For the Windsor Wildcats Intermediate B girls’ hockey team, the date of January 29, 2005 should never have ended the way it did.
Earlier that day, the Windsor Wildcats had shut out the Rochester Edge. As the club was on the way to a nearby ski resort, it should have marked the celebration of a win.
Instead, the jubilation quickly turned to desolation. A tragedy that no team should endure unfolded in the blink of an eye. The team bus collided with a tractor-trailer that was parked on the shoulder of the highway near Rochester, N.Y., in Geneseo County.
The collision claimed the lives of truck driver Ernest Zeiset, head coach Rick Edwards and his son Brian, who was only 13 years old at the time. Rick was the father of Windsor Wildcats backstop Kelly Edwards, and Brian was her younger brother. Cathy Roach, mother of goaltender Erin Roach, was also lost in the devastation.
Many players had been trapped in the bus for two hours, and some had to be flown by helicopter to Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital. Following the collision, the outpouring of support and friendship was overwhelming.
A wonderful gesture of sportsmanship was displayed by the Rochester girls’ team. Members of the squad delivered a turkey dinner to the players’ families, as they held bedside vigils. They also raised funds at local hockey games as a gesture of support.
Well-known hockey figures also provided emotional support. The Windsor Wildcats received a letter from then-Canada’s National Women’s Team members Jennifer Botterill and Hayley Wickenheiser.
“We were very touched,” said Kelly Cowan, mother of injured player Courtney Cowan. “It was wonderful and shows that the hockey community is a big family. We received a lot of help, emotionally and financially,”
Managing to still ice a team for the 2005 OWHA provincial championship was a moment of great inspiration for women’s hockey. Officials of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association authorized the Windsor Wildcats to select four replacement players.
Kelly was moved by the team’s courage in suiting up for the 2005 provincials. “To overcome grief, physical injuries and get on the ice, it was certainly inspiring,” she said.
Although she was in a wheelchair and unable to play due to injuries sustained, Courtney attended the tournament as a show of solidarity. “I went to the tournament and I watched from the stands.”
In the previous year, Edwards had coached the team to the gold medal at the provincial championship. At his memorial service, the Windsor Wildcats wore their medals. The OWHA championship banner was also displayed.
During the aftermath, Courtney wrote an essay about the healing process. The essay was published in the OWHA’s executive report for the 2005-06 season. “I guess I wanted to give everyone something to hold onto and keep fighting for,” she said.
Her mother reflects on the impact the essay had. “It put into words a lot of things the girls were probably thinking and feeling at that time.”
A year later, the City of Windsor hosted the 2006 provincials, and the Wildcats competed in Pool B. Courtney served the Wildcats as an assistant coach. Kelly Edwards was no longer in a wheelchair. Instead, she was back in her familiar spot, between the pipes for the Wildcats.
Her cousin, Jason Mailloux, assumed the coaching reins as a way of preserving the memory of the late Rick Edwards. Kelly’s mother Sheila reprised her role as the team’s manager. Erin Roach competed at the Intermediate AA level, as a member of the Chatham Outlaws.
After the season in Chatham, Roach returned to the Windsor Wildcats at the PWHL (Provincial Women’s Hockey League) level in 2006-07. With the support of many family members including her grandmother Denise, Roach posted an emotional 3-0 shutout in her first regular season start. Roach later played at the collegiate level with Adrian College in Wisconsin.
The healing process continues with an annual reunion. “We have an annual remembrance ceremony,” Kelly said. “We go to the ceremonies, visit the gravesites. It is extremely important that the girls are as close and caring for each other as they are now.”
“Every year, we get together on or near the date during a weekend. We put together a little scrimmage. One side is the team from that year, while the other is friends and family,” Courtney added.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the reunion is the strength and courage these women have displayed. “The first couple of years were pretty tough. In the last couple of years, we get to catch up with each other. We get to see everyone and we are on a whole other level now,” Courtney said.
“At the time, many of them were between the ages of 17 and 21,” Kelly said. “They have grown from young girls into strong, caring women. It is great to see those girls grow into the women they have become. There have been weddings, a baby, and another on the way.”
For Courtney, her love of the game has not wavered. “It is pretty recreational. I play in a league in Windsor, Essex County,” she said. “You keep going and make the best of what you are given.”