Hailey King will play with the best female Para ice hockey players in the world this week in Green Bay, Wis., making her international debut in a sport she picked up less than four years ago.
Next week, she’ll hit another big milestone: her first day of high school.
At only 14 years old, Airdrie, Alta.’s King is the youngest player on the national women’s Para hockey team.
But don’t expect her to be timid on the ice.
“I’m not really afraid of contact,” King said. “I quite love that a lot.”
King is one of six players under 20 on the Canadian women’s Para hockey team that will play in the Women’s World Challenge, an international best-on-best tournament that begins Thursday and runs through Sept. 3. The United States beat Canada for gold at the first-ever world challenge last year.
This year, Canada will face the United States, Great Britain and Team World, which includes players from 12 different countries. Armenia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Latvia and Vietnam will all have athletes competing for the first time, with the hope the sport will have enough countries to field teams in a world championship by 2025.
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It’s a key step in the journey toward the ultimate goal for many women who play the game: a women’s Para hockey program in the Paralympic Games. Para hockey is a mixed sport at the Paralympics, but a Canadian woman has never made the team.
Canadian coach Tara Chisholm doesn’t have to look far to see evidence of how much the sport is growing and developing. She describes King and the other young players on the team as coming in with a “gamer” mindset. They’ve shown up with confidence and skill, and they want to contribute right away.
“It’s just showing me that these young girls are out there, they’re inspired, they’re dedicated to the sport, their craft,” Chisholm said. “They’re working hard, and they want to give our current players a run for their money and show them what this next generation wants to do.”
‘She totally blew us away’
King didn’t try Para hockey until almost four years ago, when she attended an adaptive sports camp at the University of Calgary.
There were several different sports to try at the camp, but Para hockey quickly became her favourite. It helped that she scored seven goals in her first scrimmage.
“When I just got in there and I just started skating, it was such a cool feeling, all the wind rushing through you,” said King, who was born with a neurological condition called arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of her ankles. “It was so much fun.”
King joined a club team with the Calgary Sledge Hockey Association, but only got to play in one tournament before the COVID-19 pandemic halted play in 2020. She spent much of the next two years learning the sport over Zoom calls.
Last season, she played on the senior co-ed club team in Calgary, and in February, she was invited to the national women’s team’s selection camp in Montreal.
Chisholm lives in Alberta and has had a front-row seat to King’s development over the last four years. She invited her to training camp hoping King would use it as a learning experience, with no expectations or demands.
“She totally blew us away, which, I mean, I had a bit of an inkling on, but I needed to get the assurance from my other coaches and evaluators at selection camp to just make sure I wasn’t biased in any way because I have known her for so long,” Chisholm said.
The coaches were impressed with her ability to carry herself in a room of women and her knack for taking new knowledge and applying it right away in games and practice.
Skill, smarts make King stand out
Chisholm said King’s skill level also made her stand out. Para hockey is played with a stick in each hand and Chisholm sees most young athletes relying on their dominant hand. But King is fully ambidextrous.
She practices stickhandling with both hands, and even tries to write and use a fork with her left hand, so it feels more natural when she shoots with it.
“We have women who’ve been on this team for multiple years and they’re just starting to get the level of ambidextrous nature that King already has at 14 years old,” Chisholm said.
The stick skills and her smarts make King easy to play with, according to team captain Alanna Mah, who also made the national team when she was 14. She said King is always in the right place on the ice.
“Watching her grow and just get to where she is now has been incredible,” Mah said.
The call telling King she made the national team came in the office of her parents’ home last month. She couldn’t stop smiling the whole time, and went to hug her parents after.
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They’ve seen the love King has developed for the game, the happiness it brings her, and her determination to get better. When she wants something, she goes for it.
“I was just so happy for her,” said her mother, Maureen Feenstra. “She has had many challenges to face in her young life and this was such a well-earned win.”
Next on King’s list of goals is to play in a world championship and compete at the Paralympics. But first, she’s hoping to leave Wisconsin with a gold medal, as the Canadian team looks for redemption.
It’s a pursuit that would have cost thousands of dollars last year. The athletes had to pay their own way to the 2022 Women’s World Challenge, forcing many to focus on fundraising instead of training in the weeks before the tournament.
Now, the team has attracted major sponsors like Canadian Tire and Bauer. The funding has helped the athletes get on the ice together more this year than ever before.
“This year they got to just be athletes,” Chisholm said. “They got to come and train and be able to be supported without having to worry about the financial burden that many of them have had to carry for their entire existence on this team.”
The new generation of players, like King, didn’t have to go through that. But she knows the history and she’s grateful for the people who’ve built the sport before her.
“We have so many new people to help us get to the next level and I hope we get there.”
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