UNB women’s hockey taking shape

Photo courtesy of UNB Athletics
Photo courtesy of UNB Athletics

By: Monty Mosher

One day there will be pucks, sticks and whistles. But Sarah Hilworth understands all of that is still several solitary months off in the distance.

Hilworth will be the first coach, at least this time around, of the UNB Varsity Reds when they resume play in AUS women's hockey to begin the 2018-19 season.

The program was disbanded in a cost-cutting move 10 years ago. The university reinstated the program after the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission ruled on a complaint.

Hilworth was hired in June to relaunch the women's program, something she had done previously at Olds College in Alberta.

She is a former player at the University of Alberta, winning a national title with the Pandas in 2010. She went on to join the coaching staff as an assistant.

Nothing has become something pretty quickly at UNB. The recruiting for the 2018-19 season is done, for the most part, and the focus has already switched to stocking the roster for the two years after that.

"We're making sure we are getting the right student-athletes into the program," Hilworth said this week. "There has been a lot of relationship building with them and a lot of relationship building around the university.

"In the new year we're going to be looking at camps and more toward the future than just working on the now. That's how my brain works."

Hilworth started her duties on campus in Fredericton on Aug. 1, but got down to work weeks prior to that.

"I feel like I've had very few weekends in Fredericton. There have been a lot of days on the road watching hockey. But it's been nice to be a fan of the game this year and get to watch all different kinds of hockey."

She's been using the time to track recruits and to develop her own knowledge to become a better coach, but also to scout some of the opposition she'll have to face when the puck drops in October.

"It's been fun so far even with all those days and nights on the road. It's been pretty crazy that way."

UNB men's hockey needs no introduction as a perennial U Sports title contender. It would be easy to assume the women's program would be lost in that long shadow.

But the support has been excellent, Hilworth said.

"The university has shown a lot of positivity in terms of what they are giving us as a program. It shows they are dedicated. The administration that was there during those past decisions are all gone. It's a new administration that has our back 100 per cent. They are making sure we understand that as a team."

The region appears to be on board as well.

"I've had nothing but a positive experience and that's really good. Everybody at the university, and in the community, are genuinely excited for this program being back. They see it as an integral part of our community in terms of building positive role models for females in the greater Fredericton area."

There was no trouble filling a roster for the upcoming season. Hilworth's phone rings constantly with players looking for an opportunity.

"If they have the right mindset, the right attitude, they can be integral from Day 1," she said. "For an athlete, you want to come in and do your part in a five-year program, but to have a voice in the first year is the special part of this adventure."

Some if feels a bit like fiction for now.

"It's exciting and there have been a lot of really good things happening, but it is a little bit lonely in a way. There are some fantastic student-athletes coming who are excited to get their boots on the ground out here.

"It is still a lot of planning. But I think once the athletes are on campus and you start feeling the buzz around the rink, especially the first practice, there is a lot of anticipation for that. I can't wait for them to be here."

One of the prize recruits is B.C.'s Kendra Woodland, a 17-year-old goalie on Canada's under-18 team for the 2018 world championships in Russia.

Woodland was destined for the University of North Dakota women's program until it was eliminated this spring.

"UNB popped out right away," she said. "One door closing and another door opening. I thought it would be a great opportunity for Canadian schools and women's hockey in Canada.

"Sarah alone drew me in as well. She's a great person and I'm so excited I'm going to be able to play for her."

She said it is a "cool feeling" to start brand new with a group of athletes.

"I know I'm going to go there and get 20 new friends and we're going to be together for the next five years. It's going to be a really good bond to have and make the team better as the years go on."

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