When Cleo Halket stepped onto the ice at Yost Arena recently — staring up at a giant ‘M’ backdropped by massive cathedral-style windows — she could barely believe her little seven-year-old eyes.
“It was almost emotional, how in awe she was,” said mom, Nikki Dobbelaar.
Dobbelaar was one of several local parents who made the trip-of-a-lifetime to Ann Arbor, Michigan so the girls of Sarnia’s Janie Puck program could skate with the University of Michigan’s Women’s ice hockey team.
“I think it was just so empowering for her to see those big girls in that arena and that atmosphere… I could tell that she was thinking, ‘Wow, I can do this too.’”
About 16 girls took to the ice for an afternoon of games, drills, and pizza with some of their hockey idols, organized by Janie Puck founders Brian and June DeWagner.
The grassroots program launched last year encourages girls to get involved in hockey — who might not otherwise have the opportunity.
“It really had nothing to do with hockey at all, and everything to do with them seeing big girls doing something they loved as a kid, and that they can keep doing it,” said DeWagner, noting the girls exchanged emails and numbers and hope to keep in touch. “We always say, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’”
Janie Puck is modelled after the successful girls’ lacrosse program, Janie Lax, the couple started in 2013.
“All we’re doing is trying to make sports more accessible and prove there’s other ways to do it, because not every kid wants what’s out there,” he said, noting each family covers the cost of one ice-session in Mooretown.
“Some of these kids are just non-hockey kids — their families don’t play, they’re scared away by costs, or there’s just no familiarity.”
Kids like eight-year-old Caisie Coutu, a Janie Lax member who recently told her parents she wanted to give hockey a try.
“I don’t skate and I don’t like the cold,” mom Sacha said with a laugh. “But Brian helped us track down some used equipment … she probably never would have gotten into hockey if Janie Puck was not a thing, because she was so anxious about it.”
On her first day last year, Caisie was in tears, her mom explained —out of her comfort zone but wanting so badly to try. Before long, she was buzzing around the rink, helping other little girls learn the ropes, and this month, she’ll be trying out for local girls minor hockey at the atom level.
“I see a side of her I never thought in a million years would have existed,” said Coutu. “All from this one little idea that Brian and June had about renting some ice and getting some kids together.”
Thirty girls have been involved in Janie Puck, ranging in age from four to 12, and while participants are encouraged to give minor hockey a try there’s no pressure to go that route.
Cleo has been known to wear her Janie Puck jersey to school, raving to her classmates about the ‘team’ she belongs to.
“It’s funny because as adults we are very aware that there’s no league, but if that’s what it means to her, then absolutely that’s her team, 100 per cent,” said DeWagner.
“Most of these kids have never played, or never would,” he added. “For a nine-year-old that hasn’t played before, the instructional program is over, but there’s no reason why you can’t be a Canadian girl that wants to play hockey, and can’t.
“So that’s all we’ve done.”