INNISFAIL – With the heat of last summer barely over late last month there was an excited insatiable rush for the chill of ice at the Innisfail Twin Arena.
Scores of young minor hockey players shed their light summer clothes for heavy hockey gear to get an early start for the upcoming season of Canada’s cherished winter sport.
It was the Innisfail Minor Hockey Association’s (IMHA) first day of evaluations on Sept. 24; a selection process to develop and pick teams for the upcoming season.
“The purpose of evaluations is just to make sure that we have groups of kids with similar skill level grouped together so they can be the most successful in whatever tier they're placed in through the season,” said Candace Schmidt, president of the IMHA, adding the association relies on volunteers for the important process. “It's a challenging time to make sure we do all those things right.
“We try to bring evaluators in from outside communities. We just really want to look at the kids’ skill level and make sure they're appropriately grouped,” she said.
While game action has not started yet there was plenty of excitement with the kids to get back on the ice for the new season; the first one since 2019 with no COVID-19 restrictions.
“We wanted to make sure that the community and the kids were safe during that time. That was of the utmost importance. And now, you've definitely seen a shift,” said Schmidt, noting there were some restrictions at the start of last year but the association still managed to have a successful season.
She added Stanley Cup Day in Innisfail on Aug. 8 gave everyone, especially the kids, a huge boost for the upcoming season.
“You could see the excitement on kids’ faces. It was a great starting point. It was amazing. It was incredible to see all the kids come out,” said Schmidt. “Its important kids have hockey and extracurricular activities and they can be back with their friends and back doing the things they love and playing the game they love.”
That love for the game appears to have given registrations a boost from the trials of the pandemic as numbers are back to “average” levels, said Schmidt, noting the U7 level has over 40.
“We've got new jerseys for those little kids coming up. We’ve got Bernie (Vanderham) still running our Eaglets program. He’s just incredible, absolutely incredible what he does for the association,” said Schmidt whose organization has minor hockey opportunities in seven age levels, from the five-year-old Eaglets to the 18-year-olds.
“Our U9 is going to have three teams, out U11 will have three teams. Our U15 is having a big group this year and we will have three teams, and our U18s as well,” she added. “We've got a lot of kids at the younger level at our grassroots level, which is what we want to see and develop them through their years of minor hockey. They either stay in Innisfail minor hockey or we support them in playing at what their skill and ability is.”
The association’s evaluations will end shortly after the Thanksgiving weekend. The 2022-23 season will then begin with exhibition games with league play starting shortly after.
“It's going to be a really positive experience this year,” said Schmidt.