To many Canadians, fall is the sound of skates being sharpened and a crate of hockey pucks hitting the fresh ice. At the Campus Ice Centre, the Ridgebacks pre-season preparations are in full swing. Representing your school at the university level is a privilege, which demands a level of skill, as well as a lot of heart and commitment. But not every aspiring hockey player possesses these qualities.
This year the UOIT Women’s Hockey team has six incoming players. All players are bringing something new to a team that had less success on the ice last year than was hoped. A new campaign is about to begin. All six women face new scenarios both with the team and in the classroom.
Drawn from cities spanning Ontario, from St. Thomas to Gananoque, and teams as diverse as the Ottawa Jr. Senators and the London Devilettes, all incoming players have come to Oshawa to play the game they love.
The six rookies on the team include Alex Frigon, Nicole Augello, Grace Donaldson, Kassidy Ford, Nicole Zabel, and Briar Hughes. Each one faces the challenge of adjusting to a new team as well as new teammates, not to mention the rigorous academic challenge university education presents.
Fourth-year goaltender Tori Campbell not only understands the academic challenges university presents, she’s part of the strategy of success for UOIT student athletes.
“Starting this year we have an academic success centre that’s just for varsity athletes, and it’s right by our varsity gym,” said Campbell. “It’s just a quiet space for athletes to go study, knock out 40 minutes or an hour between classes.” In addition to attending the centre, Campbell is one of two varsity tutors.
First-year players aren’t without resources and support. Success is sought both on the ice and in the sphere of academia. The Ridgebacks coaching staff help ease the transition from high school to university by employing the help of veteran players; the team pairs more experienced players with incoming players in what is called the big sister program.
“The veteran girls really take the ball and incorporate the rookies and make them feel right at home…,” says Justin Caruana, head coach for the UOIT Women’s hockey team.
Briar Hughes, a Thornton, Ontario native and former goaltender for the Barrie Sharks is one of this year’s incoming rookies. In addition to being a Communications and Digital Media major, she is also vying for time in net. Last year the Ridgebacks had a platoon effort between the pipes with games split between veterans Tori Campbell and Cassie Charette. The addition of Hughes brings increased competition, which Caruana believes will lead to better play from all three goaltenders.
“It’s so hard going with one starter because not everyone can have a perfect game all the time,” said Hughes. “He’s a very fair coach. I hope he’ll give us all equal playing time but I know as a first year I do have to prove myself and earn that spot to play.”
Traditionally rookie players see limited on-ice time during their first year with a new team. Coaches typically use the year as a growth period; skills are honed, and adjustments to the team’s brand of hockey are implemented. But coach Caruana doesn’t work that way.
He chooses his lineups based on performance in practice and on the ice. No spot is safe whether you are a fifth-year veteran or a rookie. This gives rookies incentive to bring their best from day one, and to maintain a high level of play in the hopes of seeing more ice time.
Each of the six freshmen players on the team will come away from this year with a different experience and senior players, such as goaltender Tori Campbell, haven’t forgotten what their first year with the Ridgebacks was like.
“My first year on the team we made playoffs,” said Campbell. “We had a lot of team success, we set a win record. I had a great team in front of me which you know when your team is succeeding you’re succeeding.”
Coach Caruana scouted this crop of rookies at major tournaments across Ontario and by dropping in on league matches. Caruana says he chooses players who are committed to success both on the ice and in the classroom.
With six rookies on the team this year, there is new energy in the locker room. Teammates are forging bonds that are crucial for future success. This fall when the puck drops, there is the potential to erase last year’s performance issues. For those on the UOIT Women’s Hockey team, the game is just as important as their time in the classrooms and labs at the university.
All the preparations the team has taken will culminate with the first game of the season on Oct. 15 against the York Lions in Toronto. The team’s first home game is Oct. 16 at the Campus Ice Centre where the six rookies on the Ridgebacks roster will showcase their talent for those in the campus community against the Nipissing Lakers. When the puck drops on Oct. 16 Canada’s favourite season will be in full force. Hockey season is back.