Minor hockey is meant to provide young athletes with every opportunity to develop and chase their dreams on the ice, but a handful of 15-year-olds from the Lethbridge area have been forced to look elsewhere to play at the highest level.
Ava Caputo and Callie McCulloch — as well as two others from the Lethbridge area — are playing this hockey season with the Lloydminster PWM Steelers; one of just six female U18 AAA teams in Alberta.
Caputo and McCulloch played for the Lethbridge-based U15 AA Southern Express last year, but as they aged out to U18, it became clear that their local options were extremely limited.
“We don’t have a AAA team here, and now we don’t have a AA team, so really I can’t play here at all,” Caputo said. “If I wanted to play at the highest level that I possibly could, then I had to move.”
The AA team was forced to fold due to a lack of numbers, with those four players headed to Lloydminster and a few more choosing to go to the South Alberta Hockey Academy program in Medicine Hat.
Caputo said she has seen too many former teammates quit hockey because of limited options.
“I have known, there was like nine of them maybe, that had to quit hockey because we didn’t have enough players to have a team here,” Caputo said.
For McCulloch, it’s been just one more barrier that she’s had to push through to chase her hockey dreams after playing on boys teams all the way up to U15.
“You know, it got to that point where the boys, the changing rooms and stuff like that, you can’t go in the same room, so you would have to get thrown into one of the closets at the rink to go change,” she said.
McCulloch’s parents said they have watched their daughter fight to continue pursuing her dreams, something that wasn’t so difficult for their two sons.
“The opportunities that hockey has provided for our boys have been a lot easier than the girls’ path,” said Kevin McCulloch. “She had to play boys hockey just to have teams available for her.
“Without there being a program at the level that she wants to play at, she’s forced to travel and move away from home — and that sacrifice hasn’t been easy , to let her move away at 15.”
There are 17 U18 AAA boys teams in Alberta currently, including one in Lethbridge.
“The boys have, if they don’t make the highest level that they’re trying out for, there’s always one to fall back on,” Kevin McCulloch said. “They can fall back, and they’re always going to be able to play hockey, locally.
“We don’t feel that the girls have that opportunity; once they don’t make those teams, then it’s pretty much over for them.”
Terra McCulloch said she has watched too many of her daughter’s former teammates quit hockey due to a lack of nearby options; something that is tough on players and parents alike.
“Just the distance that the girls had to travel, lots of people aren’t willing or able to put in the time to get the girls to where they need to go,” she said. “Because it’s not local, it’s a huge commitment.
“Maybe if we could have a local program that could support the higher level of hockey that the girls want to play, maybe more girls – in Lethbridge itself and the surrounding area – could still pursue their hockey dreams.”
Lethbridge Minor Hockey Association general manager Keith Hitchcock said Lethbridge did have a U18 AAA female program until about five years ago when Hockey Alberta reduced the league to six teams to make it more competitive.
“The numbers struggled, so they just felt that there wasn’t sustainable numbers for AAA,” Hitchcock said. “So they gave us AA in U18 and U15, and basically we’ve become a feeder program for AAA.”
Hitchcock said since the AAA program was eliminated, elite players from the Lethbridge area haven’t stuck around.
“They’re recruited heavily by the higher-level programs, and that’s hard to say no sometimes,” he said.
“If they want to stay home, we offer a good program for that — we run it as a AA program, but same as AAA, we have the dryland, we have the extra ice and everything like that, but if they’re that good a player and they can play AAA, they will.”
Hitchcock said it was the perfect storm that led to Lethbridge’s U18 AA program folding this year, but work is being done in the younger age groups to feed into a U18 program, hopefully as soon as next year.