Top News

New hockey program for Indigenous girls boosting enrollment in Cape Breton

Erin Denny, centre, takes a photo with Kassie Cremo (left) and Jersey Dennis at Eskasoni rink on Feb. 2, the first day of the Indigenous Female Hockey Program in the community. The program is a two-year pilot project put on by Hockey Nova Scotia which aims to create opportunities for Indigenous girls in Nova Scotia to learn basic hockey skills. Denny, 17, is a coach for the program in Membertou (Wednesdays) and Eskasoni (Sundays) and Cremo and Dennis are players. CONTRIBUTED
Erin Denny, centre, takes a photo with Kassie Cremo (left) and Jersey Dennis at Eskasoni rink on Feb. 2, the first day of the Indigenous Female Hockey Program in the community. The program is a two-year pilot project put on by Hockey Nova Scotia which aims to create opportunities for Indigenous girls in Nova Scotia to learn basic hockey skills. Denny, 17, is a coach for the program in Membertou (Wednesdays) and Eskasoni (Sundays) and Cremo and Dennis are players. CONTRIBUTED - Saltwire
MEMBERTOU, N.S. —

There were no girls on the teams and I never wanted to go (play on a boys’ team)... Boys are pretty rough sometimes.

- Kersandra Cremo, Female Indigenous Hockey program player

Ten-year-old Kersandra Cremo wants to be a left-winger like her grandfather John G. Cremo was.

John played left-wing for the Eskasoni hockey league and the Sydney Millionaires. Thanks to a new program being offered for free to Indigenous girls in Nova Scotia, Kersandra is learning the basic skill for her to follow in her granddad’s skate marks.

The Female Indigenous Hockey program is being put on by Hockey Nova Scotia, in conjunction with Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic and other community partners, in three First Nation communities. These communities are Membertou, Eskasoni and Millbrook (with practices being held in Bookfield).

Kersandra is one of 90 Indigenous girls between the ages of six to 16 who have signed up for the program. Two-thirds of them live in Cape Breton and Kersandra loves the weekly practices.

“It’s really fun,” said Kersandra, who goes to practices in Eskasoni and Membertou so she can get more ice time.

“I’m pretty fast at skating and I’m a fast learner. (I like) meeting new people and learning new tricks and hacks.”

The program is free. Even gear is provided thanks to donations by company CCM Canada and NHL Sidney Crosby and designed to help break down barriers keeping Indigenous girls from playing hockey.

Kersandra admits there was something keeping her from joining hockey before – playing on boys’ teams.

"There were no girls on the teams and I never wanted to go (play on a boys’ team),” she said. “Boys are pretty rough sometimes ... (In this program) my friend (Bella Paul) helps me out with a lot of things.”

Bella, 14, lives in Eskasoni First Nation and like Kersandra has been attending practices in Membertou and her home community (which will host four practices while the other two communities are holding eight). And like Kersandra, Bella is falling in love with hockey thanks to the program.

Bella Paul, 14, from Eskasoni First Nation is all geared up and ready to hit the ice for practice in Membertou. Although she's been wanting to play hockey for more than a year, Bella hesitated until she heard about the new Indigenous Female Hockey program that launched January 2020. CONTRIBUTED  - Saltwire
Bella Paul, 14, from Eskasoni First Nation is all geared up and ready to hit the ice for practice in Membertou. Although she's been wanting to play hockey for more than a year, Bella hesitated until she heard about the new Indigenous Female Hockey program that launched January 2020. CONTRIBUTED - Saltwire

“It’s fun. Plus, more girls need to play hockey,” said Paul who also plays volleyball. “I want the program to keep going (past the two-year pilot) so we can have enough girls for a hockey team and then I can go play in games.”

The Indigenous female hockey programs in Cape Breton, which started in Membertou on Jan. 29 and in Eskasoni on Feb. 2, are coached by Erin Denny, 17, from Eskasoni. The forward plays for the Chevy McIntyre Panthers in the Midget Female AAA and has played for Team Atlantic in the 2019 National Women’s Under-18 Hockey Tournament.

“(This program) gives them the opportunity to be comfortable and develop at their own pace,” said Denny who has been awarded a scholarship to play hockey next year at St. Mary’s University where she is taking a Bachelor of Science.

“(I wanted to be a part of the program because) I’ve always wanted to give back to all the people that supported me. And I wanted to help those little girls have opportunities I didn’t have when I started playing hockey.”

Although Denny has been on the ice, assisting people with hockey skills, this is the first time she’s been in a coaching position like this and it seems she’s benefiting as much as the youth.

"It’s been really fun. Even though I am a coach, I am interacting with them a lot, one on one,” Denny said. “The girls are all eager to learn. They are all ears, at all times. They all give 110 per cent.”

Kailey Julian, who is from Sipekne'katik First Nation and plays Midget AA for the Metro East Inferno, helps young players during the Indigenous Female Hockey Program in Brookfield in January. Along with developing new Indigenous players, the project aims to help develop young female Indigenous coaches from players like Julian. - Contributed
Kailey Julian, who is from Sipekne'katik First Nation and plays Midget AA for the Metro East Inferno, helps young players during the Indigenous Female Hockey Program in Brookfield in January. Along with developing new Indigenous players, the project aims to help develop young female Indigenous coaches from players like Julian. - Contributed

“It’s fun to know them (from my community) and to help them at the same time... The first week everyone had a hard time with balance ... By week two, they all seem to have no trouble with balancing anymore.”

Ryan Francis, the volunteer program lead who works as a sport consultant for the provincial government, said registration was higher than anticipated and feedback has been mostly good.

“There hasn’t been a program like this launched (in Nova Scotia). We thought it was the right time to do it,” said Francis who explained the project was in development for more than a year.

“(Response) has been fairly positive to date. We will be taking what they are sharing with us, to take into year two.”

Like Bella and Kersandra, Denny hopes the program continues beyond the two-year pilot.

“I think this program will be great for the future of young, female Indigenous girls and I feel that it will help grow the population of Indigenous girls (playing) hockey.”

nicole.sullivan@cbpost.com

Nikki Sullivan on Twitter

RELATED:

Recent Stories