In normal times, the overwhelming bulk of my waking hours would be spent with local amateur sports. Taking in games, providing coverage, interviewing countless youngsters between the ages of eight and eighteen, chatting with league administrators and parents alike, my schedule would be immersed with an interest that I can comfortably claim as a passion.
Since 2004, I have had the pleasure of witnessing the growth of hundreds, perhaps thousands of young athletes. A very select few have gone on to reach the pinnacle of their sport. Most do not.
With two decades of involvement with my current role and another couple of decades as a local sports volunteer, I now enjoy the perspective that time allows, crossing paths with so many who have moved on the next phase of their life.
As both a parent and a fan of sport, my sincere hope is that most athletes, regardless of their ability, are able to look back upon that time and smile. Guaranteed, there were moments of heart-break and self-doubt, times when their involvement in sport was questioned.
But it’s awfully nice to hear these young men and women state they would do it all over again in a heartbeat, and that as imperfect adults who tried to support the goals and dreams of our own children, of local youth, that we did not leave them bitter with the experience. Whether that feedback comes close to home or from a casual acquaintance, it’s still nice to hear.
As parents, we can only hope that our kids are pursuing their dreams and not ours.
“It was probably around peewee that I started to notice my own competitiveness, more than anything else, not so much any pressure from others,” said Stephanie Pascal on a recent Eastlink TV interview. Yep, fair to say that’s one athlete I am intimately acquainted with.
“You just kind of realize that this is what you can do, so when you weren’t playing your best, it was kind of frustrating.”
Like many, however, she would persevere and improve to the point of at least contemplating post-secondary possibilities. Looking back, the challenges were real, though experience has a wonderful way of providing some context.
“I think it’s harder to enjoy that process when you are going through it,” said Pascal, who ultimately would make her way to the Queen’s Gaels women’s hockey team, enjoying three years as their #1 goalie. “You are focused on trying to end up somewhere - you just don’t want to get left behind. As you are going through it, you’re nervous, stressed, talking to coaches, worrying about every single word that you email.”
“Once I got into university, I realized that none of these things were as stressful as I remembered,” added the 24 year engineer in training. “You’re probably overthinking it a lot.”
Truthfully, it’s probably hard not to. So much seems to cling on every single outing - not to mention the concern that aspects of your game that you consider to be strengths may not be quite as noticeable to potential recruiters as the athlete might like.
“I do think that for me, personally, my rebound control was one of my strongest assets,” said Pascal. “When you’re looking to impress, that’s not necessarily one that people will pick up on, unless they really know the position. To them, it looks like you are just making a bunch of really simple saves.”
“You don’t have to make a bunch of crazy saves. The fact is that a lot of the highlight reel saves that you see are because of a bad rebound or when you are out of position.”
While freshman athletes will enter university with plenty to prove, the hope is that their departure from varsity play, hopefully four to five years later, carries at least some mix of good with the bad. That was very much the case for Pascal.
Eased into the fray during her rookie campaign, the long-time puckstopper with the Sudbury Lady Wolves would lose her entire second year at Queen’s due to a concussion. Thankfully, with time on her side, Pascal would return for three full years, twice participating in nationals and earning OUA Goalie of the Year and first team all-star status along the way.
With the support of many, the vast majority of whom were at her side in Kingston, she would ultimately be rewarded for not throwing in the towel. “I don’t remember any moments where I seriously thought about walking away - but I’m sure that there were a few times when I was really frustrated or upset,” Pascal admitted.
“Clearly, those are not the memories that I’ve hung on to, so that’s good.”
There are those on-ice highlights that will live forever in her mind.
“In my second year, before I was concussed, we played an exhibition game at Syracuse and won 1-0,” she said. “That was my first time that I felt that I had shown my teammates at Queen’s that I could play and play really well.”
A strong performance at the nationals that Queen’s hosted in 2017 comes to mind - along with a critical game one semi-final playoff win at Nipissing the following spring. “The crowd was pretty insane, very different from a typical university women’s game,” said Pascal, recalling the 3-2 overtime win in North Bay.
“A fair number of people were there and let’s just say that they were not hoping that we would win. I always kind of thrived in that environment.”
Before long, however, there would be more games behind her than the ones which lie ahead. Certainly, the lost concussion season would give rise to a greater sense of thankfulness, moving forward. “I was just happy to get back; I knew how quickly the time goes,” said the youngest of three children in the family.
“It makes you appreciate it more and makes it a little bit easier - not easy, but easier - once it finishes. I think you hear that a lot from athletes, once they graduate. You hear it from the seniors when you first start, that the time flies and you have to enjoy every moment - but it’s hard to really do that when you’re going through it.”
Even prior to her graduation, Pascal had displayed a propensity for coaching. Like so many, sliding behind the bench helped continue her attachment to the game. “It helps keep that competitiveness in you,” said the young woman with a smile, having been selected to take part in a Hockey Canada Women's Master Coach Developer program.
“As a coach, you kind of still have that. You want your team to succeed, you want the girls to do well, you want them to go on and succeed, not just as hockey players, but as people. Coaching was one thing I was looking forward to as I graduated.”
Still, walking away, as an athlete, is seldom easy. Much like the majority of amateur sports, truly viable options in women’s hockey are limited. “I probably had the thought, a bit, during my last year, especially at times when you are really enjoying it,” said Pascal. “But I knew for myself personally, it really didn’t make sense to go on playing in Europe.”
“I had a job lined up once I finished school, and that was something I was looking forward to. For me, it was not a difficult decision to make, but that’s not to say that I didn’t consider it at all.”
If the hope of every parent is that their young athlete walks away from their sport, in the end, settling into a very good place, then I would have to admit that I would be hard-pressed to complain.
“I am happy with what I am doing at this particular moment,” said Pascal. “I think I’m pretty content with what I accomplished, Looking back, now, it’s easier to appreciate just how much effort went into it."
"At the time, it’s easy to think that I could be doing more. Now, it seems like I did a lot.”