The Assiniboine Community College Cougars haven’t seen all of the teams they’ll face this weekend in the provincial senior female hockey championships, but they’ve seen enough to believe they can contend for a medal.
The championships begin Friday at the Kinsmen and Optimist arenas and the host Cougars will compete in the Senior B category. The Cougars have an up-and-down history at provincials, winning bronze three years ago, going 0-3 in 2012 and losing in the consolation final of last year’s event.
The Cougars have faced three of the six teams competing for the Senior B title, sweeping two games against the Minnedosa Wild, beating the Brandon Bandits and splitting a pair of games with the Winnipeg Rage II, but only the Bandits are in ACC’s division for the preliminary round, which also includes the Winnipeg Aces. Cougars head coach Terry Arksey said his team has played the Aces in previous seasons, however, and he believes all of the games should be competitive.
"I think we’re going in with our eyes wide open," Arksey said. "We have some high expectations and we want to do very well this weekend."
While the players come from varying backgrounds, a number of them have competed at an elite level. The ACC lineup includes Brittany Phillips, who led Colgate University’s women’s hockey team in scoring three times, while Andrea Cook of the Bandits also played NCAA Division I hockey, at the University of North Dakota. Nellie Minshull of the Wild finished her CIS career last year as the second-leading scorer in University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey history.
"I think (the calibre of play) has taken quite a few steps forward from even when we started a number of years ago," Arksey said. "The calibre of hockey has gotten a lot better, just with the graduation from the junior league in Winnipeg and some girls coming back from CIS teams that they’ve played with and coming back to their hometowns, and NCAA teams as well. Senior female hockey has got a lot better over the years."
The Cougars open against the Aces on Friday at 7 p.m., at the Kinsmen Arena. Minnedosa follows that up by facing the Winnipeg Devils at 7:30 at the Optimist. After going 12-11-2 this season, playing exhibition games against teams from the Manitoba Junior Women’s Hockey League as well as other college club teams and senior women’s squads, the Cougars are used to having a lot of variety in their schedule, something Arksey believes will help them this weekend. He wants ACC to come out of the gate quickly and put plenty of pressure on its opponents.
"I think our strength is in our speed," he said. "If we come and skate, we’re a good skating hockey team. If we can force the puck and force the other team into turnovers, we’ll do well. If we stand around and watch, we’re going to get ourselves in trouble."
This weekend’s schedule also features a three-team Senior A division, which wasn’t contested last year due to a lack of entries. The Blazing Stars, who won the Senior B title last year, will compete for the ‘A’ crown along with the Herd and the Manitoba Maple Leafs.
The top two teams after the Senior A round robin will meet in the final at the Optimist Arena on Sunday at 2 p.m. The top two teams from each Senior B division following the preliminary round will meet in the semifinals on Sunday at 8 and 8:30 a.m. The semifinal winners will play for the title that afternoon at 2:30 at the Kinsmen.
The category champions advance to the Western Canadian Shield, April 10-13 in Red Deer, Alta.