When the 2011 Canada Winter Games open in Halifax on February 11th, Erika Kiviaho will be the only regional connection to a sport which owes its very existence to Northern Ontario.
Ringette may not be as popular as it was a couple of decades ago, before the explosion in the growth of girls hockey, but the fact remains that the roots of the winter sport were planted by recreation directors Sam Jacks (North Bay) and Red McCarthy (Espanola).
A native of Walden, Kiviaho defied the odds in cracking a roster laden with talent from both southern Ontario and the Ottawa region. Yet the middle of three girls in the family might suggest that her involvement at the national competition really is destiny, a journey mapped out for a precocious youth who first donned the skates at the age of four.
“When I first started, I just loved to skate,” said Kiviaho in a recent interview, balancing the academic requirements of her freshman year at Wilfrid Laurier University with the athletic requirements of being a member of Team Ontario.
“We lived on a lake and my dad would always shovel off a rink for us – that was a big part of our lives,” she added. “Now I still love to skate, so I absolutely enjoy how fast the game is.”
Kiviaho, along with older sister Jena and younger sister Lisa, have been mainstays with the ringette program in Walden for years. It wasn’t long before her skating ability, the same speed that allowed her to capture the “fastest skater” competition within the high school girls hockey ranks two years running, was attracting attention at an elite level.
At the age of 13, Kiviaho worked her way on to a Northeast Regional roster that included young ladies as old as 18, earning an invitation to her first provincial tryout. “I didn’t make it, but just to be playing AAA and then be asked to go to the Team Ontario tryouts that young was really good,” she said.
A member of the Lively Hawks girls hockey team throughout her secondary school career, Kiviaho also plays as a forward with the ringette crew, utilizing her most noteworthy skill at every opportunity.
“I rely on my speed a lot,” she said. “I think that it is such an important aspect of the game – everything depends on it. I like driving the net too – I’m more of an inside shooter.”
Competing within a field of some sixty or so athletes at the provincial tryouts, Kiviaho was one of just twenty players selected to represent Ontario when ringette kicks off at Cole Harbour Place on February 12th.
Her involvement in athletics over the years has certainly exposed the outgoing teenager to several elite level competitions, but there is something about the “Games” that is exciting, different and unique.
“All of the other major competitions I have been at are specific to that sport, except for the Ontario Winter Games,” she said. “That is the only other multi-sport competition I have been to.”
“This is the largest multi-sport competition you can go to without going internationally.” The prestige is not lost, in the least, on the well-spoken northerner.
Athletes in 23 different disciplines will don Ontario colours, all striving towards the “team flag” that is presented, at the conclusion of the Canada Winter Games, to the province which accumulates the most points over the two weeks of competition.
“To represent your province is a big deal,” she said. “All of the sports really support each other and we want Ontario, as a whole, to do well.”
From taking her first few strides on the backyard lake near Whitefish, to lining up opposite many of the best young ringette players that Canada has produced, Erika Kiviaho has come a long way.
“This is what I wanted and have been working for since I started playing AAA – so to have finally achieved that is amazing.”