It’s a season unlike any other, but the Southern Express is a team unlike any other. Heading into its second season in the Alberta Female Hockey League’s (AFHL) Bantam Elite league, the Express represents every corner of southern Alberta.
Twelve teams make up the province’s top under-15 league — the Southern Express play in the South Division — and Caputo’s team draws from the widest area by far.
He says there’s tons of driving for the girls and their parents, but zero complaining from his players.
“For us, in the end, to compete it’s what we have to do,” he said. “It’s just because we don’t have the numbers.”
“In terms of travel and commitment and hours spent getting to practices, there’s no team that’s more committed than we are.”
A pair of second-year players, Callie McCulloch and Makayla Watson, live about 200 kilometres apart. McCulloch lives along the Canada-U.S. border in the village of Coutts, while Watson lives in Brooks.
The pair says, with their parents willing to drive, the time spent in the car is a no-brainer.
“Yeah it’s a lot,” McCulloch laughed.
“It’s like an hour and 45 minutes to each practice, so late practices, there’s a lot of sleeping in the car… but I love it. In the end, it’s totally worth it.”
Watson agrees that passion for the game is an important part in making such a huge commitment.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it,” the 14-year-old said. “And it’s lots of fun, so I just try to keep a good attitude and try to have a good effort at every practice, and make sure it’s a fun experience for other people too.”
Caputo says that is what makes his team so special.
“The sacrifices that parents, players and everybody involved have to make,” he said, “and having the opportunity to be an associate coach last year… I never heard a girl complain about it.”
With no word yet on when AFHL games will start, the team is focused on preparing the best it can, both on and off the ice.
The Southern Express has been training with Lethbridge Hurricanes strength and conditioning coach Trevor Hardy, and McCulloch says the opportunity to train at an elite level is exciting for many of the girls like her, with high-level hockey aspirations.
“[I am] just working hard and hopefully I’ll get to where I want to be,” she said. “The Olympic level, I guess, is the highest you can go, so hopefully one day I’ll make it there.”
Caputo says the level of competition in the Bantam Elite League is the highest in the province, with many future stars playing in the league.
“That’s one thing that I think people get a misconception of, that it’s the Bantam Elite female division, well it’s as high as you can get,” he said.
“You can’t get any higher than that, and the competition is fantastic with 12 teams across the province.”
Caputo says some sort of cohort-friendly competition could start for the team as soon as October.