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Northern Capitals have realistic BC championship ambitions

Prince George-based team sending seven players to U18 provincial team tryouts in Port Moody
19 Northern Capitals tryouts JAM55665web
Avery Bautista avoids the stick check of Lauren Baker while playing in Friday's Northern Capitals scrimmage at Kin 2.

In all his years as head coach of the Northern Capitals, not once has Mario Desjardins had one of his players make the female under-18 provincial hockey team.

For whatever reason, it’s never happened in the history of the team, which dates back to 2009, the year the B.C. Hockey Female Midget Triple-A Hockey League formed.

Perhaps the most glaring omission happened in 2015, when Prince George hosted the Canada Winter Games. That year, the Prince George team, then known as the Cougars, was the top triple-A team in the province. Backed by goalie Kelsey Roberts, they dominated the league with a 25-3-2 record and cruised through the playoffs for their first of back-to-back league championships and a Mac’s tournament title the following season. But when the Canada Games tournament began, not one Cougar was on the team, it was made up almost exclusively of players from private hockey academies.

Roberts, a native of Kitimat, graduated the midget ranks and went to the University of Calgary, where she was selected the Canada West player of the year in 2020  in her fourth season with the Dinos and went on to play for Team Canada. Roberts and Cougar forwards Hunter Mosher and Sage Desjardins both earned CIS scholarships in 2015, but none of them made the final cuts for Team BC.

This time around, with seven Capitals players invited to the provincial team tryout camp set for this weekend in Port Moody, there’s a good chance that shutout streak will come to an end. The seven Capitals heading down on that trip are just too talented to not get serious consideration from the Team BC coaches.

That group of seven incudes forwards Hailey Armstrong of Dawson Creek, Avery Bautista of Quesnel, Brooklyn Hutchings and Nancy Moore of Prince George; and defenceman Kasey Ditner of Baldonnel (near Fort St. John), Ella Boon of Vanderhoof and Keagan Goulet of Fort St. John. All are returning Capitals except 16-year-olds Bautista and Ditner, who played last year at Okanagan Hockey Academy.

“All those girls going to U-18s certainly deserve it and I truly believe they have a great opportunity to crack that lineup and represent the north,” said Mario Desjardins, about to begin his seventh season as Cougars/Capitals head coach.

Thirty-one players attended the Capitals’ team tryouts over the weekend at Kin 2 and in the three scrimmages - in front of an audience of mostly friends and family for the first time in more than a year – they dazzled the crowd with a display of high-level skills that backed their coach’s claim that they will be one of the teams to watch this year in the six-team league.

“It’s exciting to see this group, for sure,” said Desjardins. “The calibre of hockey we’re seeing is amazing considering there were no games last year. There’s some young talent coming through that are going to fill some spots that are available and they’ll blend well with our systems and the quality of players we have out there.”

For the first time since 2013, the Capitals will have four forward lines this season. They’ll also have six players on defence, all of whom are capable of leading offensive rushes.

“We have a solid six, probably the best defensive corps we’ve ever had on the team,” said Desjardins, who has former Capital forward Jordan Shanks back for a second season as his assistant. “Really our offence starts from the back end. I hope our offence gets spread around but we’re really leaning on players like Hailey Armstrong, Avery Bautista and Brooklyn Hutchings to really take on a lot of that workload. We also have to make sure we balance our four lines to keep everybody playing.”

Karsyn Niven of Houston and Sierra Eagles of Tumbler Ridge, both in their final U-18 season, are the Caps goalies.

Armstrong joined the Caps as a 14-year-old and is heading into her third season.

“I’m pretty excited, we have a strong defensive lineup and good goalies and some interesting forwards and I think we’ll be pretty good by the end of the year,” said Armstrong. “I think we’ll be pretty comparable to last year’s team, we have a lot of new girls with good potential who have been around and I think we’re all going to bond really well and make a good team.”

The Northern Capitals will be in Calgary for the Firestarter tournament, Sept. 16-19. The 650-player event is heavily scouted by U Sports and NCAA teams. The Caps open league play Sept. 25-26 at Kin 1 against the Vancouver Comets. The league has switched to two-game weekends from its former three-game sets, which means more travel but fewer breaks in the schedule.

They played only 11 games last year before the season was cancelled in November due to the pandemic and at the time they were looking like provincial championship contenders. Coach Desjardins thinks they will be there again at the end of the 32-game league schedule in February.

“Hopefully we will peak at the right time,” said Desjardins. “Even last year, a COVID year, we stuck with our gameplan the whole year, as we would with a normal season, and we were peaking at the end of the year, as if we were heading into playoffs.

“We’ve had strong teams in the past, and last year was a strong team, but this year we have a lot of depth.”