On Nov. 9, 2017, the University of Calgary Dinos and Mount Royal University Cougars went head-to-head in the first of four matchups this season between the women’s hockey rivals. It was a big win for the Dinos — but perhaps a bigger victory for the town of Williams Lake, B.C., thanks to a pair of defenders on the ice.
Victoria Byer and Laine Grace are two of the top female hockey players to emerge from Williams Lake, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend. You can see their common hockey roots in the way they play.
“I think Laine’s a very defensive defenceman and I play exactly like that, so it’s cool to see how she plays,” said Byer, who’s in her second year at Mt. Royal but first year playing on the hockey team after an injury sidelined her last year. “We have different styles, but you can definitely tell we’ve been coached by the same coaches, which is really cool to see.”
They’re on different teams now, but Byer and Grace are two athletes cut from the same sheet of ice — two talented products of a small town that decided it was time to make girls’ hockey a priority.
— UCalgary Dinos (@UCDinos) November 10, 2017
Williams Lake, a small community tucked into B.C.’s Central Interior, has deep hockey roots, but for many years it was a hockey town with a shallow pool of options for girls looking to lace up their skates beyond a game of shinny on a backyard rink. Girls who did play organized hockey, including Byer and Grace, joined the boys’ program.
That changed in 2008, when a group of local community members, led by Williams Lake native Troy Weil, decided to put together a girls’ team.
“The girls had the right attitude, they had fun, they wanted to develop, they wanted to get better,” explained Weil, who now serves as North Central Female Hockey Coordinator as part of B.C. Hockey.
What started as a tournament team became an atom house league girls’ squad, and it wasn’t long before Weil and a group of other dedicated coaches and parents decided to form a fully-carded competitive peewee rep team — same as the boys, right down to having their own dedicated dressing room.
There were plenty of logistical hurdles along the way, including getting proper ice time — “Equal ice. We wanted to be treated the same as the boys’ teams,” said Weil — but the biggest was getting enough girls into the game.
In a city with a population hovering just under 11,000, that meant looking to nearby 100 Mile House in hopes of attracting players.
“We had to run a program here that people wanted to come to,” said Weil, who is coaching a boys’ team this season. “You had to sell the vision… to have a competitive rep team in that category.”
Weil certainly wasn’t alone in this campaign, and he’ll be the first to tell you it was a full community effort, and still is. Any reference to “his” program are quickly — and humbly — corrected.
“It’s not my program. Honestly, with something like this, there’s five or six people that really… they’re part of it as much as I was,” said Weil. “There’s a lot of people that are part of the program, and they all feel proud.”
Now seven seasons in, it’s clearly working. The Williams Lake girls’ program went from losing one-sided affairs during their first few seasons as a rep club to now being one of the strongest teams in the Central North Division. Good timing, too, as the city is set to host the female midget provincial championship — the first-ever time the community will host a female hockey championship.
Though Byer and Grace took seperate paths to university, both flourished as a result of this increased attention to the girls’ game, and credit Weil as well coaches like Roy Call, Steve Carpenter and Sheldon Nohr, to name a few, for helping them hone their skills.
Grace, who spent much of her youth playing alongside boys, was excited about the idea of the girls having a team of their own.
“Playing with the guys, I was always kind of scared,” she said. “I would always pass the puck as soon as I’d get it and didn’t skate it or have any confidence, really.”
She joined the first girls’ atom team and stuck with the rep program until Grade 10, when she moved with her family to Vernon, B.C.
“The goal of my whole life was to play university hockey,” said Grace, who’s now taking ownership of the Dinos’ blue line as a rookie under the guidance of Canadian women’s hockey legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Danielle Goyette.
Danielle Goyette carried the for #TeamCanada at Turin 2006 & led the women's hockey team to gold. Today, she joins the Hockey Hall of Fame.
— Team Canada (@TeamCanada) November 13, 2017
Byer, one year Grace’s senior, spent her youth hockey career playing alongside the guys before opting to seek steeper competition at the major-midget level in Prince George in Grade 10.
While she didn’t suit up for the Williams Lake girls’ team, she and her family were strong supporters of the program and what it meant for the community.
“From a small town, [hockey] was never big for girls and then to actually see a team be put out there and actually start to win tournaments and do well was actually really exciting because more girls that I was friends with were able to play and I was able to connect with them,” said Byer, who is best friends with Weil’s daughter. “It was a lot of fun and really inspiring to see other girls play hockey.”
Coaches Carpenter and Call pushed Byer to excel defensively, while Weil encouraged her to continuously take on the next challenge.
“[Troy] was such a big supporter of me. He always looked out for me. He would always help me put my name out there,” said Byer. “He helped me get to where I am today.”
Two strong defenders, two separate paths to two separate schools, and one hockey town that’s proving good things happen when you give a girl some ice time. And Weil believes there are plenty more coming.
“To be honest with you, this little town of Williams Lake, we compete provincially. We have some good players coming out of here, we’ve done very well and I’m really proud of that,” Weil said. “We started off with the one team and currently we have two teams — a midget rep team [and] a bantam rep team, and we have good numbers in the atom age. So we’ve got a lot of good things going on.”
“We have a good set of role models and mentorships, strong players that kind of led the way and now hopefully the younger kids can follow in their footsteps,” Weil said. “There’s a footprint there for developed rep teams, we have coaching, and other teams have been formed. Hopefully they’ll have fewer struggles.”