It takes just three hours to fly from Toronto to Tampa Bay, but for women about to play in the World Ball Hockey Championships that trip was years in the making.
“I’m still pinching myself that I’m actually here,” said Stephanie So, a Beach resident who plays right wing on the Withrow Knights’ master women’s team.
Speaking over the sound of sticks on concrete in the Withrow Park rink, So explained that she never played organized sports growing up.
But, inspired by a story about a group of hockey moms who decided to play, So started playing pick-up ice hockey before joining the Knights six years ago.
“My first shift I thought I was going to die,” she said about the transition from ice to concrete. “You’re not gliding.”
“But I loved it,” she said. “I decided I was going to whip myself in shape.”
Like the US, Canadian, and Slovakian rivals they will meet in Tampa two weeks from now, So said most of her teammates are in their forties.
Fitness is what sets the Knights apart, said David Valenta, one of the team coaches and a former Team Canada and Withrow Park player at the 2010 and 2012 world championships.
Early on, Valenta told the Knights they would face teams that had far more skill, but said they could outrun them if they got their fitness level up.
“That’s exactly what happened,” said So. The Knights won gold at last year’s Ontario championships, besting teams from strong hockey towns like Peterborough, Ottawa and Niagara.
Another thing that sets the Knights apart is their status as a neighbourhood team. Most of their rivals are national teams made up of top picks from around the country.
Those teams have talent, Valenta said, but they only play a game or two before the tournament. The 22 Knights players live mainly in the Beach, Riverdale and East York, and they have been playing for a year and a half, he said, not to mention all the fundraising and organizing they do to keep Withrow’s grassroots league going.
“You want to show that it’s not just the big shots from across the country – you can actually produce a neighbourhood team that’s fairly competitive,” said Donna Goldenberg, the team manager.
Goldenberg said organizing set women’s teams only started in 2006, after the children’s and men’s leagues were well under way. Before that, the women just threw their sticks at centre and chose teams at random.
“There were no whistles, no refs, no timekeepers, no icing, no offsides – it was all just hacking around,” she said.
As the women’s league developed, Goldenberg said they were careful to mix players up so the teams weren’t simply groups of old friends. It kept the league open and friendly, she said, and likely made for better hockey, too.
“All these women have played against each other and with each other,” she said.
Off the rink, Goldenberg said her son and daughter, both hockey players, started looking at her in a totally different way when she started playing.
“I would come home and they’d say, ‘Well, did you score?’ And I’d tell them all about the play. It was fun.”
“You have to think of ways to get clout with your kids,” she added, laughing.
“My kids are all pretty impressed,” she said, including her son who plays on Hong Kong’s national ice hockey team.
“They think it’s cool their parents are serious about keeping fit and doing sports,” she said. “I think the big thing for me is that you’re never too old to pick up a new sport.”