When Kennedy Jackson started playing hockey when she was four years old,
she was inspired by current players who took time to volunteer with her
“I always looked up to older girls that were helping me out on the ice,”
Now 17, Jackson has an opportunity to give back as an NHL/NHLPA First Shift
coach for an all-girls program with the Central York Girls HockeyAssociation (CYGHA).
“I just want them to be able to feel the way that I did,” says Jackson, who
plays for CYGHA’s U18 A Blue team. “I just want to be able to help other
kids love the game of hockey kind of like the way I did growing up.”
The return of the program has been highly anticipated for the Aurora, Ont.,
association. The CYGHA hosted its first NHL/NHLPA First Shift program
during the 2019-20 season, but the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented it from
returning until now.
“I’m just really excited because we’ve had this program cancelled for a
couple of years,” says Keith Higgins, CYGHA’s on-ice coordinator for the
NHL/NHLPA First Shift program. “I had such a good time, so much fun the
first time around.”
CYGHA’s all-girls NHL/NHLPA First Shift program begins on March 26 with an
equipment try-on session where all participants will be fitted with a full
set of new Bauer equipment. Afterwards, the participants have six on-ice
sessions to learn the fundamentals of skating and hockey skills.
“It is really cool to see that one kid that on the very first session, all
they do is stand there and kind of swivel on one spot. And you get a couple
of weeks into it and the kid’s skating the full ice and making some motion
and hitting the puck,” Higgins says. “It’s really neat to see the
progression, the kids pick it up so quick.”
With the combination of receiving equipment and being on the ice, the
NHL/NHLPA First Shift program serves as an accessible and affordable
entryway into hockey.
“It’s a great way to recruit new members,” says Katie Williams,
vice-president of CYGHA’s women’s division. “The girls have a fabulous
time; our volunteers are just terrific. They enjoy it as much as the kids.
It’s just a great way to showcase girls’ hockey in our community.”
“I think, in general, we really need to be cognizant about keeping the
girls in the game and keeping it accessible and affordable,” says CYGHA
president Mark Dubeau. “We’re always having somebody there from our
executive [team] to talk to parents while the kids are out on the ice and
[…] hopefully get them into a position where they love the game and want to
continue with it.”
With Canada’s Women’s Olympic Team taking home gold at the 2022 Olympic
Winter Games in Beijing, the increased visibility of the women’s game on an
international stage may also encourage more young girls to lace up the
skates and pick up a stick.
“I think that seeing the women win the gold medal this year in the
Olympics, you can inspire little girls and little kids to want to play the
sport and learn about it,” says Katie Macey, a 16-year-old member of
CYGHA’s U18 A Blue team. “Just seeing other women achieve their goals in
hockey might inspire other kids to want to do that.”
Team Canada is not the only source of inspiration to get young girls on the
ice. Many volunteers for this NHL/NHLPA First Shift program are current
CYGHA players from U13 to U18, allowing participants the opportunity to
build connections with young role models in their hockey community.
“It means a lot,” says Macey, who will volunteer as a coach during the
First Shift. “Being a role model, you set good examples, teach them how to
respect, teach them how to work hard, teach them skills—it’s a lot of
Higgins’ daughter, Kaia, was a volunteer with the program during the
2019-20 season. This year, the 12-year-old will be a junior coach and is
looking forward to assisting participants during the on-ice sessions.
“It feels really good knowing that [I can be a role model],” she says.
“When I was younger, I always wanted to grow up and continue playing hockey
and have younger girls look up to me.”
At the end of the day, the volunteers are excited to share their love of
the game with the next generation of young players.
“I just wanted to help little kids find passion in hockey, that’s where I
feel the most comfortable,” Macey says. “Whenever you step on the ice, it’s
always like [you] forget about everything else and I just want to help
little girls find that same passion in the sport that I love.”