For any aspiring hockey player, the opportunity to represent your country in a national tournament definitely is at the top of the list of dream experiences.
That dream became a reality for Raygan Kirk when she suited up for Team Canada's national U18 team in a best-of-three series against Team USA last week in Calgary, Alta.
The 16-year-old native of St. Anne, Man., who has ties to Fort Frances through relatives who live here, was selected to play on the squad after being noticed by Hockey Canada scouts.
Her father, Brad, was born in Fort Frances but grew up in Manitoba and moved to St. Anne after finishing university.
That's where Raygan ended up playing all of her minor hockey—most recently with the Eastman Selects in the Manitoba Female Midget Hockey League.
“My Mom and Dad were born in Fort Frances and both sets of my grandparents lived there until they passed away,” Brad Kirk noted.
“One of my aunts and uncles are still there, and I have a cousin there who recently moved from Devlin to Fort Frances,” he added.
“They might not all be of the Kirk last name in all cases but they are still family, or married to other family, who are still in the area.”
Brad Kirk admitted he doesn't know everything about how Hockey Canada's scouting works, but did give some insight into how his daughter was noticed.
“So what happens is that Hockey Canada has representatives that cover each of the provinces, and where we think they probably first started to notice her was at a tournament down in southern Ontario, in Stoney Creek,” he noted.
"We know representatives from Hockey Canada are at that kind of event.
“The Hockey Canada representative from Manitoba-Saskatchewan, you do see him at different events in Manitoba, and my understanding is that they create—over the course of the season—a short list of girls that they would like to put forward for the U18 team,” he explained.
“She [Raygan] got exposed again at the Manitoba Games, and Hockey Canada was there to watch,” Brad Kirk added.
"And our team—the Selects—had an amazing playoff run to win the league so that gets you a little more precedence, as well.
“By then, I believe they had their list of girls and they sent an e-mail in the middle of June to say that Raygan had been invited to attend the U18 camp in August,” he remarked.
After making it through the round of cuts at training camp, and through a trio of intrasquad games, Raygan got her first taste of game action in Team Canada's opening game of the series against Team USA last Thursday.
She was stellar between the pipes, finishing with 29 saves on 31 shots, but her squad gave up the tying goal with just 2:33 to go and ended up losing 2-1 in overtime.
“Unfortunately, they weren't able to sneak out the win, losing in overtime, but she had a great game,” enthused Brad Kirk, who was watching from the stands.
Raygan then played the role of backup for the final two games, which saw Team Canada rebound with a 4-3 win on Friday before pulling out a 5-4 overtime victory on Sunday to claim the series.
“My wife and I were there for the entire two weeks, watching practices and intrasquad games the first week, and then there for the actual games against the U.S.,” Brad Kirk said.
“It was an amazing experience to see your kid go through this and to see your kid wear the [Canadian] jersey,” he enthused.
“Female hockey is a little different from men's in that you're not dreaming of going to the NHL, they're never doing it for the money, so having that national opportunity to wear the jersey is awesome.”
Moving forward, Raygan—who turns 17 in November—will be playing Division 1 hockey for Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pa. in the fall of 2019.
Her dad believes the experience she got with the U18 team will be beneficial for her career.
“She was just overwhelmed and, I think, she even said humbled to have that opportunity,” he noted.
"Like, 'How did they select me out of all the girls that are available? What did they see?' and it's just really a humbling experience and quite an honour.
“After it was all said and done, she even sent out in a tweet that she was just very honoured to have the chance to wear the Maple Leaf and to meet some great, great girls from across the country that she probably would have never met before,” he added.
“They'll always have that connection from the two weeks they spent together and were able to connect with a great coaching staff, too.”