The look on young girls’ faces when they know they’re skipping school to play hockey never gets old for Jennifer Smith.
The Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association president is tucked in the corner of Leaside Gardens, watching the Midget BB team play a visiting team from Haldimand, the county south of Hamilton. The arena is bustling with activity, all for the 38th annual Toronto Leaside Wildcats March Madness Tournament.
There is another reason why Smith, and the tournament director, Mark Schrutt, are smiling. This year’s registration numbers have shattered the previous year’s records.
“I have to admit we were surprised because the growth each year has been 138 to 142 to 146,” Smith said. This year 171 teams are participating.
Smith says she has no idea what could account for the large increase. “I like to believe the tournament has a good reputation. We don’t do exit surveys, but anecdotally I’ve talked to our guest, and last year it was very positive.”
Smith’s own daughter, 20, is on the senior team. Sarah Steadman has been playing in the league since she was five.
Schrutt admitted, before heading to his own daughter’s Peewee B game, that he was a little green taking the helm this year. In previous years, Andrew Smyth and Smith herself have been organizers.
But he had no trouble bringing in new sponsors from different industries, and even had yoga headbands in swag bags for kids playing in the tournament.
“I was a rookie, but I received a lot of guidance from Jennifer, who ran it last year and people who have been with the organization for a while,” he admitted. “I was not re-inventing anything.”
It wasn’t just hockey that was on display. The association also holds raffles and silent auctions to raise money. This year, two tickets for a Toronto Maple Leafs-Chicago Blackhawks match was already at $900.
Still, the association is thrilled with the increase, as well as the arena’s expansion creating a great environment for Leasiders.
The tournament is a great celebration of the community, Smith said. “We find people sometimes come in and just watch the games. They have no real connection, but they’re like, hey, there’s a game going on.”