THE FUTURE OF HOCKEY
FROM NOVEMBER 2018 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Watching the rifle shot of Emma Venusio - Number 21 on the GTHL’s Peewee AA Eagles - during a game at Lambton Arena, you don’t think, “She’s good for a 12-year-old.” You think,
THIS KID IS THE FUTURE OF HOCKEY
THE THICK BROWN braid trailing out from the back of her helmet, singular on the ice, is what first catches your eye during practice at Lambton Arena. But only moments later you notice the strength of her stride, quick feet and seamless edges. One drill, an orchestrated routine in the offensive zone involving several skaters, showcases her remarkable puck control and rifle of a shot, considered the hardest on the team. Emma Venusio isn’t just the lone girl on the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s Peewee AA Eagles, but she’s roundly considered an elite player in the league. From my spot, mid-ice in Lambton’s stands, empty save for a scattered handful of parents during a late-afternoon practice this October, it’s obvious the 12-year-old is special.
Growing up in a tight family foursome near Royal York and Eglinton, Emma herself decided on the shift from “boring” figure skating – her modifier – to competitive hockey at age seven. After one season of developing a feel for stickhandling, and the game itself, she improved rapidly, her superior skating leading to a role on the blue line. A few short years on, there’s talk that the 12-year-old defender could become the first girl to play in the Canadian Hockey League – the world’s premier canopy organization representing all three major junior associations in the country, including the OHL here in Ontario.
“She’s exceptional,” according to coach/trainer Neil Doctorow, long-time bench boss for three upper-tier GTHL teams, including Emma’s Toronto Eagles. During our chat later that evening in his kitchen, just southeast of Keele and Annette, Doctorow speaks carefully, eager to champion his young player, but wary of heaping on unnecessary pressure. “Defensively she’s fierce – absolutely fierce. She takes it personally when players come near her or try to beat her. She’s extremely competitive. She plays with a lot of confidence and poise. Which is fun to watch.”
These aren’t just kind words from a caring neighbourhood coach, putting in his time to help out the local kids. Founder of Premier Elite Athletes’ Collegiate (PEAC) and current proprietor of the West End’s Central Hockey Academy, Doctorow has trained gifted young athletes from all over the world, not only of the bladed variety, for more than 20 years. One of them is considered the best hockey player on the planet: Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers. So, yeah, he can spot young talent.
Once off the ice, Emma affably agrees to a post-practice one-on-one in Lambton’s warm lobby, over in a pocket where the arena’s collection of trophies is mounted. She strikes me as your standard, happy kid. No sign yet of adolescent angst. Mouth full of metal. An easy grin and reflexive giggle. The straight-A Grade 7 student at Father Serra Catholic School enjoys horror movies, games of Monopoly and summer afternoons in the family pool. Sleepovers with cousins and birthday parties with friends rank high on her social calendar. But you quickly gather she’d rather be working on her game.
“Other than hockey?” This is her response, delivered with polite wonder, when I ask about other hobbies. Out of her equipment and clothed in dark-coloured workout wear, she comfortably holds eye contact, looking away only when thinking about answers to my questions. Her posture bears confidence. “I practise shooting a lot in my backyard with my sister,” she says, referring to nine-year-old Mia, a gifted player herself. “We have mats out beside our pool and practise all of the shots.”
This activity wholly qualifies as hockey-related – but it explains her firecracker of a shot. It also speaks to her resolve to be better than everyone else, a determined effort that requires support from another team, a crew headed by two working parents.
For their part, Jack and Helen Venusio, athletic themselves – Helen runs with Emma regularly – are only interested in seeing their two kids put in the effort. They remain invested in their eldest daughter’s aspirations as long as she keeps up her end. So far everyone’s on the same page, in this case an oversized calendar in the family kitchen. It’s crammed with scheduled games, practices, additional training sessions with SPEED Hockey Development and two or three weekly visits to the gym. To anyone with more sedentary leanings, it would seem like a merciless timetable.
“She puts the work in,” Jack, the acting captain at a fire hall in Parkdale, tells me later, during one of our several telephone conversations. The easy smile in his voice speaks to the pride he feels for his eldest, however careful his summary. Like Emma’s coach, he’s reluctant to make too much of her talent and skill. Hard work trumps all else in the Venusio household. Fortunately, his daughter is willing to sacrifice the sweat, and maybe a little sleep.
“There have been times during her busy hockey and training schedule she’s falling asleep coming home in the car. And she would wake up the next morning on her own. Small signs that an athlete is really hungry for it. They’re not complaining. Or sleeping in. She’s up. She’s up on her own.”
Not quite two weeks after attending practice at Lambton Arena, I take in one of Emma’s games at Canlan Ice Sports complex in north Etobicoke on a Saturday afternoon. Housing four full rinks and an expansive viewing space, complete with a licensed Wild Wing franchise, the joint is humming. Hordes of hustling hockey parents, their jazzed charges and bulky equipment bags riddle the foyer. Then, from a quieter set of corner stands wedged off Rink 2, with about a dozen captivated Eagles parents, I watch Emma’s scouting report come alive.
In the first period, the defender, kitted out in Eagles red and sporting No. 21, plays keep-away with an opposing forward in her own end, seemingly at her leisure, before snapping off a precise outlet pass. Period two, we’re treated to the loud unmistakable ting made by her vicious clapper, one of several shots from Emma in the contest, off the other team’s post. They probably hear it a rink over. Third period, it’s getting chippy as the Eagles increase their lead, and Emma bears down aggressively – there’s that ferocity Doctorow describes – in protecting her own net. By the final whistle, No. 21 deserves her fair share of credit for the perfect goose egg on the right side of a 5-0 Eagles victory.
Gifted, dogged and disciplined – if she were a boy with the same set of attributes, there would be fewer “if”s, “maybe”s, and “we’ll see”s in discussing a possible fate in Major Junior. To be fair, though, no girl has managed it yet.
There are those eager to point out, not wrongly, that boys and girls develop differently. We’re all aware that disparities generally exist in size and strength, a gap that usually widens as the teen years progress. But generally. And usually. There are always outliers.
“Right now, all things being equal, it’s a possibility,” says Doctorow, the day we speak in his kitchen. He already projects that Emma will play at the national level with the women’s team. “But there’s the difference in physicality between boys and girls. She doesn’t have to be six-foot-four – that’s the nice thing. But as a defender, she has to get to a point where her strength matches her size and speed. In contact hockey there’s an element of pushing and shoving that you have to be able to do. And do it successfully against bigger and stronger athletes.”
Ah yes, the hitting. In the GTHL, body checking is introduced at the Minor Bantam level. That’s next year for Emma.
“She’s already taking body-checking clinics,” says Jack. “She’s embracing it. She likes it,” he laughs. “And I’m like, ‘All right, no problem, but remember, they’re going to come back at you.’ She’s like, ‘That’s fine, I’m good.’”
Boys and girls have always played together, when left alone, unsmothered by silly rules, often devised by even sillier grown-ups. As tennis legend Billie Jean King put it, we live in a co-ed world. But it wasn’t until the late ’80s, thanks to young hero Justine Blainey, who took her battle all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and Ontario’s Human Rights Commission, that the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) could no longer prohibit female players from competing on male teams. Several stars have since made headlines, by earning a professional paycheck playing with men, including Canadians Hayley Wickenheiser and Shannon Szabados, and American Angela Ruggiero. New chapters on the subject are being written all the time.
Summing up her own ambitions, during our earlier conversation surrounded by hockey-winning hardware at Lambton, Emma is looking ahead.
“This year, our team wants first place. That’s the goal for this year. Then after, I want to go as high as I can in hockey.”
While battling with the boys?
“Yeah,” wide grin. “It’s fun.” Again, looking me right in the eye while we wrap up, shaking hands.
She’s already a leader. She’s Emma Venusio. And whatever lane she chooses, hockey fans in this country will learn more about her soon enough.
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