Emma LaForce, 14, was practically born with skates on her feet and a hockey stick in hand. Her father, John LaForce, played hockey for the majority of his life, like most kids from upstate New York, but it was her cousins who dragged her onto the ice and helped her fall in love with the sport. She has been playing ever since.
“She loves it, it’s all she talks about,” said John LaForce. “She watches all of the NHL games and won’t miss a game. We like to get her on the ice with the girls.”
However, living below the Mason Dixon line in the state of North Carolina, opportunities to play hockey are harder to come by. That is why when her father saw a Facebook post about the All Girls Hockey Camp in Vinton, he jumped on the chance to sign her up.
Southwest Virginia’s first All Girls Hockey Camp was held at Lancerlot Sports Complex hosted by Ascend Hockey on June 17-18.
“They feel a lot more comfortable and a lot less pressure,” said Lindi Dalton, the Girls Hockey Director for the Valley Youth Hockey Association, about the camp being specifically tailored to girls, including her 12-year-old daughter Jordan. “There’s more of a social aspect, focus on building friendships and a more nurturing environment.”
Founder of Ascend Hockey Paul Lamoureux – accompanied by his younger brother Roman Lamoureux, a member of Liberty University’s men’s hockey team – know all about creating a positive and encouraging atmosphere.
“I know sometimes when girls come to our camps they want to see other girls,” Paul Lamoureux said. “We want them to feel special, we want to make something fun, productive and safe for the girls. The hockey market is not as big for them. I definitely want to make it more of a staple of ours because I think it’s really important.”
The camp took place for three hours during the evening of Friday, June 17, and throughout the morning and afternoon on Saturday where girls ranging from ages 7 to 14 participated in various training exercises and games both on and off the ice.
Ascend Hockey’s camps are not organized in the more traditional all day, weeklong structure. Paul Lamoureux, who is based in Lynchburg, is aware of the financial and mental toll this style has on parents as well as the kids who may experience some burnout over the several day period. He feels that he is still able to provide a high-quality product with his shorter camps for less than half of the typical $700 price tag.
This setup also allows them to travel to different cities and reserve rinks more easily as their camps do not require as much time on the ice.
Though they did not touch the ice during the first half of Friday night, the Lamoureux brothers were able to keep the girls engaged by having them lunge for tennis balls before they bounced on the ground, cycle through an agility ladder, sprint with a parachute tied to their waist and – the favorite drill of 7-year-old Abigail Ferron – chase to tap small boxes that light up with certain colors in a square before time runs out.
As Paul Lamoureux puts it, “they don’t realize they’re getting better while having fun.”
When it is time to hit the ice, Paul Lamoureux explained that he takes the time to analyze the ability of each camper in order to determine what skill he will hone in on and drill. He begins with the basics of simply learning how to skate or handling the puck and works up to shooting and edge work – the art of utilizing all edges of the skate – which allows players to improve “power speeding” and agility.
“Every kid learns differently and they need to be talked to differently,” Paul Lamoureux said. “So taking the time to learn that and getting to know them and learning how they need to be talked to. It’s worth it, that’s what makes us different.”
Ascend Hockey started out in 2019 with only three camps throughout different parts of the state. This summer they are traveling along the East Coast to Richmond, Boston, Wake Forest, N.C., Virginia Beach, Frederick, Md., Lancaster, Pa., and upstate New York. Paul Lamoureux invested his personal funds to build up the brand, creating “top-notch merchandise, logo, banners, posters and a website.” The hockey entrepreneur even traded some training to a marketing professional in exchange for his website as well as bartered his last two vehicles for a couple of camps.
Only five girls were able to attend for the few hours on Friday night in Vinton. Emma LaForce and her father came all the way from Charlotte, N.C., and another was coming in from Richmond.
While participation was lower as this was the first time they had put on an all girls camp in any city, Paul Lamoureux was not discouraged. He has plenty of practice staying consistent and “continuing to grind” to grow his organization. For instance, their first camp in Boston in 2021 hosted only seven campers, but quadrupled their turnout this year with around 30 kids enrolling.
“We value each and every person who chooses to come,” said Paul Lamoureux. “We are honored and privileged that they chose to come even if it’s one or two kids.”
Born the oldest of seven in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Paul Lamoureux has plenty of experience managing a gaggle of energetic children, especially in skates. He spent his early childhood excelling in hockey and his talent was recognized when, at 14, he was invited to the Western Hockey League, a junior branch of the Canadian Hockey League. From there, he was recruited to play for Liberty University in Lynchburg where he studied physical therapy, though he found his passion teaching hockey when he was approached to start giving personal lessons.
“I like to be encouraging and helping kids,” said Paul Lamoureux. “Growing up I got beat down by coaches emotionally and physically, so I know I can do the opposite by being encouraging and building their confidence up and seeing results in hockey. But it’s more than hockey, someone who believes in them can help even if they don’t play hockey, that can translate in the classroom or as a sibling or friend.”
And the girls’ sport is in need of groups like Ascend Hockey believing in them to continue to develop. This is especially vital in the South where there are not as many opportunities available to young women, according to Dalton.
Most of the girls attending the camp were brought into the sport by parents and other family members, mostly hailing from more northern regions, who used to play. One of the biggest obstacles girls hockey is currently facing is awareness, says John Ferron, father of camper Abigail Ferron.
But girls ice hockey is one of the fastest-growing youth sports in the U.S. with participation increasing by 34 percent% in the past decade, according to USA Hockey.
The sole female hockey league in the area under Roanoke Valley Youth Hockey is the Lady Dawgs which accommodates four teams: 8U, 12U, 19U and Junior Dawgs Girls Futures League, which is for all ages and more focused on teaching the fundamentals. In 2021, the girls league was only able to participate in a few tournaments, but starting this fall, the Lady Dawgs will be competing in their first full season of all girls hockey. They are finally able to support a full roster on each of the teams with a total of around 80 girls in the league.
With practices once a week, the 8U and 12U leagues are scheduled to play in 20 games this season, 10 at home, as well as a couple tournaments on the weekends. The 19U division is a part of the Chesapeake Bay Hockey League which includes 30 games, half of which will be home games. They will be practicing twice a week to compete in one tournament and a chance to make it into conference play.
2022 has boasted several notable moments in female sports, including the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the U.S. women’s national soccer team securing equal pay to their male counterparts.
Now girls ice hockey seeks its own power play.
“I think a lot of girls see it as ‘oh well that’s for boys,’” said Dalton. “That is the perception, especially for a lot of adults, like ‘my girl can’t do that’ or ‘no, you’re not going to do that’ because they see the physicality of it out on the ice. I’m not saying the girls’ game is not physical because it is, but there is no checking all the way through. Hopefully this camp just brings some more girls in to just try it and see what it’s like.”
For more on hockey in the region, see “Lynchburg’s ice culture.”