St. Albert sports fans will raise the roof at Servus Place on Wednesday as the city celebrates Canada’s newest national ringette champions.
The St. Albert Mission U19 AA ringette team won gold at the Canadian Ringette Championships held April 3-9 in Calgary. It is the first time any St. Albert ringette team has won the prestigious event.
The team was honoured in St. Albert city council chambers April 19 for their achievement, and will see their championship banner raised to the roof of the Mark Messier Arena in Servus Place at 8 p.m. April 20 before what is sure to be a raucous crowd.
The Mission went undefeated during the eight-game tournament, claiming the championship with a 5-4 win over the Calgary Raid 5-4 April 9 at the 7 Chiefs Sportsplex.
Mission goalie Rita-Jeanne Smith said her team was up by two goals when the Raid got a free pass (equivalent to a penalty kick) from the circle next to her goal. With one second on the clock, she didn’t even bother to stop the shot.
“The referee blew the whistle and we all just went crazy,” she said.
Head coach Eric Lavoy said Mission coaches worked for five years to craft these players into a national-calibre team. For many, this tournament was a do-over of the 2020 championships, which they would have competed in as a U16 team had it not been cancelled by the pandemic.
“They did exactly what they needed to do: they put the team first, and they played for each other and not with each other,” Lavoy said of the Mission’s win.
“I know that sounds like a cliché, but the reality is that’s exactly what happened, and what comes from that is a national championship.”
Smith, a first-year design student at the University of Alberta who lives just outside St. Albert, was a virtual brick wall in the net during the tournament, with just 21 shots slipping past her across eight games.
Smith said she ended up playing every game in the tournament since the Mission’s other goalie was injured. Even when her legs were tired and she was sore all over, she committed to being a solid rock her team could stand upon.
“I just kept thinking they’re giving 110 per cent, so I have to do the same,” she said.
Player Danielle Verkerk, a first-year science student at MacEwan University and St. Albert resident, said coach Jennifer Krochak hyped up the team before each game by busting out some break dancing moves. Most of the team’s games ended up as high-stress, come-from-behind wins.
“We definitely like giving our fans heart attacks, that’s for sure,” she joked.
Between games, Smith said players cooled down with ice baths, massages, snacks, and homework. On ice and in the locker rooms, they had to shout to each other to be heard over the roar from the packed stands.
“It was just so loud everywhere, and everyone was so excited,” she said.
One standout moment for Smith from the final game was when she deflected one shot only for a Raid player to take a second shot off the rebound.
“I basically did the splits across the crease and stuck my blocker [hand] up,” she said, resulting in a nice save and a roar from the crowd.
Smith said it felt really surreal after the Mission won that final game.
“None of us could believe we had just won the whole thing.”
While Verkerk said she is stepping back from ringette to focus on her studies, Smith said she plans to try out for the Canada Winter Games and the National Ringette League.
Smith said it is amazing to know that the team’s championship banner will soon hang in the place she played ringette for 11 years and where all future ringette players can see it.
“I hope soon there will be more banners just like it.”