Tethered into an overhead harness, Jessica Williamson glides back and forth, tentatively at first and then with confidence – on plastic ice.
The 13-year-old Juan de Fuca bantam hockey player makes skating on Vancouver Island’s first synthetic ice treadmill look easy.
“This is awesome,” Jessica says while standing in line for her next round on the polyethylene sheet. “It’s like gliding. It’s a little chopper and harder than ice, but it’s like ice.”
Welcome to hockey practice in a world with more players than ice time. Three Victoria hockey enthusiasts have opened a Puckmasters franchise in Colwood, a training facility that boasts the first privately-owned ice rink in the region.
“There are a few thousand minor hockey players in the region that want to do extra training,” said Kevin De Jong, Puckmasters president. “There are always players looking for extra ice.”
The treadmill spins up to 45 kilometres per hour to give fast adult skaters a workout. Players old and young can glide, practice stick-handling and take shots on net.
“Everybody from little guys to Jr. A Grizzlies and guys in physical rehab can use the treadmill,” De Jong says. “It has less glide but the same feel, the same stride. It takes a while to get the hang of it.”
De Jong said the business makes sense in Greater Victoria, where minor hockey leagues such as Juan de Fuca and Saanich have more youth than they can handle and players are highly motivated to improve.
Langford’s Sportsplex ice sheet is the only upcoming new ice in the region, and isn’t expected to relieve the demand from various youth and adult hockey leagues and figure skating. JDF minor hockey alone has 650 youth players and has a waiting list.
“Between Sooke and Peninsula and Kerry Park (Mill Bay) there are 4,000 minor hockey players,” De Jong says. “It starts adding up.”
In late January, Puckmasters laid down its first ice on a sheet about half the size as a regulation hockey rink. De Jong admits its sharp learning curve mastering the Zamboni and keeping the ice level. The facility expects to start adult and youth three-on-three leagues in February.
JDF minor hockey president Ken Carson said next season the league plans to use the smaller rink at Puckmasters for five and six year old players, which will help free up time on larger ice sheets.
“On smaller ice, younger kids touch the puck a lot more. There is huge benefits there,” Carson said. “Condensed ice size is great to develop younger players, and in certain situations for older players.”
Carson said the facility has already helped keep the minor hockey program running when the Pacific Cup tournament took over much of the ice in the region.
“There’s a few differences with ice,” Carson said. “But (the treadmill) is a great tool because ice time is at a premium in Victoria.”
Check out www.puckmasters.com/victoria. Three-on-three adult and youth leagues start Feb. 1.