Sarah Mitchell has been skating since she was three years old. Growing up in northern Ontario and Manitoba, Mitchell played on her brother's hockey team when she was a kid because there wasn't any hockey for girls.
When she was a teen she was told she couldn't play hockey on the boys team any more so she started playing ringette. Mitchell played ringette competitively with a B.C. team that made it to the national finals a few years in a row. She then went back to hockey and played with an all-female hockey team. Mitchell later taught elementary school for about 10 years, but always taught skating on the side.
About four years ago, she started working at the North Shore Winter Club, and set up a girls hockey program for three-to five-year-olds. She also set up a girls minor hockey program for older girls, and has found that while some girls do play in the main program that is mostly made up of boys, some girls prefer to play with just girls.
"I thought it was important to provide that for them," says Mitchell of the all-girls hockey programs, noting it's not a question of skill, but of preference.
"Girls hockey and women's hockey in general is definitely a growth area," she says, adding some surveys have shown that overall enrollment in hockey programs is leveling off in some areas across Canada, but there is still growth in female programs.
She attributes the growing interest in part to women's hockey being in the Olympics now. A couple of years ago when Canada's women's national ice hockey team was in the gold medal game, Mitchell organized an event at the Winter Club so players from her hockey program and their families could watch the game together on a big-screen TV.
"I never got a chance to watch female role models when I was a kid and they were getting to watch the Canadian female team win the gold medal. It was pretty cool to see all the girls down there cheering," says Mitchell. "My motivation is to create as many opportunities for girls who either want to try hockey, and maybe don't want to play it competitively, all the way up to the girls that really want to play competitively"
Players new to the game start out learning hockey's fundamental skill: skating.
"Because if you can't get to the puck it doesn't really matter what you can do with it," says Mitchell.
Beginner players build a skating foundation first then Mitchell slowly introduces puck skills to the training, and later moves into shooting and passing. In the more advanced programs she incorporates team elements of strategy.
In the Cookie Monsters program for girls ages three to five, and in the intro hockey programs, players enjoy mini-games, but do not compete against outside teams. The emphasis is on skill development and fun, not competition. Players do not have to be members of the North Shore Winter Club to participate.
There is also a girls-only three-on-three hockey league for girls ages seven to 10 years old that starts in the spring.
The league was started about two years ago and last year 60 girls participated, which was double from 30 the previous year. Mitchell says it has been a popular and well-received program.
In addition to the kids' programs, Mitchell also runs programs for women. Many of the women in the adult program have children who play hockey and always wanted to learn to play hockey but never got a chance.