’s Hockey league and coached by JWHL co-founder Bill Driscoll, won its fifth championship since the league began in 2007.

“Bill’s team has set the bar extremely high within the league. I think they won the league title every year but one,” said co-founder and Washington Pride head coach Kush Sidhu. “But for us, anyway, it’s an example of where we want all of our teams to reach. From time to time teams are stronger or weaker based on the talent pool they have to draw from, but there’s a consistent talent level.”

Driscoll’s team has had a lot of success in the early years of the league, but he is proud of what the league as a whole has accomplished, developing high school-age girls for the next step of their hockey careers.

“We’d seen the development of junior hockey on the men’s side and we wanted to bring that to the women’s side,” Driscoll said, speaking about himself and fellow co-founder Sidhu. “The core purpose is to create a league that’s highly competitive where the players can play to their highest potential.”

What started as a four-team league in 2007 has expanded to a 12-team league for the 2012-13 season.

Teams are based in St. Paul, Minn.; Denver; Boston; Stowe, Vt.; Washington D.C.; Lake Placid, N.Y.; Wilcox, Sask.; Winnipeg, Man.; Calgary and Warner, Alberta; and Vancouver and Penticton, B.C.

Expansion usually means a league is doing well for itself, but Sidhu says the league could  even have potentially started with that many teams.

“Someone has to start it and when people believe it’s happening, they can choose whether that’s something right for them,” he said. “We just want to make sure we’re doing our best to accommodating the teams in the league.”

The makeup of the teams is also a mixed bag. There are academies, schools and traditional travel clubs.

What really drives the league, however, are the players.

“It’s terrific,” said Boston Shamrocks head coach Joshua Hechter. “You really have to see it to understand how good the teams are, and not just the top-end talent. All the kids, from top to bottom. You look at the list of where the kids go and it’s clear.”

Alumni from the JWHL have gone on to play at colleges such as the University of Wisconsin, Boston University, Dartmouth and Harvard.

In the 2013 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four, the JWHL was represented by 19 former players. That list includes Sarah Davis, who scored the overtime winner for Minnesota in the semifinals and tallied an assist in the championship game, as well as Boston University’s Jenelle Kohanchuk, who had a goal and an assist in the semifinals and a goal in the finals.

Davis played for the Warner Hockey School and Kohanchuk was a member of Balmoral Hall School.

Their successes speak for the league’s caliber as a whole, not just their individual schools.

“We’re proud whatever team they come from,” Sidhu said. “It’s almost like one program. It functions well and we all take pride seeing a kid playing for a college or national team. All the kids understand what that means, what that kid went through. It helps them through tough times or difficult moments when they feel pressured with everything on their plate.”

Currently, the league is home to Canada U-18 squad member Karly Heffernan (Edge School) and USA U-18 player and 2013 JWHL Player of the Year award winner Annie Pankowski.

“The players are phenomenal,” Hechter said. “Karly Heffernan, Annie Pankowski, those are arguably the best American and Canadian forwards on the planet. It’s a pleasure to play against them for sure.”

Heffernan and Pankowski are certainly gifted players, but the members of the JWHL are quick to point out that their main philosophy is developing the talent of all players.

“The ultimate purpose is to be a stepping stone to prepare high school players to move on to the college hockey game,” Driscoll said. “It’s the experience we provide these kids.”

There are several different ways the JWHL gives players a unique experience to learn from.

The first is the venues the teams play in.

Since the league is fairly spread out, several teams will meet at one location for a weekend’s worth of games.

“These kids at the end of the year can say that they played their league games in Yale, in Quinnipiac, in Brown, in Harvard, in North Dakota and Minnesota,” Hechter said. “On top of playing our games in amazing venues, seeing the fellow organizations and the progress they’re making, the kids have the opportunity to watch the host collegiate athletes play. It adds a whole ‘nother level. They are playing games, seeing kids on campus and doing a college visit. I don’t know what else you could ask for in a weekend.”

Because the teams come from all over the United States and Canada, players are getting the opportunity to play other girls from the two countries as opposed to just their town and neighboring towns.

That allows the girls to see how hockey is being played in other parts of the country and is a litmus test as to where the individual stands against her competition.

“You have kids from Boston regularly playing against kids from western Canada, and that’s their competition for college,” Sidhu said. “When we’re playing one another (colleges) get to compare kids apples to apples. They get to see a Winnipeg kid versus a Washington kid, and if there’s any questions how one kid stacks up against another they get answered very quickly. It becomes an interesting game from a competition standpoint.”

Another on-the-ice thing that the JWHL does to help prepare the players is to play periods of 20 minutes apiece.

While high school leagues don’t play that long, the JWHL feels that it is necessary to do in order for players to get the real college experience.

“It’s physical preparation and mental preparation, getting them to focus (for 20 minutes a period),” Driscoll said.

The length of the games, as well as the number of games played in a weekend, allows all players to get a fair opportunity to earn ice time.

“We play three 20-minute periods. That’s a long game,” Sidhu said. “In a course of a weekend we may play four games: one on Friday, two on Saturday, one on Sunday. I don’t think kids will complain about ice time. You need a full bench and you need everyone to contribute. There is plenty of ice time.”

The development isn’t just for solely playing hockey. Driscoll says the league works to help develop players off the ice as well. “There’s a lot of lessons to learn for life beyond hockey,” he said.

The JWHL is designed to prepare players for college. Helping a girl understand what playing hockey in college is like is not complete unless the player also is learning the skill of time management.

Sidhu says that teams can practice three to four times a week in season and five days a week before the games begin on the weekends.

Hockey is a priority, but to even get into college to play for different schools, the players must do well in school.

“There’s plenty of time in the day and they do what they do with their time. They just have to make decisions about what’s important,” Sidhu said. “It’s an adjustment. When they first come on the team, they quickly get on board.”

“They will miss events at school,” he added. “They’ll miss homecoming and proms and Friday night football games, but they don’t really miss them. They don’t feel those things are more important than what they’re doing — playing hockey and pursuing their passion.”

Sidhu also said that his team helps the girls finish their school work with mandatory study-hall sessions. For his team, other than playing hockey, the studying never really stops.

“I don’t think we’ve watched a movie on the bus ever because kids are studying and doing their homework,” he said.

Because it is a developmental league and players move on to play in college, there is a bit of roster turnover. Hechter said his club usually graduates between six and 10 players a year.

All that means, though, is that a new crop of recruits is ready to step in. Learning the league does take some time, and Hechter says most players join for multiple seasons.

“In order to play this rigorous schedule and do well in school, you have to do well in your time planning,” he said. “It takes one year to get adjusted and a second year to really thrive.”

With the early success of the developmental league, the JWHL has expanded not just in number of teams but in different age groups.

The league has a U-17 Challenge Cup that, according to the league website (www.jwhl.org), had 12 teams participate.

With a track record for success, the players continue to get younger and younger.

“We get a lot of kids here for four years that move from our younger team to our older team,” Driscoll said. “We’ll have quite a few ninth-graders and eighth-graders that come through the ranks and move on to college.”

With players coming in earlier and learning the game, developing their skills and improving their work habits, the level of play and player just continues to improve the caliber of the league.

“It’s extremely competitive whether you’re a first-place team or last-place team,” Sidhu said. “On any given day any team can win. That’s a mark of a good league.”

It hasn’t been a very long existence for the JWHL, but it has been an impactful one.

With players like Davis, Kohanchuk, Pankowski and Heffernan calling the league their home, it only inspires others to get involved.

Then the more players and coaches get involved, the more the hockey community gets behind the league, the higher the ceiling is for growth not just in women’s hockey, but in the sport in general.

Driscoll says he hopes to continue that path of growth with the JWHL. “These kids are really opening doors and opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said. “The future is really bright for the league. Six years ago we didn’t know where we’d be in Year Six and now we don’t know where we’ll be in Year 12. It’s exciting to see what we’ve been able to contribute to women’s hockey.”