At first glance, the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League schedule
looks to have been kind to the Saskatoon Stars. The team plays no games
between Oct. 23 and Nov. 8, a window during which the 2017 National Women’s
Under-18 Championship falls.
The schedule is kind by design.
“Last year I made the mistake of booking something thinking that we may
only have a couple of players gone,” says Greg Slobodzian, head coach of
the Stars. “It turned out we had six gone [for the 2016 U18 nationals].
This year I didn’t go down that path because I thought we were going to
have more than a couple.”
Try 10 … half of the Saskatchewan roster.
“Ten surprised me a little bit,” says Slobodzian, himself an assistant
coach with the provincial squad, “but a few girls had really good summers
in regards to their training and getting stronger, and just developing
their puck skills. I was very pleased to see so many representatives come
from the Stars.”
The Stars contingent includes a goaltender – Jordan Ivanco – two defencemen
– Grace Tam and Dana Wood – and seven forwards – Joelle Fiala, Jordyn
Holmes, Kaitlin Jockims, Anna Leschyshyn, Mackenna Parker, Jayda Sachs and
“I was proud of everyone and super excited that all of us got to be there,”
says Parker, the Stars captain. “All of our work paid off.”
The hope now is that the players’ familiarity with one another will pay
off, perhaps with the first-ever medal for the Prairie girls at the U18
It has certainly paid off in league play. The team sits at 8-0, having
outscored its opposition 62-9. With 32 points already (18G 14A), Parker has
been in on more than half of her team’s goals. The Stars roll three
centres, so Parker lines up with different wingers every time out. And with
no locked lines, familiarity with teammates – their habits, their
tendencies – goes beyond trios and D pairings.
“Everyone trusts one another,” says Parker. “We’re always talking on the
ice, and it helps everyone with their vision of the game.
“I’ve been on the Stars for four years now – so have a lot of the girls –
so playing with them for that long, you know exactly what they’re like and
what they’re going to do.”
“Continuity, chemistry, knowing what the other person is thinking – that’s
what hopefully is going to give us a bit of an advantage,” says Slobodzian.
Saskatchewan practiced together just once before travelling to Quebec City.
To succeed in short-term competitions, players must feed off one another
quickly. While it’s not as simple as lining the Stars up together, if
players click – about Fiala and Shirley, Slobodzian says, “It’s like they
share one brain, those two” – it simply wouldn’t make sense to just split
As much as familiarity helps a team, so too does previous experience
playing on the national stage.
Ivanco, Holmes, Parker and Shirley played for Saskatchewan last year. The
aforementioned foursome, as well as Fiala, Leschyshyn and Wood, competed at
the 2016 Esso Cup, Canada’s National Female Midget Championship. And the
year before, Holmes and Parker – as Bantam under-agers – and Shirley – as
an affiliated player – won bronze at Esso.
(Parker and Shirley also got a taste of the pressure cooker that is
Canada-United States as a member of Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team
“Everybody’s good [at the U18 nationals],” says Shirley, “so it’s all about
preparation. It’s a tiring week, so you got to keep your body and your mind
Saskatoon excels at the marathons – see its back-to-back league and
provincial titles in 2015 and 2016 – but experience has taught them what’s
needed to succeed in a sprint.
“You have to find different ways to score,” says Slobodzian. “Last time at
nationals our sticks went cold.” Pucks rang off the outside of posts and
away instead of inside and in. For as much skill as the Stars have – and as
successful as they’ve been scoring off the rush – sometimes keeping it
simple and getting pucks on net is the way to score. “This year, we keep
track of the types of goals we score, and we have way more greasy goals
already this year than we would have in the last couple of years.”
It’s tough to coach a player how to respond to in-game pressure. But after
giving themselves enough big-game opportunities – two Mac’s Midget
Tournament finals, two Esso Cup appearances – the players are clearly
comfortable in those moments.
“[Early on] I was nervous,” says Parker, “but now that I’ve experienced all
that, I feel confident and just play my game with my best friends. I feel
confident that we can do it.”
Succeeding this week relies on the same players, different game plan.
Tougher competition calls for a more tightly-managed game, and the
highly-skilled Stars will be asked to shine even more in their own zone.
“We’re all trying to get better as individuals,” says Shirley, “but at the
end of the day it’s about making the team better.”
And with familiarity breeding contentment, maybe they’ll even shoot
Saskatchewan straight to the podium.