For many, the return of the UNB varsity women’s hockey program after a decade-long absence is a victory in and of itself. For head coach Sarah Hilworth, however, it is simply the first step toward her team’s ambitious plans for the future.
The team’s return is undoubtedly important for many reasons. To summarize a long and contentious saga, then-director of athletics Kevin Dickie and UNB cut the program in 2008, citing financial reasons for the decision. What followed was a seven-year legal battle over a gender discrimination claim filed by a former player that resulted in the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board ordering UNB to reinstate the program.
But for Hilworth and her team, that is all ancient history. They are focused solely on making UNB a renowned hockey powerhouse, with both its women’s and men’s teams contending for annual championships. This year begins a brand-new era for the program and there is much work to be done to bring the team up to its full potential.
Despite all the optimism about the team’s return and its future, the fact remains that becoming an elite program typically requires the resources, financial and otherwise, of an elite program. Considering the administration’s justifications for cutting the team in 2008 and the fact that they only agreed to bring it back after they were ordered to, it would be fair to question whether the university is willing to make that type of investment in its women’s hockey program.
To this question, Hilworth stated that she is very happy with the support she has received from UNB’s athletics department and the university has already demonstrated their full commitment to ensuring the success of the team.
“I think the university has done a really good job of giving us the resources we need to be successful. We are looking forward and keeping the past in the past. I think the university is ready to do that as well by giving us those resources. They want to see us successful and they want to see us here long-term.”
The team is tasked with the challenge of building cohesion within a fresh-faced roster in a short period of time. After beginning on-ice training in late August, the team made an early September trip to Snider Mountain Ranch to help kickstart the team bonding process. In addition to giving the players a chance to build a sense of team unity, the weekend also provided Hilworth valuable insight into the personality of the group and an idea of which players may emerge as team leaders.
“We put them into different situations where they’ve got to rely on one another and show some vulnerability, which is hard to build. I think because they are so young and we’re such a new group it’s important… that they can start trusting each other a little sooner and feel like they are in a place where they are cared about. I think we were definitely successful,” said Hilworth.
After getting back from Snider Mountain, Hilworth’s focus quickly returned to learning more about her players on the ice and molding the team to her expectations as coach. So far, Hilworth told The Brunswickan, she likes what she has seen.
“I think we’re going to shock a lot of teams with how fast we are. We want to be a fast, ‘in your face’ team that plays with a lot of confidence. We want to be gritty, we want to play a fast tempo game that will hopefully leave teams behind because of the pace we play at.”
While the team’s inexperience at the U Sports level will certainly be a major challenge this year, Hilworth believes there are enough natural leaders on the roster to make up for their collective lack of experience. The majority of the team’s roster this season consists of rookies, but the team does have several seasoned players who transferred from other universities who Hilworth says have already been establishing themselves as leaders on the team.
It may be difficult to develop realistic expectations for the team in their first season back. For Hilworth, the team’s success depends on the overall culture they are able to establish; however, she does believe the team has the potential to reach the playoffs this season if they maintain consistency throughout.
“I’m just excited for the players,” said Hilworth. “I know what it’s like to pull that jersey on for the first time and how amazing it feels to actually live one of your dreams. For them to have the opportunity to play at the university level, all of them have probably been thinking of that since they started playing hockey.”
The UNB women’s hockey team will make its historic return to the Aitken Centre on Oct. 13, where they play Mount Allison University at 7:00 PM.