Breaking the ice: Hockey PEI running first all-female First Shift program

Jen MacDonald knows the importance of female hockey players getting the chance to play with other girls first hand.

There are about 1,000 female hockey players on the Island

Jen MacDonald has been coaching hockey for 15 years. (Submitted by Jen MacDonald)

Jen MacDonald knows the importance of female hockey players getting the chance to play with other girls first hand.

The director of female hockey for Hockey PEI grew up in Victoria Cross, P.E.I., near Montague and played in a boys league until she was in Grade 9.

"That's where I truly fell in love with the game," she said.

"I was a very shy kid and it was when I actually played female hockey that it got me out of my shell."

Jen MacDonald was the head coach of Team P.E.I. at the 2015 Canada Winter Games. (Submitted by Jen MacDonald)

MacDonald is coordinating Hockey PEI's first all-female edition of the Canadian Tire First Shift program on P.E.I.

"I see the value in girls playing with girls and continuing to build on that," she said.

'Major social aspect'

MacDonald started playing hockey when she was five, and said playing with boys as the only girl, she missed out on the some of the important parts of being on a team.

"There's a major social aspect in it," she said.

Hockey PEI has run the Canadian Tire First Shift program the last few years, but this is the first time for an all-female edition. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Not being able to go into the dressing room until game time took away from opportunities to bond with teammates and build camaraderie.

"That's where the girls have the most fun and same with the boys. That's where they have their most fun. Those are the moments they remember too."

'Lifelong sport'

Rob Newson, executive director of Hockey PEI, said that the First Shift program has been run for the past few years and that they wanted to provide an opportunity for female players to get on the ice with their peers.

"In the game of hockey females love to play with females, and unfortunately at a young age, that doesn't always happen," he said.

"We want to provide that environment for young girls to not feel intimidated and to feel comfortable around some of their peers, and we know there's definitely an interest out there for young females to play or try the game."

The focus of the program is learning basic skills, not competition. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

MacDonald said that there are about 1,000 female players in the minor hockey system on the Island and she is hoping that the program will attract 30-45 players that want to learn the game.

"I hope that the girls will fall in love with the sport that I fell in love with," she said.

"That they will build confidence and improve and have a sense of achievement and ultimately that they continue to play the game … it becomes a lifelong sport for them."

'Not hockey families'

Newson said that after a couple of years where female enrolment decreased, Hockey PEI made female hockey a priority, especially in the area of recruitment. 

There is a $199 cost for the program, which includes six one-hour on-ice sessions as well as the all the equipment new players will need to get going.

Once the season is over, that equipment is theirs to keep.

Rob Newson, executive director of Hockey PEI, says that after a few years of decreased enrolment, female recruitment into the minor hockey system was made a priority. (CBC)

MacDonald also said that a big part of the program is a welcoming session for parents to meet the on and off-ice coordinators of the program, and learn about the game and some of the important aspects of preparing.

"We have people that are new to our country," she said.

"They're not hockey families already, so they're not sure how to put the equipment on."

Fun as a focus

MacDonald said the program is open to girls aged 6-10 that have never played hockey before. 

There are no games, and the emphasis is on developing basic skills integral to the game like skating, puckhandling, passing and shooting.

For MacDonald the goal of the program is to introduce as many girls to the game as possible, in a non-competitive atmosphere focused on learning.

"It's a safe and a fun environment to learn the sport and to fall in love with the sport."

"The focus of this is fun."