About six to eight weeks ago, I was approached about a possible story. During a winter where so many sports were almost completely shelved, it turns out that the Laurentian Voyageurs women’s hockey team had worked, hand in hand, with a small group of local female players, trying to bring some sense of normalcy to their season. The bulk of these interviews were conducted before the heart-breaking announcement of the cancellation at L.U. - and while it would have been easy to squash the story completely, it only seemed appropriate to provide one more reminder of the extent to which post-secondary varsity athletes affect far more than simply the results of their games.
Like many a coach in these difficult times, Andrew Dale was searching, over the winter, for ways to keep his young female hockey players engaged over the course of a season that risked becoming highly repetitive.
Thankfully, he was able to identify an option that was likely nicely therapeutic for all of those involved.
Extending an invitation to coach Stacey Colarossi and the Laurentian women’s hockey team, the former 8th round pick of the Los Angeles Kings (1994) was perhaps a little surprised with the extent to which his offer was greeted with open arms - and vice-versa.
“It was cool to hear just how excited the girls get about having us (the Voyageurs) at their practices,” noted Jaimee MacDonald, a third year defenceman with the local OUA squad. “But I think it’s huge to have role models to look up to; it’s more relatable.”
Within the context of university hockey, it’s sometimes easy to forget that many youngsters can only aspire to someday reach the heights of those who compete across Ontario, most every weekend of the winter in non-pandemic years.
“They are really good,” suggested 12 year old Maxyme Brule, a grade seven student at Alliance St Joseph and now in her third year of playing with either girls or mixed house league teams. “I have never watched LU women’s hockey. Some of them have really good shots, and I want to learn that.”
In fact, there was easily as much learning as observing taking place, with many of the participants noting a clear step forward, even as their on-ice sessions were cut short after Christmas.
“Since we weren’t really playing games or anything with Andrew’s group of girls, this kind of was replacing the stuff that we lost with actual house league hockey,” stated Misaki Diavolitsis, also in grade seven, but over at Alexander Public School. “I think I liked it better because I knew that I was improving.”
Those words are music to the ears of MacDonald, a Sport & Physical Education major with Concurrent Education who has eyes on a teaching career, post-graduation. “Coaching is just teaching in a different environment,” she noted. “The classroom setting is a little different, as they have more room here to move around - and they have sticks in their hands.”
Still, the teaching was not limited to the use of their sticks, whether shooting or passing. Along with the attentive details to the intricacies of their skating technique, the young girls were also given advice on many other of the finer points of the game.
“I learned some new things on reading plays; I’m not super good at that,” suggested Paung Trudeau, an eighth grade student at St Benedict Catholic Secondary School who has played Lady Wolves hockey for five years now. “I did learn not to pinch too soon, so that I would not be able to catch the person who was going.”
Sharing the same position as Trudeau, Diavolitsis was most definitely standing, stick in hand, as she tackled the area she had most identified as needing improvement. “I’m not really good at slapshots and I’m a defenceman, so I probably have to learn that at some point in time,” said the 13 year old multi-sport athlete, who also plays competitive soccer.
“I don’t know that I ever saw them (the LU women) do slapshots, but I imagine they’re pretty good at it.”
Of course, it wasn’t as though either the girls or the young women involved were able to spend the entire winter on the ice, successive lockdowns and such presenting an on-going challenge.
“I like being on the ice,” said MacDonald. “I think there’s a lot more development and growth that can occur on the ice, for hockey in general. During these times, that’s not always an option. So the zoom sessions were good, giving us a chance to do a few different things.”
Different things indeed.
“Jaimee showed us how to do yoga,” said Brule with a smile. “I don’t know what exactly it’s called, but there was an exercise that we had to really twist - and that was tough.”
“Coaching on Zoom was different because everyone is so quiet,” added MacDonald. “No one wants to talk. And you need to explain more thoroughly, because demonstrations are harder to see.”
While most of the Sudbury Girls Hockey talent had never previously taken in a Voyageur women’s game, first hand, those who did certainly tried to absorb as much as possible. “I was very impressed with just how fast they were, how quickly they knew what to do,” said Trudeau.
“They have very quick minds. Every single girl was able to read off the body language of their teammates, just to know what kind of play that she was likely to do.”
What they did not know, however, was that their collaboration would be the last chance these Laurentian athletes and the girls who look up to them would have to work together towards a common goal.
“Coach Stacey jumped all over the opportunity to help grow the girls game in Sudbury,” said MacDonald, well over a month ago. “I work at a hockey development facility in Elmira; it’s just something that I do. When Stacey put out the sheet asking us to fill in what days we could go, what times we could go, I think I put my name in for all of them.”
And that, unfortunately, is almost irreplaceable.