The Kimberley Nitro Xpress women’s hockey academy won’t be competing in the Junior Women’s Hockey League (JWHL) as originally planned, but that doesn’t mean the train has derailed. In fact, the upstart female junior hockey operation is only just building steam.
On June 22, Kush Sidhu, co-founder of the JWHL, confirmed the league was moving ahead with plans for its 2016-17 season without the expansion Kimberley franchise after BC Hockey was unable to provide approval for the club in time to meet JWHL deadlines.
“We just got to a point where, for us as a league to have Kimberley in the league, they need to have approval through BC Hockey and Hockey Canada,” Sidhu said over the phone from Bethesda, Md. “Despite their best efforts, they haven’t been able to get that approval. With our league [season] coming up in just a couple months, it was just getting to a point where it was impossible for us to wait any longer on them getting that approval.
“We don’t really have much in a way of making any decisions. We didn’t really have any options here. We basically said we need to move forward and we’ll move forward without Kimberley. We’re still hopeful they can get their program off the ground and certainly, the door is open for them [to return to the JWHL] if they can get approval at some point.”
Though the JWHL track is on hold for the time being, the Nitro Xpress continues to push forward, full-steam ahead in pursuit of establishing a high-end operation for young female hockey players to develop both athletically and academically.
According to Brad Park, co-founder and general manager of the Kimberley Nitro Xpress, the junior team is in the process of finalizing entry into a different league for the upcoming 2016-17 season in addition to also travelling to a number of high-end showcases and tournaments around North America.
“BC Hockey never met the deadline and we’re out of the JWHL,” Park said Wednesday afternoon.
“We will play five or six of the top showcases and tournaments this year. Our girls will get more exposure as a result of it.”
The upstart women’s program has seen its fair share of washouts since leaving the roundhouse, but that has yet to deter the passionate Park from pushing ahead.
Before the approval process with BC Hockey became an issue, the team was forced to find a new coach prior to its original bench boss calling any shots for even a single game.
Back on March 17, the JWHL announced it was welcoming the Kimberley Academy — along with three other expansion clubs — into its fold for the 2016-17 season. At the time, former NHLer Mikko Makela was brought on board to coach the Nitro Xpress.
Only two months later, on May 18, CTV Lethbridge reported Makela had bolted from the Nitro Xpress program for an opportunity with Banff Hockey Academy’s women’s varsity program.
Despite that hiccup, Park — along with co-founder Shane Murray — forged ahead, hiring Hannah Armstrong — a 24-year-old native of Aurora, Ont., former standout with the NCAA’s University of New Hampshire women’s hockey team and member of Canada’s entry into the 2010 IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship — to take over from Makela, the departed Finnish national.
Follow up the tumultuous coaching situation with the BC Hockey approval process and it has not been a fairytale start to what should be a welcome addition to the East Kootenay and B.C. hockey communities.
“Our understanding was that in the current structure of the Kimberley Academy, in order for them to be able to field a team that would have the players they would require to be competitive in our league, it would require some special consideration or exception from the current guidelines that BC Hockey has set forth,” Sidhu said of conversations with BC Hockey and JWHL administrators. “BC Hockey was, at a minimum, willing to have a discussion about that. I don’t know that they would have ultimately approved any exceptions, but at least there was a lot of dialogue between Kimberley Academy and BC Hockey, and then some limited dialogue between BC Hockey and the JWHL.
“Appropriately, BC Hockey was vetting and doing their due diligence in trying to make sure that what they did in order to approve a new team to play in our league was done according to their standards.
“[The JWHL] supports that 100 per cent. Anytime a team joins our league, we rely on them to get their approvals from their local governing body. To whatever extent we can help the governing body and the team, we will. This was a little out of our hands….There was very little we could do other than to let the process run its course.”
Murray and Park remain dedicated to the program, which will absolutely be up and running this fall. As it stands, the Nitro Xpress will unveil a two-tiered approach. The Academy junior program will function in cooperation with Selkirk Secondary School. Additionally, the affiliated midget Kootenay Nitros — an entity within Kimberley Minor Hockey — will once again play in the Rocky Mountain Female Hockey League (RMFHL), as was the case in 2015-16.
The players “fully immersed” in the Academy program will be the ones travelling to showcases and top-end tournaments. According to Park, one of the showcases the Nitro Xpress will attend is actually being hosted by Sidhu, separate from JWHL play.
“We don’t have any level of disappointment in Kimberley Academy,” Sidhu said. “They did everything they could do. They worked extremely hard and they were very transparent through the process and I think the same with BC Hockey. They did everything they’re supposed to do and we totally respect the process.
“We will hopefully revisit and figure out what the right path is for teams in that part of the country to be able to join our league.”
In addition to his role with the league, Sidhu serves as the head coach of the JWHL’s Washington Pride.
Sidhu, along with Bill Driscoll, established the JWHL in 2007, with four teams comprising the league at the time. Since then, the JWHL has expanded to include 18 teams spread across three leagues — Major Junior, U14 and U16.
The Nitro Xpress was set to join Balmoral Hall (Winnipeg), the Boston Shamrocks, Chicago Young Americans, North American Hockey Academy White (Stowe, Va.), New England Hockey Club (Marlborough, Mass.), Pacific Steelers (North Vancouver), Ridley College (St. Catherines, Ont.) and Washington Pride (Bethesda, Md.) in the JWHL’s Major Junior league.
In addition to Armstrong (head coach), Park (general manager), Murray (community liaison/program manager) the Nitro Xpress staff is complete with Jennifer Gilligan (assistant/goalie coach) and Jim Donlevy (education coordinator).
The program also launched a brand new website — gonitroxpress.ca — Wednesday afternoon.
With files from Barry Coulter