When Mckenna Van Gelder first joined the Etobicoke Dolphins this season and told her new coach about her lofty ambition to beat Wayne Gretzky’s record 92 goals in one season, he laughed in disbelief.
But by midseason, after the eight-year-old star centre scored her 50th goal with the Dolphin’s Novice A team in just 31 games – closing in on The Great One’s 1982 record with the Edmonton Oilers – Coach Marty Parker wasn’t laughing anymore.
“When she first said that, I honestly looked at her and said, ‘pardon?’” Parker recalled laughing Thursday evening, shortly before the team’s practice at Mimico Arena. “But now, I think if we play enough games, she will accomplish that. It’ll be a tough, tough accomplishment, but I think she can do it.”
Wearing the #17 of her favourite hockey player, Wendel Clark, Mckenna quickly impressed Parker and other Dolphins’ onlookers with not only her skill at getting the puck in the net, but also her dedication to the game and her fellow teammates.
“Mckenna is probably the hardest working eight-year-old – the hardest working player – that I’ve ever coached, which isn’t always the case with someone who has great skill. She’s one of the kids with the reddest faces and the most sweat, she’s clearly one of the most fatigued during and after the game, and that’s because of how hard she works,” he said.
“She’s not only passionate about hockey, she’s passionate about her teammates. She’s a very social kid who likes to have fun with her teammates, but when she straps it on, she’s there to play hockey and learn and develop.”
A Grade 3 student at Briarcrest Junior School, Mckenna first started playing hockey at age five with the West Mall Lightning hockey league, where she spent two years playing as the only girl on otherwise all-boys teams.
Now playing with girls for the first time with the Dolphins, Mckenna is not only thriving on the scoreboard, but she’s also enjoying the game that much more, said her parents Mark and Shannon.
“I’m really proud of her. She’s works really hard. She always wants to play hockey every, every day, and every minute,” Shannon said.
Even though she’s playing on an all-girls team now, Mckenna hasn’t let that stop her from lacing up with the boys every once in a while, Mark admitted: “This week she’s been practising with all 10- and 11-year-old AAA boys,” he laughed. “She wants to be as good as them – and honestly, she keeps up with them no problem...I think it’s awesome. She loves the game and she works hard.”
Mckenna’s 50th goal this season was scored on home ice at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence here in Etobicoke against the Clarington Flames on Dec. 15.
“She just stole the puck and dropped it in the back of the net,” Parker recalled, calling it just one of many memorable goals Mckenna has scored this year. “I’ve been coaching now for about 16 years and I’ve never, ever coached someone who’s accomplished what Mckenna has – and I’ve coached some really good players.”
After the game, Parker handed his star player – who he describes as “easily one of the top 3 players” of her age in the province – the game puck in front of all her teammates in the dressing room.
The experience, Mckenna said, “felt pretty awesome.”
When asked why she likes hockey so much, the aspiring future Team Canada Olympic gold-medal-winner answered simply.
“I just like it,” she shrugged, before ambling off in her skates to take to the ice with her teammates. “You can hang out with lots of people. It’s fun.”