The chill in the air is a sure sign that the seasons are changing. It’s also a sign that another season of hockey is upon us.
The junior leagues are about to begin their seasons (if they are not playing already), and the pros in the National Hockey League are just getting their exhibition season started. Soon, they’ll be joined by thousands of young Canadians in the minor hockey ranks, including those in the Brandon area.
Hockey Brandon President Curtis Storey says some of the older team are just about to start practices, while the house league teams will get under way shortly after Thanksgiving. And the number of youth playing the sport in the city appears to be very static in a year-to-year comparison.
“It’s about the same as last year. We have about 725 players this year, and that translates to about 60 teams overall,” he said.
The continued rise of female hockey is also evident, as there is a strong contingent of players and teams throughout all ages.
“For specifically female teams, we have two pee wee teams, one bantam team and our midget girls are looking to combine with Wawanesa,” said Storey. “And at the atom level we have three female teams.”
There will also be several girls and boys playing together on the young Tidbit teams and novice teams There will be 12 of those squads at both levels this season.
On the boys’ side, Storey says there will be four bantam teams between house league and rep leagues, two midget teams, eight pee wee, and 10 atom.
There will no doubt be some exciting events hosted in Brandon as the season wears on. The locations for the various provincials won’t be known until later this winter. The deadline to apply to host a provincial championship is Oct. 31.
However, Brandon Minor Hockey has two weekends circled in February for a truly historic event.
“We have the 50th anniversary Tournament of Champions this year,” said Story. “There will be quite a bit done for that. There are some special things being planned, and it’s something we promote quite heavily.”
Storey says this tournament routinely attracts teams from all over North America, saying past attendees have come from as far away as British Columbia, Ontario and the United States. Rural teams can also punch their ticket into the event by winning satellite tournaments earlier in the year. On Feb. 7 to 10, the pee wee and bantam teams competing, while on Feb. 14 to 17, atom and bantam teams will take the stage. The bantams are being split into ‘A’ and ‘AA’ events.
With exciting 50th anniversary tournaments in store, and registration numbers holding strong, Storey feels minor hockey is in a strong place heading into the 2018-19 season.
“I believe we’re successful, as our numbers are steady,” he said. “Since I started on with the board seven years ago, we’re attracting a lot of interest at the Timbit and Novice level, which translates into continued success as you get older.
“And the success can be seen in all the players who have moved on to play junior, whether it’s the MJHL (Manitoba Junior Hockey League) or WHL (Western Hockey League), and even the NHL (National Hockey League).”
That said, there’s always room for improvement. Storey says there are two initiatives they are working on this winter to help better the game. The first is a new power skating program aimed at the novice and atom aged players.
“This will be to help them work on and improve their skating, which is a foundation for later on,” he said. Former NHLer Aaron Rome will be the lead instructor this year.
The other initiative is a continuation of a partnership with Bauer and Canadian Tire. The First Shift Program allows players aged five to 10 who have never registered with a hockey program before to sign up and get six ice sessions and a full set of equipment for $200.
“It kind of allows kids to get into the sport at a low cost to see if it’s something they want to get involved in,” noted Storey. “Brandon has been part of this program for the past five years, two sessions each year.
“I believe that’s a really good program for kids. We’ve had 40 to 45 kids register for each session, so there is interest out there, and we’ve seen a third of them go on to register with minor hockey.”
For more information on Hockey Brandon, visit their website at hockeybrandon.net.