Players like Sami Jo Small have paved the way for female hockey in Canada

Laura Shantora Nelles, Off the Cuff

Four years ago, I had just passed my full licence test at the Ministry of Transport office in Aurora, Ont., while I was home on Christmas break from university. I dropped by my buddy Lance King's house, who lived near the MTO office about a half hour from my parents' home. We were watching TSN as the Canadian Olympic hockey teams were announced for the 2006 Olympics.

Minor hockey players were wearing the jerseys of the players on the men's team who were all busy with their NHL schedules, and women stepped forward as their names were announced. Lance, a seasoned veteran goaltender with the York University Lions at the time, said, "You know what's sad? I wouldn't be able to pick out any of the women's team players to know if it was actually them, except maybe Hayley Wickenheiser."

Growing up, I never had any exposure to hockey. None of my girlfriends played. I only got my first pair of hockey skates - hand-me-down CCM Tacks from my gargantuan younger brother - when I was 21 years old.

When I arrived in Montreal at Concordia University, I was surprised to find a girl from my hometown suiting up for the McGill University team (our cross-town rivals). I was instantly jealous.

Having fallen entirely in love with the game, I always wished I could play, too. When I was young, I took dance classes, gymnastics, horseback riding and I remember learning to skate - in white leather figure skates with toe picks.

I never held a hockey stick until I was in high school, playing road hockey with some of the boys from the neighbourhood.

Today, Sami Jo Small will be visiting Portage la Prairie in support of the upcoming Power Smart Manitoba Winter Games, hosted by Portage in March 2010. Small is a three-time Olympian and has won five world championships.

AthletesCAN presented her with the fifth annual AthletesCAN Leadership Award at the 2009 AthletesCAN Forum - Voices of 2010 and Beyond in Richmond, B.C., recently. According to a release, "The award recognizes the contributions of Canadian athlete leaders and celebrates the importance of athlete representatives and the successes they have achieved through their work as leaders and change agents."

I'm green with envy, never having had the chance to play myself. But in the past few years, my involvement in the sporting community has given me hope that someday, should I have a daughter, she'll have the chance to play.

Girls' hockey has grown exponentially in the past few years, and more and more girls are starting to play at a younger age.

The Central Plains Capitals regional midget program has added a girls' club in the past couple years, giving female players a chance to compete at the same elite level as their male counterparts. These types of programs feed post-secondary teams across North America.

Small will be on hand at a fundraiser barbecue from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. before heading out to talk to school children. She'll also be suiting up with our hometown hero Portage Terriers and signing autographs following the skate at Centennial Arena. It'll be worth it to meet this women's hockey hero.

Laura Shantora Nelles is the sports editor of The Daily Graphic.

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