After two years of pandemic-related disappointment, the Prince Albert Bears have a long-awaited opportunity to play for the Esso Cup
Erin Kirkland isn’t ready to hang up her skates just yet.
The one from Tisdale, Sask. native and member of the Prince Albert Bears has one final tournament. All those years in minor hockey growing up playing the game she loved ends with the Esso Cup 2022.
Along with Paige Dawson, Taylor Leitch, Carnell Olsen and Sophia Zuck, Kirkland is one of five 17-year-olds set to end their small hockey career at Canada’s National Women’s U18 Club Championship.
The opportunity to play for a national title has been a long time coming for the quintet; The Bears were originally set to host the 2020 Esso Cup before it was canceled in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prince Albert was then awarded the 2021 tournament, but the pandemic scuttled those plans too.
This year, the Bears are finally getting their chance to host, although they’ll be doing it 765 kilometers from home. Earlier this season, as the Omicron variant made its way through Canadian communities, Hockey Canada and the Prince Albert hosting committee made the decision that the event would go ahead, but would be held at a neutral location – announced in early April as the Okotoks, Alta.
“It is really something special that we come here [play in the Esso Cup]says Kirkland, who is going to Iowa Western Community College on a softball scholarship in the fall. “I’ve played with the girls before when we were supposed to have it in 2020 and they were very upset that they couldn’t go there. One of the main reasons a lot of us girls decided to come to the Bears was the Esso Cup. It’s a really exciting opportunity that we’re all getting.”
Prince Albert has had his fair share of ups and downs in 2021-22; It finished the regular season with a record of 10 wins, 15 losses, an overtime win and four overtime losses, good for fifth place in the Saskatchewan Female U18 AAA Hockey League before falling in three straight games from the Saskatoon Stars rebounded in the opening round of the playoffs.
With the Stars finishing the sweep on March 9, that means the Bears will go 68 days without game action before opening their Esso Cup calendar on May 16 against Ontario region champions Durham West Lightning.
Among the biggest challenges the club faced came in January, when longtime head coach Jeff Willoughby resigned. Assistant coach Steve Young, a former coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League, took over as head coach.
Young admits the situation wasn’t ideal for his players but was impressed with how the girls adjusted and worked towards a common goal.
“Jeff and I are different people and we have different mindsets, so there have been some changes,” says Young. “But the core of the team was there. We’ve been trying to keep moving forward, brushing up on some things and trying to win a few hockey games.
“We have a team where it is important that all 20 of us are together. We don’t have a composition of a team where we have a top scorer or top end checker or anything like that. We’re a pretty balanced team.”
Kirkland says her coach met the club’s description.
“It definitely is. There is no player who stands out,” she says. “We work together as a team and everything we do is for the team. It is a battle we must fight together. If everyone doesn’t make an effort, the games usually don’t go well for us.
“[The coaching change] It was definitely a big change but we tried to see the positive side of it, this change is good and can help us. It’s helped a lot and we’ve grown as a team and we realized that whatever happens we all have to stick together and keep going because at the end of the day we have a big goal and that’s Esso and it’s coming soon. ”