Sometimes it's necessary to take one step backward before you can take two steps forward. While finishing fifth out of six teams in the Alberta College Athletic Conference and being exiled in the opening round of the playoffs may not seem to most like a successful year, the University of Calgary Dinos women's hockey team faithful know that their team's 2006/07 season was a gigantic leap in the right direction.
However, the team still needs more improvement and more time to reach its ultimate goal of returning to Canadian Interuniversity Sport competition.
On paper their finishing record of 7-13-1-1 is a large improvement over last season's ghastly 2-18 fragfest, but the important progression of the team lies behind the scenes. The year was meant to be one of rebuilding, as nearly every player from last year's squad tried out and lost their spots to new recruits. Little did the organization know how far those new recruits would come over the course of the season.
"We took a big step forward by recruiting aggressively for this past season," said Dinos head coach Dean Holden. "[In the past] girls just showed up and made the team. Now they compete annually for that privilege. We're really proud of the players we acquired and the improvement they all showed."
Dinos captain Beth Nerland agrees. A third-year nursing student and the oldest player on the team, Nerland was one of the few returning players from last season to earn a spot on this year's line-up.
"I am so impressed with the heart and talent I've seen in these young girls," said Nerland. "Some of them have proven themselves to be really strong leaders both on and off the ice. They're not rookies anymore."
Despite the strong core of youth and improved season, the Dinos still have a tough road ahead of them before they can join most other Canadian universities in CIS competition.
The lady hockeysaurs were one of the strongest teams in the CIS when the women's hockey program was introduced, sporting the likes of CIS all-Canadians, world champions and Olympic gold medallists Dana Antal, Kelly Bechard and Colleen Sostorics.
However, most of the players on the team also played competitive league hockey with the Calgary Olympic Oval--now the Oval X-Treme of the National Women's Hockey League. The CIS saw this as an unfair advantage for the Dinos and introduced a rule stating that players are not allowed to play on a professional team while playing for the university.
The rule forced players to choose between the Oval and the Dinos. With the opportunities to play professional women's hockey with the Oval, the Dinos team took a major hit, losing a number of talented players, including the team's top two lines.
Lacklustre performances followed, and the women's hockey program was ejected from the CIS in 2002. The Dinos entered into the ACAC, a league strictly for Alberta colleges. The hope was that a short stay in the ACAC would inject the program with new life, giving it a chance to recover and once again aspire to the level it reached in the mid '90s, as well as cut university sporting costs.
"Our options were to move the team into the ACAC or to cut the program altogether," said Dinos athletic director Don Wilson. "We wanted to keep the program, and the decision to move the team into the ACAC was developmentally better at the time. At the time the ACAC had a 22-game schedule, opposed to only twelve in the CIS, and we hoped it would be more competitively balanced for the team after the eligibility rule came into effect. It was also financially viable, and allowed the girls the to keep the chance to win Jimmy Condon scholarships."
But just how beneficial for the team was the move? It would have been commonly expected for a team coming from the upper echelon of CIS to dominate the teams in the lowly ACAC, but the Dinos, who entered the league with merely the tattered remains of their former team, have yet to finish tops among the six teams of the ACAC during the regular season, let alone win a championship.
Unknown to most however, is that the ACAC provides skilled teams on par with, if not surpassing, some that are currently in the CIS. Colleges in the ACAC aren't affected by strict entrance grade requirements, providing them with more potential local players than what's available to all universities in Alberta.
"It's a really good league," said Holden about the ACAC. "The two leagues are on par with each other. The ACAC can easily give most of the CIS teams a run for their money."
If anything, Holden feels that being in the ACAC is holding women's hockey back at the U of C.
"Being in the ACAC doesn't benefit us; it's like David versus Goliath," said Holden. "All the colleges we compete against have more than double, and in some cases, triple our operating budget, plus many have additional scholarship funds developed with the support of their respective athletic departments."
"Student athletes choose their university based on their academic needs and capabilities, and their desire to play university-level hockey, but we're stuck at the provincial college level," Holden continued. "That reputation doesn't do us any favours. Our recruitment pool shrinks drastically because of those factors, and we lose a lot of great players to other universities because they want that status and warranted financial support."
The program set forward to take women's hockey at the U of C back into the CIS and has accomplished its first major step by assembling a solid cast of first-year players. Before it can take full flight though, women's hockey once again needs to regain the support of the university. Holden noted that undesired ice time, relative lack of funding and poor student turnout at games sadly shows how low women's hockey has been on the university's sports precedence list.
"We have three 5:30 a.m. practices per week and a late practice from 8-10 p.m. Thursday night before playing weekend games--none of which are conducive to our student athletes' performances in the classroom or on the ice," lamented Holden. "Not only does this turn potential recruits away, but there are a few students currently attending U of C who would be great players for us if only our practice times wouldn't negatively impact their studies. We need the university to step up and do their part."
Still, Holden remains optimistic about the future and the groundwork set forth this past season. His extensive recruitment pushes across all of Western Canada since early winter also show that he hasn't given up, despite the deck being stacked against him.
"When you enter a program the challenge is to build a strong foundation and leave it better than when you came in," said Holden. "We're climbing a steep mountain now but we've made a good start."
Not only have the Dinos assembled the necessary core group of players and dedicated staff, but their prayers for help from higher up may have finally been answered. The new kinesiology dean, Dr. Wayne Giles, seems intent to aid the program and help restore it to its place in the CIS.
"I have enjoyed two discussions with coach Holden in which he outlined his plans for the team and commented on their strong interest in moving to the CIS," said Giles.Â "I am a strong supporter of all such programs for student athletes and continue to work with the U of C central administration, our director of athletics and community partners to seek appropriate funding for such programs."
In the midst of all the talk and speculation, the people most affected by the whole scenario, the players, are still keeping high morale about what's to come, most importantly, on the ice.
"We have a strong core now that will be able to build the program up each year, and you will see improvements," added Nerland confidently. "We'll be much stronger in the years to come."