Photo by Hit The Ice

Lisa Haley reflects on her experience coaching Hit The Ice

By Jessica Pincente

TORONTO — To mark National Indigenous Peoples Day, we revisit women’s hockey head coach Lisa Haley’s experience coaching Hit The Ice, a U16 team of Indigenous girls from across Canada hoping for a shot at a postsecondary hockey career.

The television series of the same name premiered on June 12, 2019, on Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). Haley serves as head coach of Hit The Ice throughout the series, assisted by fellow Rams coach Margaret Jennings.

Entering into its seventh season, Hit The Ice details the journey of a team of Indigenous female youth hockey players from across the nation. The series has typically featured boy’s teams, but this year’s edition of Hit The Ice has taken a different approach.

“The show has been running for six years on the men’s side and it was always about getting the players an opportunity to try out for junior teams across the country,” says Haley. “The model is different on the women’s hockey side, so we chose to attend a highly recruited tournament where there are a lot of university-level coaches in attendance.”  

Season seven follows the team through a professional-style training camp and culminates with their experiences at the highly scouted Beantown Classic tournament in Boston, Massachusetts.

A national team coach herself, Haley is joined by special guest coaches and Olympic medalists Brigitte Laquette and Rebecca Johnston, as well as former Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) assistant coach Jenesica Drinkwater.

With a new episode premiering every Wednesday on APTN, this year’s season of Hit The Ice is creating opportunities and breaking barriers for Indigenous girls across Canada. The ultimate purpose of the team is to gain exposure to college and university scouts at the Beantown Classic, says Haley.

“The goal is to gain exposure for players who would otherwise never have an opportunity to do so,” says Haley. “It gives them a chance to go to university, get an education and play competitive hockey. Varsity hockey gives them an opportunity to change what their future looks like.”

Many of this year’s roster players were originally scouted via the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships, according to Haley. Hit The Ice also held open tryouts and video tryouts to bring on additional players. This year’s training camp was held in North Bay, Ont., but the players come from cities and communities all across Canada.

Take Kadin Copeland, for example.

Kadin’s family lives in Arviat, Nunavut, a small hamlet located on the western shore of Hudson Bay. The town of 2700 people is only accessible by boat, plane, or snowmobile, making participation in competitive hockey nearly impossible.

“There’s no organized league or team in Kadin’s community,” explains Haley. “The rink is open all the time, so if you want to go and play, you just go. We saw her at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championship, and that was the first team she ever really played on.

“She’s just naturally talented, and that comes from playing hockey out on the ice for seven days a week with whoever wants to be out there.”  

At the start of the week, Kadin barely spoke and was quite shy and timid, Haley recalls. Traveling to North Bay for a hockey camp was an entirely new experience for Kadin, as this was one of the first times away from her remote community.

Kadin slowly began to open up, and, according to Haley, they “couldn’t get her to be quiet by the end of the trip.”

“Watching her grow and blossom over those two weeks was mindblowing,” exclaims Haley.

Kadin is one example of the many players for whom Hit The Ice has impacted.  Haley recalls the story of another girl, named Karahkwenhawe White but shortened to Karah, who nearly gave up playing hockey due to bullying.

“She almost quit hockey,” says Haley. “She made the AA girls team but had to leave because of the race-related bullying she experienced. She was very reserved and it took a long time for her to break out of that shell. By the end of the tournament, she was teaching me how to floss!”

Karah and Kadin’s stories are just two of many tales of adversity amongst the team.  While the coaching staff emphasized the postsecondary options available to the players, Haley adds they also focused on instilling a sense of self-confidence in the girls.

The team’s tagline, ‘I skate like a girl, so try and keep up’, not only speaks to the talent of the players, but also to the greater purpose of the Hit The Ice experience.

“It’s something we want to grow within them, to realize how strong and powerful they can be,” adds Haley. “It was so rewarding to see their individual growth. We wanted it to be a theme and it’s a critical piece of self-confidence that we want these girls to have. No one has ever told them, ‘it’s okay, you should be confident in yourself and your abilities.’”

Without Hit The Ice, some of the players likely would not be able to pursue outside opportunities to play hockey at a postsecondary level, says Haley. Not only that, but the sense of confidence instilled in the players by Haley, Jennings, and the rest of the coaching staff, will likely have a profound impact on them for years to come.

Haley says the experience was eye-opening and she is extremely grateful for the opportunity to coach such an incredible group of players.

“My biggest takeaway from the experience is seeing things from the other side of the fence,” recounts Haley. “I’m thankful to have gotten this opportunity to impact their lives and be apart of the journey with them.”

More information about Hit The Ice can be found on their website or their Facebook.  The show will continue to air weekly on APTN until the season finale on August 28, 2019.

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