Friday, 8 September 2017

Welcome Home!

In all of my travels across this great land, I always seem to discover some place new that literally is in my backyard. Today, I was lucky enough to make my way out to Virden, Manitoba for a U Sports preseason women's hockey game between the Manitoba Bisons and the Regina Cougars. Having never been in Virden - my only stop there was a gas station adjacent to the highway - I was excited at the prospect of seeing the town and its new multi-use recreational facility known as Tundra Oil & Gas Place. Like I said off the top, I've discovered a new place in my backyard to which I'm quite certain I will return!

Bisons forward Karissa Kirkup hails from Virden, so it was an opportunity for friends and family who may not have been able to make it to Wayne Fleming Arena to see her play university-level hockey in her hometown, but she wasn't the only player there with fans! Killarney, Manitoba sent a contingent to cheer on Regina's Jaycee Magwood as last year's Canada West leading goal-scorer was in the lineup. There was a sizable crowd that turned out for the game, but we'll get to those highlights in a few moments.

Upon turning into Virden off the Trans-Canada Highway, one gets the sense that this town of approximately 3200 residents has one main thoroughfare from which all other routes extend. This is nearly true, but you really get a much better view of the town as you travel deeper into its neighborhoods. There are older stone houses, some newer developments, and all the modern amenities that one could want in a town this size, but there's still that sleepy, farming town feel that sweeps through the streets of Virden. Honestly, seeing the old theatre and some of the older commercial buildings felt like one had stepped back in time, but one quickly jumped back into the modern era the moment one gazed upon Tundra Oil & Gas Place.

The new multi-use facility saw construction begin in March of 2010 and finish in June of 2011. The $18 million investment in the community features the hockey rink with 1204 seats, a community hall that seats 500, a fitness area, a walking/running track, retail space, and an outdoor pool. While the cost may have been a discussion point for some time in the community with respect to some of the projects that were also tabled, Virden has only seen good things since the doors to Tundra Oil & Gas Place opened. The facility hosted the regional qualifying games of the 2012 Telus Cup, it hosted the 2014 Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts, and it is the home rink to the MJHL's Virden Oil Capitals, the North Central Hockey League's Virden Oil Kings, and the Manitoba High School Hockey League's Virden Golden Bears. The Oil Capitals - formerly the Winnipeg Saints - moved from Winnipeg to Virden in 2012 and have made the playoffs in each of the last four years.

Having been to a few newer rinks, this multi-use facility really reminded me of the facility in Kenora, Ontario where The Hockey Show was lucky enough to broadcast from during Hockey Day in Canada. Besides being a major place for social interactivity, the multi-use facilities in both cities saw people of all ages using their many venues for exercise and fun. The upgrade in Virden, in this writer's view, is well-worth the money they spent to get the return they're getting from a community and civic standpoint.

Tonight, though, the arena played host to its first-ever U Sports women's hockey game as the Bisons and Cougars met for the first of seven games this season if one considers the three preseason games and four regular season games they'll play. To say that familiarity may breed contempt may not even scratch the surface when it comes to these prairie rivals, and we witnessed just how good this series will be this season with tonight's opening game!

Checking was tight early on as neither team afforded many chances to its opposition, but there were shots that were dangerous. Manitoba's Rachel Dyck was sharp early on as Regina used their speed to find seams in the Manitoba defence while Morgan Baker was equally good as she countered every shot sent her way off the Bisons' cycling of the puck in the early going. It would be a late-period mistake, though, that saw the deadlock end. An errant pass from deep in the Manitoba zone went down the middle of the ice where Jaycee Magwood jumped on the puck. Two strides later, she wired a hard wrist shot over Dyck's right arm into the top corner to put Regina up 1-0 with 3:49 remaining in the opening frame.

Whatever was said in the intermission in the Manitoba dressing room was enough for the Bisons to bring the heat in the opening minute of the second period. The Bisons broke in as a unit, causing Regina to run around in their own zone, and a shot on net was mishandled by Morgan Baker. This allowed Alanna Sharman to corral the puck behind the Regina net where she spotted Jenai Buchanan sneaking in from the right point. Sharman fed Buchanan at the top of the circle, and the second-year rearguard made no mistake as she wired home a puck to the back of the net with bodies in green jerseys lying all over the crease area to make it a 1-1 game just 24 seconds into the middle frame.

It appeared that the close-checking would carry the game into the third period, but a late break up the ice saw Alison Sexton streak up the right wing. Defender Caitlin Fyten spotted Sexton making a break down the ice, and she fired a stretch pass that would get past the Regina defender and find the tape of Sexton's stick for the clear-cut breakaway from the just before the Regina blue line. Having seen Alison dangle a goalie before in a game against Team Manitoba, I suspected she was looking to do the same. She came in on Baker, went forehand to backhand, but Baker followed! Sexton, though, didn't give up and used what little room she had left to flip the puck on her forehand up and over Baker's pad as she skated past the post for an outstanding goal with 24 seconds remaining in the period to give Manitoba the 2-1 lead after forty minutes.

The third period was a lot of the same tight-checking affair we had in the first two periods, but credit Regina for not sitting back as they continued to throw shots at Dyck in the Manitoba net. There were excellent chances, including one right on the doorstep as time expired, but the Manitoba defence and Rachel Dyck stood tall through the final twenty minutes of play to wrap up a 2-1 victory! If this game was a preview of the next six games to be played, we're in for a wild ride as Manitoba and Regina look very evenly matched!

Overall, it was an outstanding day out in Virden. I was lucky enough to be able to explore some of the town, meet some of the fantastic people, and see an amazing hockey game that the "home team" won. If you get a chance to visit the town, make sure you stop by Tundra Oil & Gas Place, especially if the Oil Capitals are playing. I saw a number of Oil Capitals jerseys in the crowd of 400-or-so people at the game, and many left the rink impressed with the quality of play they saw at the U Sports level.

That's why you should head down to your local rink and support women's hockey. It might be the best hockey available in your area that you're not watching! Come on down to the University of Manitoba or to your local Canada West university this year, and check out the action. I guarantee you'll be blown away by these women!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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