'I practise for this': Growing number of girls game for Alberta Native Hockey provincials

Three years ago, Brooke Young couldn't skate.
Tyra Burnstick, left, and Brooke Young at the 2018 Alberta Native Hockey provincial championships. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Three years ago, Brooke Young decided to learn how to skate.

Now the 15-year-old is a centre and the only girl on one of Athabasca's midget boys hockey teams.

Young, a member of the Bigstone Cree Nation, north of Edmonton, recalled her first game two years ago. 

"I didn't know what I was doing," Young said. "I just went for the puck and I was trying to score." 

It was an initiation by fire that she passed with flying colours.

She signed up the next season with the nearest minor hockey association, the Athabasca Hawks. Since then, she's travelled 40 minutes four times a week to practise and play.

"A lot of the boys, they just helped me out and guided me," said Young, named the most improved player. "It's kind of normal because they're just used to having me on the team."

Girls hockey growing

But once a year, Young gets the chance to play with and against other girls — and not just other girls, but Indigenous girls. 

"Throughout the whole league, our practices, I practise for this," Young said.

Young is in Edmonton until Sunday for the 25th Alberta Native Hockey provincials, where she is playing for a midget girls team from the Alexander Cree Nation, a community of about 1,000 people west of Morinville. 
Doug Chalifoux is on the Alberta Native Hockey Board (Nathan Gross/CBC)

She is one of 3,500 First Nations and Métis athletes, ranging in age from three to 21, are playing on 254 community teams, many of which are formed especially for the tournament. 

For a lot of the girls, especially those who live in rural or remote communities, the provincials is one of the only opportunities they get to play with other girls.

"We're seeing more and more teams now, female teams, which is awesome," said organizer Doug Chalifoux. 

"It's really grown over the years," he said. "The itch is there. Everybody wants to play hockey."

Tyra Burnstick, 16, from Alexander, has been playing in the tournament since the age of three. But it's only in the past two years that she's been able to play with girls.

"Girls hockey is starting to get way bigger now. More girls are joining and wanting to play." 
Brooke Young, left, and Tyra Burnstick lace up their skates. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Burnstick, who plays defence, spends the regular season with the St. Albert Blades girls A team after growing up playing boys hockey with Rivière Qui Barre and Calahoo teams.

"It was really intense," Burnstick said. "The girls were kind of scared because the boys get really rough sometimes."

She said having hockey in her life has helped her concentrate on the things that are important to her. 

"It really does help you stay out of trouble a lot because you're more focused on that than anything else," she said. "My next step is just to graduate from high school and apply to university and then go play hockey in university."

Burnstick hopes that one day her community can support female league teams of its own. She said she sense the interest is there. 

The circumstances aren't entirely unique to reserves. Young's municipality doesn't currently support league teams, either. 

She's doing what she can to share her experience. 

"What I learned in Athabasca is what a lot of kids in Calling Lake don't get, so I go to Calling Lake, to my home and I try to help them out and teach them what I've learned," Young said. 



About the Author

Roberta Bell is a reporter with CBC News in Edmonton.