Toronto-Leaside Wildcats enjoying team spirit and international success

When Caitlin Heale taught her girl’s hockey teammates the haka, she didn’t think too much of it.

“It was just a thing that I taught that’s from my culture when we went to training camp,” she said.

Last summer, Heale choreographed the tribal war dance, famously performed by the national rugby team in her home country, New Zealand. She shared it with her teammates from the Toronto-Leaside Junior Wildcats. The haka is meant to intimidate an opponent. Heale was quite surprised, however, when her Canadian teammates took it as seriously as she did.

“It was a great team-building exercise,” she said.

Heale, 17, plays as an international player with the Wildcats, a team composed of high school girls. On Wednesday, the Wildcats faced China’s national women’s team at Leaside Arena as part of China’s exhibition tour in southern Ontario. The Chinese are 15th in the world on the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rankings. The Wildcats beat them 3-0.

While Heale has international experience (playing for New Zealand’s under-18 team) Leaside coach Kimberly McCullough said the Wildcats are still learning new things.

“For the majority of my players, this’ll be the first time they ever faced international competition,” she said. “That’s a huge honour, to be able to do that.”

According to Fran Rider, the president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, international exchanges, such as the game against the Chinese, teach the players a great deal more.

“Each country brings a different style of play,” she said. “It’s a great chance for Canadian players to play in that environment.”

Rider added that international games help players recognize the importance of these sporting opportunities

“To certain degree, the Canadian girls get an appreciation of how much we have, the numbers of the opportunities, the ice rinks. There’s not as many ice rinks in China,” she said.

McCullough also believes the players gain not only hockey knowledge, but also life experience away from the ice rink. She said playing with or against players from other countries inspires curiosity about the other players.

“They’re always asking questions about (international opponents) and what it’s like in (their) home country,” she said.

McCullough remembered when Heale first showed the girls how to do the haka. It’s now become pre-game ritual before every Wildcats match.

“The cheer that they learned during that ‘dance,’ we still use that cheer even now,” McCullough said.