Peyton Parker is playing goal for the Almonte Junior B team. (Wayne Cuddington/Ottawa Citizen)
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen
In late September, 1992, Manon Rheaume went where no woman had gone before — to the blue paint of an NHL goal crease, as the starting goaltender for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was only a pre-season game, and Tampa Bay’s general manager of the day, Phil Esposito, freely admitted the move was a publicity stunt to draw attention to the new expansion team in Florida (Ottawa’s expansion cousin that year).
Nevertheless a barrier was broken, and Rheaume, in the realm of women’s hockey, was an elite goalie.
Twenty years later, Nepean teenager Peyton Parker is trying to make her own mark in the men’s arena, having cracked the lineup of the Jr. B Almonte Thunder of the Eastern Ontario Junior Hockey League.
Like Rheaume, Parker has the striking features of a fashion model, but the Thunder, in a bind for goaltending help, signed her to stop pucks, not to look good in the team picture. (In fact, general manager Jeff Hawkins and head coach Bill White were hesitant to grant a Citizen invasion of their Tuesday practice at Pakenham, not wanting a distraction, before relenting. They graciously provided us open door access).
“I am so thankful and grateful that Bill and Jeff were OK with having a girl on the team,” says Parker, who turned 18 last week. “As long as you stop the puck, you can play. They don’t care what gender you are.”
Some players care — especially on opposing teams.
“I get chirped a lot,” says Parker, a graduate of Barrhaven’s St. Joseph High School and now a first year Commerce student at Carleton University. “People skate by, double look at me, say, ‘is that really a girl?’ I’m like, yep, it’s a girl, I had my helmet off for the national anthem.
THE GOALIE IS A GIRL
“Some fans you can hear, ‘what is a girl doing on the ice?’ Others are like, ‘that’s awesome.’ I’ve had some people come up to me and say, ‘it’s amazing you’re playing. We’re rooting for you.’ It gives me a good feeling. And when guys chirp me, it makes me that much more motivated to stop the puck.”
Parker isn’t one to let small challenges get in the way. Beyond her backyard rink, Peyton hadn’t played organized hockey until age 13. Her father, Dan, had set her up with road hockey gear, a baseball glove and “Jofa bucket” as she describes the helmet. He took shots, she was hooked.
Goalies had always fascinated her, whether it was watching the minor hockey games of her younger brother, Brandon, or the NHL. During the 2005-06 season, she would sit behind the Senators net and marvel at the sprawling, unpredictable Dominik Hasek. Among visiting goalies, Tim Thomas, unorthodox on and off the ice, is her favourite.
“But he can keep the puck out of the net,” Parker says, in defence of Thomas and his White House-snubbing ways. “That’s all that matters.”
Keen as she was, Parker expected to play house league in her first season, but was in for a shock. As part of the sort out, she had to first attend the Nepean Bantam girls AA tryouts, wearing old leather pads without knee guards (forcing her to start out as a stand-up goaltender), and goalie skates purchased hours before her tryout (uh-oh). After three sessions on the first day, Parker’s feet were so sore and blistered, her dad called the coach to explain why she wouldn’t be at the next tryout. And, if she was only going to get cut anyway, she might as well rest her feet for house league.
“Actually,” the coach said, “I think we’re going to have her start on our team.”
“Are you kidding me?” was Parker’s reaction.
“I guess,” she says, reflecting, “I was the only goalie that wasn’t afraid to stop the puck. I didn’t have the right equipment, but it got me somewhere.”
It got her, eventually, to two years of Midget A boys hockey, then last season with the provincial girls’ Nepean AA Wildcats. She believes she can only achieve a higher level in the women’s game by playing against men, and so she attended the CCHL Nepean Raiders camp last summer and practised with Nepean and the Kanata Stallions during the 2011-12 season (she will practice with Nepean again this season).
This summer she returned to the Coast to Coast Hockey League at the Bell Sensplex, alongside Ryan Spooner, the Boston Bruins prospect from Kanata, and Charlie Sarault of the OHL Sarnia Sting. Parker went on to try out for Hawkesbury of the CCHL, held Cornwall scoreless in 20 minutes of pre-season action, and after her two week camp, Hawkesbury GM Ian Henderson contacted Jr. B clubs in the area on her behalf. Athens called her, and Gananoque, but Parker had just decided Gananoque was too distant, when Hawkins called from Almonte.
“We have a game in Stittsville tonight,” he said, “it’s 10 minutes from your house.”
After the first period of play, Parker signed with Almonte, likely to be a back up to 17-year-old Troy Gauthier, a 6-foot, 4-inch study in contrast, nearly a foot taller than Parker. Gauthier fills the net with his body, Parker uses her quickness and tries to take away space by coming out of the net to challenge shooters. The greater challenge is hers, and she knows it.
“Adjusting from the girls to the guys” is her main obstacle, she says. “The level of play is higher and speed is so much faster. I have to get stronger, quicker — everything has to be done more efficiently in order to keep up with the game. It’s a lot different. They come at me pretty fast ... and they can pinpoint where they shoot the puck.”
White, a longtime junior coach, knows the diminutive Parker is in tough, but lauds her work ethic, conditioning level and preparedness.
“You don’t have to tell her to get ready, she’s always ready to play,” White says. “She’s a good teammate — and she’s fearless.”
In her league debut last Friday, Peyton took the loss, 5-4, but relished the intensity of the game. Fittingly, the scene was the Nick Smith Centre in Arnprior, home to the last female to play junior men’s hockey in this region. Rachel Barrie of Arnprior was the starting goaltender for the Jr. B Packers in the 1999-2000 season. In October, 1998, Barrie became the first woman to see action in a Jr. A game, when she started for the Smiths Falls Bears of the CJHL (now CCHL), picking up the win in a wild 9-8 game. Barrie, just 16 at the time, went on to a brilliant All-America career in women’s hockey, a two-time ECAC goalie of the year for St. Lawrence University. She was also a member of the Canadian women’s under-22 national team.
Parker has her own college dreams, but for now she has her (blocker and trapper) hands full in the men’s game, where the Almonte boys have so far shown great respect for her dressing room and shower privacy, while she otherwise strives to be just “one of the guys.”
That doesn’t stop GM Hawkins from teasing Parker, asking if she has her “lipstick” and “eye lash extensions” ready for a photo shoot prior to the team practice. When the cameras leave the ice, she gets back to being a regular Almonte Thunder player.
“They make me pick up pucks, because I’m a rookie,” Parker says. “They wish me good luck, pat the pads. They don’t treat me any differently, and I’m glad they don’t. It’s nice to be one of the guys and treated the same as any other goalie.”
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