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Harry Hirsimaki - helping unite ringette

Far more than most sports, ringette has seen a changing of the landscape over the past quarter century or so. True, much of that can be attributed to the explosive growth in girls hockey, fractioning much of the talent pool from which both sports draw.

Compounded with the effects of a smaller base of children with far more options at their disposal, the net result has created a boatload of alterations. Even the format for the Ontario Winter Games (OWG) competition has undergone significant change.

Yet throughout much of this 25 year span, Sudbury native Harry Hirsimaki has remained a constant.

The eldest of two siblings in the family, Hirsimaki was first introduced to the sport at the age of 20, when his then 16 year-old sister beckoned him to help out with her Lo-Ellen Park team in the late 1970's.

"I had just picked up on the sport, watching nationals at Carmichael Arena," said Hirsimaki. "It was exciting to get my foot in the door, but I needed to understand the game. The game is exciting, it's fast, it moves, but you have to understand the game to appreciate it."

That passion would not subside through the next decade as Hirsimaki stood on the sidelines of the sport, a ten year span that he would spend in Toronto. An outsider to their scene, it was not easy to break in.

That all changed with his return to Sudbury in 1990. "I walked into the Parks & Rec office in Sudbury and asked if anyone needed a coach," Hirsimaki recalled. "Percy playground called me."

The phone calls have not stopped since. Often coaching at both the recreational and competitive levels simultaneously, Hirsimaki states that he has not missed a single year behind the bench since his returning home.

But it was a move to the adminstrative side that opened more doors. "I realized that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I had to get involved so that people knew my face," he said.

Jumping quickly on board the executive of Sudbury Ringette, Hirsimaki progressed through the ranks. He would eventually serve as president of the Ontario Ringette Association (ORA) before migrating back to his one true love.

"I am not a natural leader," he noted. "When I was president of Sudbury ringette or Ontario ringette, I had to rely on the people with me on the executive. If they work with you well, then you do well."

Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case. Behind the bench, Hirsimaki found it far easier to surround himself with a support network that would fit well with his particular skill-set, complimentary coaching talents, if you will.

And with the pending arrival, come March, of another set of the bi-annual provincial Winter Games, Hirsimaki finds much of his attention focused on a rather unique gathering of young ladies.

Traditionally, the OWG featured a straight round robin tournament, with teams representing each of the six geographic regions in Ontario. In 2010, the numbers out of the Northwest were dwindling dramatically.

An influx of a supporting cast made up of cuts from the five other teams formed the basis of Team Northwest United, a crew that would surprise many by capturing silver that year.

By the time 2012 rolled around, it was simply "Team United", with the small handful of Northwest girls opting to attend the tryouts for the Northeast region. Though there was no strong connection to Northern Ontario, Hirsimaki threw his hat into the ring as a coaching candidate, awarded the United squad after years of helping guide the Northeast grouping.

"With the United team, I don't know anybody," he said. "I don't know reputations. Tryouts are probably a little less political." And given that the entire team is made up of teenage girls who have are castaways from the remaining teams who now form the opposition, motivation is seldom a problem.

"Because most of these girls have been brought up in the "AA" world, I don't have to teach fundamentals," said Hirsimaki. "I just try to harness that energy they have and get them pointed in the same direction. I want to make sure they play with a chip on their shoulder."

Over the holidays, Hirsimaki will be among the ringette faithful who will make the trek to North Bay, site of the World Ringette Championships. Catching teams from Canada, Finland, Sweden and the United States, Hirsimaki will feel at home.

"I just enjoy the family of ringette," he said. "I enjoy being able to walk into an arena and be able to talk to people from across the province. It becomes part of your identity."

And in a sport where change has been bountiful, that long-term familiarity is comforting.

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