By Jim Bender
Photos by Dylan Asmundson
Working in rodeos has helped develop at least some hockey skills for one very determined young woman.
Jules Stokes, who is attending Winnipeg's RINK Hockey Academy, has worked in rodeos back in B.C. for years. She is only 16.
"I work the chutes, so I take straps off cattle, and I take ropes off and headgear," she said. "It helps give you good reflexes, like when those cows try to strike out at you. So, it helps when you're trying to get out of the way of the puck in front of the net.
"I also take the heifers. So, when they do junior steer riding, those come in through my chutes as well. And those are the big mamas that are very, very mean."
Stokes, who hails from Terrace, B.C., has also worked at what is called a gymkhanist, where she runs barrels and pole bends on horseback at rodeos.
"But hockey just got too busy, and it was one or the other," she said. "So, I was definitely gonna choose hockey. I still ride in the summers when I go up and visit family."
Stokes has actually been committed to honing her hockey skills since she was in junior high school. In fact, she billeted in Penticton, B.C. during her Grades 8 and 9 years so she could attend the Okanagan Hockey Academy (OHA).
"I used to go to their summer camps and then their head of recruiting reached out and asked if I wanted to play on their U17 team for my Grade 8 year and I had no idea that that was even possible," Stokes said. "So, I jumped at the opportunity and I just went with it, and now, I'm in Winnipeg."
Why Winnipeg, which is so much further from home than Penticton?
"Both years, we (OHA) played against RINK Winnipeg and we just could not beat them," Stokes explained. "And I was just like, 'OK, I want to go play for this team.' They just played at a whole new level. Like, the girls were much stronger. You could tell that the training was just much better here, and I wanted to have a chance to experience it."
The 5-foot-5, 150-pound defender said the move has already paid dividends.
"It's been great, honestly," Stokes said. "I feel like I've improved so much, confidence-wise. Both on-ice and off-ice. The training is just a whole new level here.The trainers are great. On-ice is great as well. You just get pushed at a whole different level. Like, at OHA, you got pushed, but it's more like, 'Do this but I'm not really going to be critiquing you that well.' Here, they want you to be perfect, they want you to be the best of the best."
Tess Dusik, the U18 Female Prep team assistant coach, said that Stokes has become a model here.
"I just think she's a great, phenomenal kid," Dusik said. "Her work ethic is exactly what a prep player's should be. That's going to drive her to the next step, which obviously would be university and college. She's a great, all-round kid, a good person to talk to off the ice. She's a really good example for our program."
Stokes does have lofty goals. "It would be really cool if, one day, I could get a shot at trying out for Team Canada," she said. "Like, seeing where I'm at with that. But I would also like to go play college or university hockey."
Stokes, who learned to skate when she was five or six, was the only female on the boys' teams she played on growing up in Terrace. That experience made her a more physical player. Meanwhile, she believes she is already a good skater.
"I'd say I have a fairly good stride," she said. "Most people tell me that I have a nice, long stride. I'm able to catch those breakaways, for the most part."
But Stokes is still a long way from Terrace, which is situated along the Coast Mountains in northwestern B.C. Her sister, Falon, is one year younger and they call each other once a week. Her father works in the logging industry and her mother is a pharmacy technician.
"They've supported me a lot," Stokes said. "They both don't know a lot about hockey, but they do their best to research about our sticks and the different kinds of skates you can get and all that kind of stuff. And they've just put so much money into me; I'm really grateful for it."
Stokes is billeting with the family of teammate Kate Nechwediuk in Winnipeg. Kate's older brother, Ryland, a star player with the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League's St. Vital Victorias, has been tutoring Stokes in math.
"I feel like I'm part of the family, really," she said. "They welcomed me right away."
Scott Taylor | Game On Magazine https://gameonhockey.ca/