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Burnaby hockey player eager to play at BC Games
When Jenna Velji learned to skate as a tyke she got a taste of hockey and she knew right away it was the game for her.
Velji's parents tried to steer her toward figure skating, but she was having none of it.
"I was totally into hockey. No ringette or anything like that. I knew hockey was my sport," Velji recalls.
Velji's parents relented and signed her up to play in the Burnaby Minor Hockey Association.
Good decision. This week the 13-year-old Moscrop secondary French immersion student is off to Mission to represent Zone 4 (Burnaby, Richmond and Delta) in the 2014 B.C. Winter Games that starts Thursday.
Her puck passion has not faded. So much so that she's been planning how to pack her hockey bag and suitcases for the Games for three weeks.
Kids at school ask her, "Are you dating anyone?" She responds, "Yeah, I'm dating hockey."
"It's just something you never feel, the way you feel on skates on a daily basis," says the effervescent Velji. "It's something you can escape to. The speed, everything, was real cool. I even enjoy bag-skating (when coaches order players to do extended wind sprints)."
As a young pup she played with the boys, which freaked her mother out, especially when Velji progressed to the peewee level (11-12 years old) when hitting was allowed. Bodychecks didn't bother her though. She loved physical play.
But life changes. Along with graduating from Marlborough elementary to Moscrop last spring she realized the boys were starting to hit puberty and getting bigger. Really big. The fear of a head injury was real. She'd gained a lot of confidence and lots of friends playing with the boys, but it was time to join an elite girls bantam squad, the North Shore Avalanche.
Bodychecking isn't allowed in female hockey. She misses the physicality and speed of the boys, but she uses her size (five-foot-four) and her experience playing with the boys to her advantage as a left winger.
"I like to take the puck up and down the boards. I'm bigger so it's easier to grind it out," says Velji, who admits she has to resist hitting her opponents. "I have to contain my anger. Every good athlete has to have a competitive edge, and I certainly have a competitive edge."
Her competitiveness landed her a spot on the Winter Games team, even though she is only a first-year bantam player on a team of mostly second-year bantams.
Joining the Avalanche also enhances her chances of playing university hockey. Velji has a dream of playing for McGill for several reasons. To begin with, the Martlets are a major force in Canadian university women's hockey. Then there's the fact she's bilingual and loves Montreal and Québec. And to top it all off, McGill is arguably the top academic school in the country, and would provide a good start for Velji on her path to becoming a doctor.
Even though she aspires to play for the national team, she's got long-range plans outside of hockey. Velji has a fascination with skin and wants to be a dermatologist or a naturopathic doctor. Since she was nine years old she could frequently be found in the kitchen concocting remedies out of herbs.
Her interests don't end there, either. She also sang in her school musical, Zombie Prom and her voice was good enough to sing the national anthems for the championship games at the 2013 Esso Cup national midget girls hockey tournament in Burnaby.
"I don't want to focus [totally on hockey] and be disappointed and not have something at the end," says Velji. "Set some achievable goals and then still have some dreams. [Playing for Canada] is my ultimate goal."
While she prepares to play in Mission, Velji has her eye on the women's Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi. Four years ago when the Olympics were held in Vancouver she took in a game between Canada and Finland.
"A lot of my role models were on that team," says Velji singling out Olympic flag bearer Hayley Wickenheiser and Meghan Agosta, who scored two goals against the United States last week.
The B.C. Winter Games are all about providing stepping stones to greater glory, such as playing for Canada, for athletes like Velji.
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Burnaby athletes participating in the B.C. Winter Games Feb. 20-23:
Archery – Naveena Leong, Austin Singh, Jacquelyn Wang
Badminton – Jordan Beatty, Carina Bi
Basketball (Special Olympics) – Mary Armstrong, Nicholas Bobek, David Wong
Basketball (wheelchair) – Natasha Leslie
Curling (men's) – Breyden Chong, Tyler Proctor
Figure skating – Vasilisa Matantseva, Benjam Papp
Gymnastics – Nikita May
Hockey (girls) – Megan Lai, Stephanie Moy, Raman Rai, Kiana Tsui, Jenna Velji
Judo – Amara Jarvinen, Younes Lahsinia, Justin Lorenzana, Christopher Louie, Litsa Rethimiotakis, Haylie Sennot, Mark Sidelnikov, Stephanie Sulaver, Billy Trengrove, Matthew Wan
Karate – Parris Gill, Gurpartap Hothi, Natasha Lam, Mulia MacLean, Adrianna Milkovic, Sara Ng, Justin Ng, Michael Plunkett, Angie Wakelin, Mark Wong, Stephanie Zaborniak
Netball – Vanessa Agonos, Manreet Bhullar, Emma Binstead, Jasmine Campbell, Emily Chan, Mini Cheon, Kathryn Dawson, Alison Gu, Kiersten Hagen, Cynthia Huang, Michelle Kao, Sonya Kung, Hailey Kuntz, Christina Lee, Emily Makihara, Alex Montinola, Nasseem Vazinkhoo, Katherine Widmer, Angela Yu, Mirna Zaki
Ringette – Paige Coe-Chow, Melissa Fong, Natara Wong
Skiing (alpine) – Marley Hodgson, Blair Nllis, Quinn Storey, Trenton Swift
Skiing (cross-country) – Andy Lin
Skiing (freestyle) – Owen Smith
Speed skating – Maksim Adzic, Alex Yefeng, Jessie Lee, Bryan Leon