A 16-year-old goalie from Antigonish, N.S., is set to make hockey history on Friday night.
Rhyah Stewart will become the first female player to take the ice for the Cape Breton Eagles in the team’s 26-year franchise history as they take on the Moncton Wildcats in a pre-season fixture at Centre 200 in Sydney.
She’s also the first female from the Maritimes to make it to a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) training camp — adding her to a list of only three others who’ve made appearances in the league.
“It’s definitely an honour to get the opportunity to come out here and skate with these high-level athletes,” she smiled at a practice on Thursday.
“It’s something I always strived for, but I never knew if I could accomplish it.”
One of Stewart’s most recent achievements is leading Team Nova Scotia to its first-ever female hockey medal at this year’s Canada Games and earning a shutout victory with Canada’s Under-18 team against the U.S.A. on Aug. 16.
Stewart said one of the most challenging aspects so far has been transitioning to the higher speed of the Eagles’ training camp, but she said she’s adapting quickly.
“They shoot pretty hard, so just getting used to this will be a little more difficult,” she said.
Louis Robitaille, head coach for the Eagles, said the 16-year-old’s recent contributions to the national team have helped her gain some quality experience that has led her to take this next step.
“She’s here for a reason and it’s because we want to see her compete for a spot,” he said. “Especially with the way she’s practised today, she looked comfortable out there.”
Robitaille said Stewart hasn’t looked out of place during training so far, adding that she’s maintained high-energy performances throughout the week.
“For me, it’s not about boys, girls … it’s to make sure you have the chance if you deserve it, and she does,” he said. “We felt as an organization that she deserved a shot to be here.”
Scott Gouthro, the goalie advisor for the Eagles, said the teen “hasn’t missed a beat” since linking up with the team after returning from her stint with Hockey Canada.
“If we didn’t think she could (participate), she wouldn’t be here right now,” he said. “She’s earned every right to be at camp here with these guys and she’s done a fantastic job.”
One characteristic of Stewart’s game that stands out for Gouthro is her mental strength and preparation.
“She seems to understand the game really well…. She’s ahead of the play a lot, she seems to track pucks really well,” he said.
“She seems to have that great mental side of the game, which is a huge asset as a goaltender.”
Stewart, who played 21 games for the Cape Breton West Islanders in the 2022-23 Nova Scotia U-18 Major Hockey League season, said although she hasn’t had any family watching along during training camp, they’ll certainly be making their way to Cape Breton to cheer her on during Friday’s game.
“That’s going to be a cool experience. I think it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so to be able to have them support me will be great,” Stewart said.
As for the reception Stewart’s received from fellow teammates, she said it’s been a warm welcome since her first skate.
“They’ve been supportive. It’s just been like normal…. They’ve treated me like one of them so I’m glad for that,” she said.
In a release from the team on Thursday, the Eagles said this pre-season game will be “an occasion to celebrate the achievements of athletes like Rhyah Stewart and recognize the strides being made towards a more inclusive and diverse future in sports.”
Stewart’s debut on Friday is expected to attract a large crowd to the Sydney arena, and the Eagles’ website is advising spectators to arrive early in order to avoid delays before the 7 p.m. puck drop.
— with files from Zack Power