Nipissing Lakers women's hockey team building a winning tradition
Homecoming events at many big universities in this country tend to revolve around football games.
The usual script goes that the boys of fall take centre stage in late September or early October to grapple on the gridiron with bitter rivals from down the highway. Alumni members return from far-flung locations to fill the stands and observe the great traditions and history of their alma mater.
But in late November in the snowswept gateway city of North Bay, Ont., Nipissing University is a different kind of school and it's writing a unique homecoming story this season.
This past weekend, the women's hockey team, known as the Lakers, received top billing and in many ways, reflects the growing aspirations of a post-secondary institution which is small in size, but which has already forged an enormous connection to, and influence over, the surrounding community.
So it is that the women's Lakers, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary as members of the U Sports family, and the 30th year of the young university's charter, faced off at the North Bay Memorial Gardens against the newly named Toronto Metropolitan University Bold.
The home squad, resplendent in white, blue, and green kit, is the reigning national championship silver medallist and continues to punch above its weight.
Once again, the Lakers are ranked top 10 in the land. They are building a reputation as the "little" big team that rarely loses a game to opponents which skate out of much larger centres.
"Academic achievement comes first; but the experiences outside of the classroom are so important to our students and to our tightly knit community," said Nipissing's president, Dr. Kevin Wamsley, as he ushered me into the rink. He paused frequently to greet families with young children who filled the stands for the homecoming match.
"What these young women achieve on a daily basis is nothing short of remarkable and the entire community is so proud of who they are and what they've accomplished."
Once in the arena I had the chance to meet with the mayor and deputy mayor of North Bay, the chancellor of the university, many faculty members, and twenty alumni of the women's Lakers who were all in attendance. This was, it turned out, a big deal not only for the team, but the whole town.
Former NHLer Turcotte is coach
Behind the bench, the leader of the Lakers is former NHLer Darren Turcotte, a native of North Bay who played 12 seasons in the big leagues, was an all-star with the New York Rangers, and is a member of North Bay's Sports Hall of Fame. He's the first and only head coach of this team which, in it's first decade of existence, has missed the playoffs just once.
"Winning starts with pride. Being a small school made it harder in our first years to recruit but we have been able to build a program that players want to come to now," Turcotte said. "I owe a lot of the credit to those who played here in our beginning."
Indeed, the Lakers roster reflects a kaleidoscope of talent from myriad places. Small towns in Saskatchewan are represented and so are big cities in Alberta and Ontario. There are players from British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, and from the American Midwest. There's even a forward named Aki Fujimori from Hachinohe, Japan. A geography student in her junior year, Hachinohe also plays rugby for the national team back home.
The star player is Maria Dominico, the only first team All-Canadian the Lakers have produced. She's a fifth-year forward, born and bred in North Bay.
"I learned at a very young age that I am very much a homebody," said Dominico, a graduate of Child and Family Studies who wants to be a teacher. "I believe that our team thrives off the support we receive from the people of North Bay. There has been a growing presence of up-and-coming female hockey players that attend our games.
"Seeing these girls fill the stands, asking for autographs and cheering the team on is such a rewarding experience."
On the ice the Lakers once again dominated their opponents and Maria's sister, Malory, scored a beauty to make it 1-0 over TMU. The crowd really got into it at the Memorial Gardens and the home team began firing on all cylinders. Early in the second period team captain Ally Hayhurst, a nursing student from tiny Wapella, Sask., fired a point drive in TMU's net to give the relentless Lakers a 4-0 lead.
The house organ rang out with every goal, prompting the spectators to get up and begin dancing in the stands.
"The community is what makes playing in a small town so special. We get to engage with the fans and get to know them," Hayhurst had said to me prior to the game. "Our success is a reflection of the community. They support us everyday and without them, playing hockey just isn't as meaningful."
Nipissing's chancellor is Paul Cook, the retired police chief of North Bay, and as the game unfolded, clad in his university team jacket which bears the school's coat of arms, he beamed at the effect these women who play for the Lakers have on their devoted following.
"When the team returned to North Bay from the nationals in PEI last year with the silver medal, they were met at the city limits by the North Bay Police Service and Fire Department who escorted them with lights and sirens to Memorial Gardens," Cook said. "They were welcomed home by the mayor, university president, community leaders, and several hundred fans. Many in attendance were young players from the North Bay Ice Boltz minor girl's hockey program.
"Watching our team members take the time to sign autographs, pose for photos, and share stories was incredible. There is no doubt that our Lakers women's hockey team is an inspiration to the next generation of women's hockey stars."
Force to be reckoned with
Maria Dominico scored the final goal of the game as she darted off the wing to rocket the puck behind TMU's netminder and seal a 5-0 victory. The Lakers now boast a record of 8-1 this season. They are once again proving that they are a force to be reckoned with.
"I can play the sport I love while having the privilege of pursuing a post-secondary education in my hometown," Dominico said. "Being part of a small university, I believe that we are often underestimated. But each, and every, day, we continue to show that we are a fighting contender."
Turcotte also recognized the importance of what may become a homecoming ritual.
"I had options as to what I wanted to do after my career and I definitely did not think that it would be coaching a women's hockey team," he said. "But I wouldn't change a thing. The commitment and dedication of our players is remarkable. Like many others I would love to see a top level, female, professional hockey league where the players are compensated for the work they put in.
"I have seen first-hand how important our program is when it comes to creating role models. Let young women have an opportunity to idolize female, professional, hockey, players."
Before leaving Memorial Gardens, I wandered through the front foyer which houses North Bay's impressive Sports Hall of Fame. Turcotte's photo is there along with legions of hockey players and almost without exception, they are men.
Having been a witness to this hockey homecoming at Nipissing University, I feel sure that the women who play for the Lakers will soon change all that.