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Tuesday, May. 21, 2019
An Olympian, a former NHLer and a Super Fan: Stories of the Esso Cup
2019-04-24
by Randy Pascal

There's a story around each and every corner.

Anyone who has ever attended an event similar to the 2019 Esso Cup and has allowed themselves to be completely immersed in the atmosphere and the environment can attest to the truth of that opening statement.

Few of the story-lines this week, however, might be quite as fun-loving and heart-warming as that of 12 year old Faith Bennie. Decked out in full Sudbury Lady Wolves garb, the youngster might not have looked that much different from so many other girls in the stands, watching and idolizing the players on the ice who, not all that many years ago, were in their very shoes.

But Bennie is different.

She and her family had driven up, from Stoney Creek, on Easter Sunday, committed to taking in an entire day of hockey action on Monday at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex. If not for her own tryouts in North York, Bennie suggested that they might have stayed for the entire week.

But while the notion of Lady Wolves fans populating various corners of Ontario is not exactly earth-shattering, the reality for Bennie and her crew is that there exists no familial ties to the local team. They have no family members playing, no cousins and such involved with the tournament. In fact, to her knowledge, she had driven through the Nickel City only once, previously, during a family trip heading west.

So why the affinity with the Lady Wolves?

“Back in 2014, the Esso Cup was in Stoney Creek and I was watching the Sudbury team warm up,” explained Bennie, who at the time would have been but a precocious seven year old. “Then they went into their team huddle and they saw me watching, so they invited me in. At the gold medal game (the 2014 Lady Wolves captured bronze), they sat with me and I've been watching them since.”

But more than just watching from a distance.

“Every year, the Sudbury midgets go to the Stoney Creek Showcase,” Bennie noted, proudly displaying the “Tournament VIP” pass she had been given. “The year after the Esso Cup, I went and watched them, and they got me a player's jersey from novice, so I've been watching them since.” A bond had been forged, one which continues to grow to this day for the aptly named “Sudbury Super Fan”.

“That very first year, I met all of the girls,” recalled Bennie. “But then all of the minors, the first and second year girls, came back the next year, and I knew them and then I met the new first years. Every year, I get to meet new girls.” And judging by the flock of 2014 team members seen at her side, young ladies who have either completed or are nearing completion of their post-secondary studies, Bennie certainly hasn't lost touch with the old ones.

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No surprise this week that there are Olympians in the house. But to be honest, the notion of getting a chance to see either or both of Tessa Bonhomme and Rebecca Johnston at a Sudbury event such as this is not really a stretch. Both young women remain incredibly positive and approachable ambassadors for their native city, taking plenty of time to stop for pictures a plenty in their travels.

But from start to finish, this week, no Olympian has been more omni-present than three time gold medal winner Cheri Piper. Technical coordinator for the Ontario Women's Hockey Association (OWHA), Piper works closely with many aspects of High Performance in the girls game. And as someone who first donned the maple leaf as a member of a U22 Canadian entry in 1999, the native of Scarborough provides a wonderful perspective on the state of the game.

“When you look at the growth of the women's game, these kids out here are so fast, so much more skilled,” said Piper, taking in every single contest to date. “I can honestly say that I think they're much better than I was at that age, and the people I played with, not to take anything away from our generation.”

In addition to the increased skill level, Piper has also seen the inevitable accompaniments, the heightened expectations, most notably of parents, when every young female player in the country is now dreaming of living out a dream that garners national attention with regularity. “I'm a big believer in the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) plan, and I currently think people play too much hockey,” she said.

“The focus is on playing so many games, unsanctioned spring hockey and things like that. These athletes need time away from the game to focus on other aspects of training, to become true athletes.” And, of course, the girls need to be playing for all of the right reasons.

“I would hope that your child is playing the game because they love the game and they're having fun,” Piper emphasized. “It shouldn't be about chasing a potential scholarship, or playing on the national team. You don't play the game for the opportunity that may come, because that's a big may. There are no guarantees.”

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A veteran of 16 NHL seasons and more than 1000 games in the league to top all leagues, Saskatoon Stars assistant coach Curtis Leschyshyn understands that feeling of reaching the pinnacle of the sport. He also understands the need to appreciate the moment, as he helps guide a group that includes daughter Anna to a third straight appearance at the Esso Cup.

“I always say that female hockey is the purest form of hockey, because it's all skating, passing and shooting,” noted Leschyshyn. “I've been coaching midget AAA girls for four years now and it's quite enjoyable. The girls are very receptive to new ideas and new things that you want to teach them. They are very good at incorporating those things in their game immediately.”

Taking a 1-1 record into play on Tuesday, Leschyshyn sees the Stars as among a group of teams who can contend in Sudbury. “We don't see these teams at all coming into the tournament, but we know that we play a certain way, and if we play that way, we're going to have some success,” he said. “We've been fortunate enough to have a good group of girls, with the majority of them that have played here for the past four years.”

And though he would register a total of 47 goals and more than 200 points over the course of his time in the NHL, the former defenceman and third overall selection in the 1988 draft admits to looking out on a completely different player with the next generation of Leschyshyn hockey talent.

“Anna probably has much better hands than I ever had and can score better than I ever could,” father admitted with a laugh. “She's not the fastest player on the ice, but she reads the game really well, well enough to be positionally in the right spot.”

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