Credit the Sudbury ringette community for seizing the moment.
With local sporting competition at a virtual standstill, the group which boasts an association that can lay claim to being the longest standing ringette organization in the world was both timely and opportunistic this fall.
Celebrating their 55th year of existence, the Sudbury Ringette Association (SRA) would hit the headlines with the news of the addition of a nickname for their teams, the squads moving forward henceforth as the Sudbury Swift.
Remaining in the public eye is all part of the plan to ensure the on-going viability of a sport that once thrived in these parts, but has been forced to split a diminishing base group of young female athletes as girls hockey became more prevalent over the course of the past twenty years.
"We felt it was important to kind of re-brand ourselves a little bit," noted Shelley (Kasunich) Ahmed, president of the SRA.
"With a new executive, we felt it was time for a change. We were thinking about what could we do to keep our members interested, to let them know that we are still working, trying to get their players back on the ice."
In that sense, it was very much a concerted effort.
In order to maximize the potential roll-out of the sport this winter, all while abiding by the provincial protocols, the SRA worked in tandem with both the Walden Ringette Association and the Valley East Ringette Association.
"There was a lot of collaboration, working towards the same goal," said Ahmed. "Having something that is similar to what the players knew before, but is a little different, we felt was important. Most of the girls (and perhaps some boys, which is now allowed in ringette) just wanted to get back on the ice, they wanted to see their friends."
That they did.
"It was pretty awesome to find out we would be back," said Meghan Paquette, a 13 year-old grade eight student at Ecole Notre-Dame (Hanmer). "I was at school and my friend was talking to me about this. I think I started dancing around - it was such a good time."
While hockey provided her first steps on the ice, it was ringette that truly gained a foothold with Paquette, almost immediately after being introduced to the ring sport by her friend, Jenelle.
From there, it was just a matter of time before she would end up donning the pads, backstopping her team as a ringette goaltender. "We didn't have a goalie on one of my teams and I was kind of interested, so I tried it out - and here I am," said Paquette, now in her third year with the VERA.
"I find being in net is fun because I am always on the ice. It's difficult at times, just because I am still getting used to it. I am trying to remember to always keep my stick down on the ice."
Truth be told, the sessions that are currently being hosted by all three local associations are driven by a desire to augment the fundamental basic skills of ringette. For Emery Watson, a life-long member of the Walden Ring Devils, that has involved working on a couple of core elements of her offensive game.
"Shooting is a challenge for me," said the 12 year-old who was largely inspired to picking up ringette after watching her mom play some seven to eight years ago. "It takes a lot of practice, just to be able to get that ring off the ice."
"And then there are a lot of different ways in which you can pass: board passing, drop passing - but shooting is definitely something that a lot of players find harder."
Still, as a center, Watson's responsibilities are not limited to the opposing team's end of the rink. "As I center, I have to play defense and forward - I'm in all of the plays," noted the grade 7 student at Walden Public School.
"I always found it really tough to play forward and have to stand here and just watch our defense struggling (ringette only allows three defenders below the ringette line at any given point in time)," said Watson.
"I really found that at centre, I loved it because I could help out."
Yet another young lady inclined to wanting to help, Abigael Barney also pursued goaltending as the option that allowed for a large influence on the success of her team.
"I really wanted to try something new, and a goalie has a very important job of communication," suggested the 12 year-old grade seven student at Lo-Ellen Park Intermediate School. "I found I was more focused as a goalie, and with being more focused, I was enjoying it more."
"I kind of like when they shoot on me. The more that they shoot on me, the more focused I get. It's a challenge, because a lot of the girls have worked on their shots over the summer and might even have some new moves."
Either way, Barney is super excited just to be rejoining her teammates and friends with a sport that she loves. "It's not super different," she said. "Yes, we have to social distance. Last year, when we were done a drill, we would go on one knee and we were usually really crammed."
"Now, we are not so bunched anymore. And in the dressing room, we have to keep our masks on. That's not my favourite part, because it's hot in there and everything." The protocol message, however, is sinking in.
"Everyone has been very appreciative of the safety measures that we have put into place," stated Covid Safety Leader Bradie Grainger, she herself a goalie within the Open Women's Division. "The most difficult part has been working towards the co-horts of 50 limitations."
"For that, we had to bring all three local associations together."
Though she does not work as a health care professional - Grainger is an administrator with Cambrian College - her existing role within the association dovetailed nicely with her new responsibilities.
"This kind of went hand in hand with working with the coaches, understanding the processes and procedures that could be used for Return to Play," stated the coaching director. And as for the shift in mindset as athletes and coaches gather at the rink, she offered a final word of advice.
"We're such social creatures, that we tend to automatically congregate," said Grainger. "That's the toughest habit to break, so that we can get people back on the ice as safely as possible."
And that's what it's all about, for Meghan Paquette, Emery Watson, Abigael Barney and all of the other ringette players in Sudbury and area.