Living her dream

Jennifer Kirk fulfilled a lifelong dream when she made the Brampton Canadette Thunder of the Canadian Women's Hockey League this season.

For Brampton Thunder forward Jennifer Kirk, her love of hockey never faded

Jennifer Kirk fulfilled a lifelong dream when she made the Brampton Canadette Thunder of the Canadian Women's Hockey League this season. ((Dan Robson/CBC))

If you've ever witnessed a minor league hockey game, you've seen the art of dreaming.

Young players battling for their Stanley Cup on every shift. Celebrating like Crosby with each goal. Piling on their netminder after every victory.

Because in minor hockey nothing is insignificant.

And dreams aren't dreams, as adults know them. They are simply the inevitable outcomes of stories being sketched on a frozen white canvas.

But rarely do those skate marks last.

The teammates we saw almost every single day — the ones we took bus trips with, played mini-sticks in hotel hallways with, watched the Mighty Ducks I and II with, won championships with — they become names on plaques, gathering dust in basements.

So when I read the name "Jennifer Kirk" on the roster for the Brampton Canadette Thunder at the 2010 Clarkson Cup, I was reminded of the art of dreaming.

It had been 15 years since I saw her last.

She was Jenny then. A girl on a boys' team. We played for the Brampton Maroons AA team under the arching wooden rafters at Brampton Memorial Hockey arena. 

Jenny was a gritty, undersized forward — with speed and soft hands. She was a goal scorer, but also one of the toughest players on the ice.

We played together for three years, in minor novice, novice, and minor atom. After that, I lost track of her.

Jenny's dream

On Sunday, we met after the fans had left and the lights were dimmed at Elgin Barrow Arena in Richmond Hill, Ont.

As old friends, Kirk filled in the years between then and now.

She left Brampton to play for the Cooksville Navajo, a competitive boys hockey team in Mississauga, where she was the captain and leading scorer.

Due to size and body contact, she left the boys' game in the ninth grade.

After playing women's junior hockey with the Brampton Canadettes, she tried out for the Senior A Brampton Canadettes Thunder —but was cut.

"I always wanted to play for the Brampton Thunder," she said.

Leaving competitive hockey for a time, she studied criminal justice at Sheridan College.

"I knew I wanted to go back," she said. "The two years that I took off, I missed it thoroughly. I was sad."

When school was done she played shinny hockey almost every day, refusing to let go of the game she had played since she was four years old.

Kirk then did what so few people ever have the opportunity or courage to do. She turned her dream into a story with an inevitable outcome.

At 26-years-old, she went to an open tryout for Brampton Thunder in fall of 2009.

Still undersized, but gritty and quick as ever, Kirk managed to impress the coaching staff. They told her she had made the team.

"I couldn't even sleep that night," she said.

A rookie at 26

Kirk shared the joy with her mother, Liz McMahon — who entered her into boy's hockey as a young girl, knowing she would never back down. McMahon has never missed one of her daughter's hockey games.

"If I don't see her in the stands I don't feel right before I play a game," said Kirk. "I love her to death, she's my biggest fan."

The Minnesota Whitecaps celebrate their Clarkson Cup victory on Sunday at the Elgin Barrow Arena in Richmond Hill, Ont. The Whitecaps beat the Brampton Thunder 4-0. ((Dan Robson/CBC))

McMahon, of course, was at Sunday's Clarkson Cup final. She remembered the moment her daughter became a rookie at age 26.

"Oh she was so excited. This was her dream," McMahon said. "She used to come and watch the Thunder play at the Powerade Centre. She was their biggest fan."

Kirk grew up adoring Lori Dupuis, a former Canadian Olympian and an iconic figure in women's hockey. Now, she is playing next to her.

She also plays with "Appsy", more formally known as Gillian Apps — a young star on Canada's current Olympic gold medal team. And against future legends like 19-year-old Marie-Philip Poulin, another Canadian Olympian, who plays for the Montreal Stars.

The Minnesota Whitecaps beat the Brampton Thunder 4-0 to win the Clarkson Cup in front of a crowd of young faces mostly cheering for the local team.

Kirk played the same game she did when she was 10. She was tenacious, quick, and gritty as hell. She didn't score a goal or register an assist. She didn't hoist the Clarkson Cup over her head.

"I really want that cup. I'm kind of disappointed," she said.

But after the game young fans still asked for her autograph — perhaps seeing in her what they hope to one day become.

Later, still wearing her No. 6 jersey, she shook my hand and said goodbye. Kirk walked down the wooden stairs, passing rows of old, splintering seats.

Disappearing down a tunnel next to the bench, she left a blank sheet of ice behind her.