By Dan Plouffe
COVID-19 wiped out their final seasons and created serious recruiting challenges but Ottawa’s junior women’s hockey clubs are nevertheless sending a dozen-and-a-half players onto university/college teams this year.
With trophies, gift bags and balloons, the Nepean Wildcats saluted their grads after one of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League club’s final scrimmages (during a non-lockdown period), though the usual seniors day banquet wasn’t possible.
“Usually it’s a big day, and all the parents and relatives and grandparents show up to the rink,” outlines Wildcats general manager Bruce MacDonald.
Just one parent per player was allowed in the rink this year, which was tough to swallow since parents have invested so much “sweat equity getting them to this point,” he adds. “The parents are obviously really happy for them, but there’s also the fact that they’re growing up and leaving home, so there’s a lot of emotion that goes into that day.”
The Wildcats did livestream the ceremony on Facebook, which wound up being an invaluable tool in the drive to showcase players when they weren’t competing in regular games.
Rules of course fluctuated throughout the year, but the Wildcats did manage to play modified 4-on-4 games with their fellow local PWHL club, the Ottawa Lady Sens, over a number of weekends.
The team set up video equipment to webcast the scrimmages, which they then posted to youtube and sent clips to recruiters.
“Pardon the pun, but there was a lot of stick-handling going on,” smiles MacDonald, who was able to help all of his graduating players find places to play, aided by the region’s reputation for producing strong players in the past, and the network of contacts that’s provided.
“The recruiting aspect was quite different this year, but we managed,” he indicates. “It worked out really well.”
What’s less clear is how much this year’s grads will suffer having missed a season of league play – particularly those headed to the U.S. where players got to compete more.
“You kind of lose a whole year of development,” says MacDonald. “I believe some of them will adjust and some of them will struggle at the start.”
MacDonald estimates his team got 60% of the ice time they would have in a normal season, and they worked plenty more on physical fitness, mental performance, and preparing for the expectations at the next level.
“That certainly should serve them well moving forward, but it’s nothing like playing three games in a row on a weekend. You can’t underestimate the value of that,” he highlights. “We did our best trying to get them prepared and I think we did a pretty good job.”
What impressed MacDonald the most was the “really great team atmosphere” the players created despite all the challenges.
“I can’t stress enough how they’ve handled it so well. The camaraderie between the girls has been phenomenal this year. They’ve kind of banded together, and it’s been a blessing that they’ve had hockey on their mind and not the world’s problems,” he underlines.
“They’ve sacrificed so much to get to the next level. We just wish them the best of luck.”
The Wildcats’ graduating class includes Ellie Brown and Ashley Monds (both headed to St. Francis-Xavier University), Abby Howland (Toronto), Annabella Lalande (St. Anselm), Zoe McGee (Ontario Tech), Terryn Mozes (Syracuse), and Hillary Sterling (St. Lawrence).
Moving up from the Lady Sens are Brooklyn Dolter and Elle Spencer (both Wilfrid Laurier), Mollie Grabe (Mount Allison), Jade Maisonneuve (Robert Morris), Julianna Parks (Brock) and Kamdyn Switzer (St. FX).
The Ottawa Lady 67’s – whose Junior Women’s Hockey League featuring several U.S. teams was also shelved – are graduating Jamie Aspropotamitis (Bishop’s), Liz Beiersdorfer (UPEI), Peyton Carle (Liberty), Jackie Kuhn (Ottawa) and Sam Murphy (Arizona State).
Team Canada player Sterling was cut in Bantam
Alongside fellow Team Canada under-18 women’s program participant Jade Maisonneuve, Hillary Sterling is probably the most highly-touted player of the group of local grads.
But it was just a few years ago that the star forward got cut from the Wildcats’ ‘AA’ team in her first year of Bantam hockey.
“Obviously, I was devastated not making the top team, but I just remembered everything happens for a reason,” reflects the Wildcats’ 2019-2020 PWHL leading scorer. “I almost think I had a better season where I was. I probably grew more as a player on that team getting to touch the puck more, and getting more ice time.”
Though they missed out on creating more this season, Sterling says she’ll retain many great memories from travelling all over Ontario and having fun at the hotel with her teammates.
“It was still a fun season,” adds Sacred Heart Catholic High School student council co-president. “Definitely not what I would want for my last year, but we did make the most out of what we could.”
Sterling, who plans to study biochemistry, is now that much hungrier to be able to get down to St. Lawrence University and begin her NCAA career as a Saint.
“I’m super excited for sure,” signals Sterling, who would like to play for Canada in the Olympics one day. “That’s been my goal since I was young, and getting invited to be part of the national U18 program for a world championships that was ultimately cancelled this year was obviously a good first step to that journey and kind of pushes me to keep working hard.”