NANAIMO — Local hockey fans know what’s happening with the Clippers and Buccaneers, and they may even follow the VIU Mariners or the North Island Silvertips.
But not a lot of people know about the top level female team - the Vancouver Island Seals.
The Seals program is Midget Female AAA and is equivalent to the North Island Silvertips of the BC Major Midget League.
Like the Silvertips the age range is 15-17 but the Seals have one team to represent all of Vancouver Island.
Coach Chris Atchison says the Seals are based out of Shawnigan Lake School with a roster 17 players plus affiliates.
"For home grown talent this is the pinnacle for the female game. We take great pride in the fact that we’ve got girls on this team from the Port Hardy area to the Peninsula and most of the communities in between. All but one of these girls are able to live at home,” said Atchison.
The current squad has girls who are entering their third year with the team but there are also three underage 14-year-olds playing for the Seals this season.
Some video highlights of the Seals practice at Shawnigan Lake School on September 27:
There are five Nanaimo players on the team who make the trek down to Shawnigan Lake for practices once or twice a week.
One of the Nanaimo athletes Alyssa MacDonald is in her third year and plays right wing.
She says the Seals play in a five team league which includes lots of travel.
“I like the bus trips. I like travelling with our team. Right now our goal is beating the Comets (based in the lower mainland) they’re the best team, the biggest competition I think,” explained MacDonald.
The other teams in the league are the Comets, Fraser Valley Rush, Thompson-Okanagan Lakers, and the Northern Capitals.
Two of the three under-age players on the Seals are part of the group from Nanaimo.
Rhys Winchell says she used to play boys hockey up until this year and she’s really enjoying the transition to an all girls team.
“It’s so much fun,” said Winchell. “All the older girls have been so nice and helped me feel more comfortable. We always used to (playing on boys teams) have to get dressed in separate rooms so we were always isolated from the team a little bit, but here we’re always all together and more of a team.”
Goalie Cassandra Beutler played with Winchell in the past and she’s been part of both boys and girls teams in Nanaimo.
The 14-year-old says there are a lot of adjustments playing on an elite all girls team.
“They play a lot rougher than I thought they would and it’s fast - it’s super fun,” said Beutler. “Girls like to stand in front of the net a lot more so there’s a lot more sticks there.”
Beutler hopes to stay the next few seasons with the Seals and then move on to play hockey and college and perhaps even professionally.
Aside from weekly practices there is a 32 game league schedule which starts on Friday October 5th against the Northern Capitals.
That game will be played in the lower mainland which will help cut down on the travel for both teams.
With other tournament and showcase events there are about 50-60 games for the girls over the next six or seven months.
Coach Atchison says it’s important to work with each player to figure out the right balance of school and hockey and to help the athletes achieve their future goals.
"It’s a big commitment and we make sure that in and amongst the commitment they’re making for hockey that they’re also finding time when we’re on these road trips for school, to keep their academics up. Playing hockey at the highest level for females means that you’re playing U Sports or you’re playing NCAA. To get those opportunities, if thats the path they choose, we want to make sure that they're both academically inclined and athletically prepared,” said Atchison.
In the past Shawnigan Lake School has been the site for Seals games but the plan this year is to spread games around the Island, including some games in Nanaimo and Duncan.
That will give the girls a chance to play in their home communities and return to the Minor Hockey Associations that help shape them into the players they are today.
On twitter: @danmarshall77