From a team divided to a national dynasty
It wasn’t in the plan, and it wasn’t prefaced with countless interviews or polished hockey history.
But when Rick Osborne stepped behind the Wilfrid Laurier University women’s hockey bench, it was evident that there was an immediate impact on an already burdened squad.
“I had a job with guy’s hockey lined up; kind of an early retirement job and this one came up,” Osborne said, reflecting on nine years previous. “It was advertised in the Globe [and Mail] and my daughter saw it. It was kind of a 4 a.m. on deadline day.
“A week later I was having breakfast with Peter [Baxter] and Dr. Bob and David McMurray.”
And from there it grew. Osborne took a team that had previous coach Bill Bowker walk out, turmoil throughout the players and a split through the team, and created what is now known as a dynasty — but not without some hard work.
Living in Mississauga, the midway point between Laurier and his two daughters and five grandchildren in Brooklin, Ontario, Osborne worked as an Operations Manager at Kodak Canada for over thirty years.
Involving himself in his grandchildren’s sports lives and travelling with his wife, Osborne realized as he transitioned into the Laurier athletic life that the detail takes up a lot of time.
“Being on top like we are really entails a lot of attention to detail and personally going after the parts that need to be replaced,” Osborne said.
In Osborne’s first year, the team finished fifth nationally after upsetting the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and the Queen’s Gaels, who both held the first-place position in the Western Division of the OUA — more often than anyone expected.
It continued to follow in the years to come, with Osborne sending the team through intense training, trying to reconnect the separated team from the years previous.
And it worked.
The team ended the Alberta Panda Bears’ 110-game winning streak to capture a national championship in Osborne’s first full year with the Laurier squad.
And despite a heartbreaking loss to Alberta in the following year, where a 5-on-3 power play goal became the game winner, the Golden Hawks were now known as a force to reckon with.
It’s hard not to know them when they win seven consecutive OUA championships.
So what makes this team so successful? Osborne emphasizes a couple of points.
“As we changed the style of the team, we made sure that we had a real focus on defense. We’ve always been a really defensive oriented team — created our offence from good defense.”
The defense became an incredible asset, as the team backed up rookie Erika Thunder as she transitioned into the speed of the OUA league.
“This particular year there was a real focus. It was like if you’re not going to play defense, you’re just not going to get on the ice.”
With Thunder injured going into camp, Osborne wanted defense to be a central component of the team.
It came in handy as the team finished the 2011/2012 playoffs, when Thunder revisited the injury plague with a sprained knee.
“Our goaltending was just not normal ‘eye of the tiger’ kind of goaltending we had all season,” Osborne said.
Osborne’s style of coaching also emphasizes the scouting techniques that make the team different.
“We’ve always done it like an NCAA program where we shortlist players and then I personally go see them and talk to them,” he said. “I think if you want a good player, they want to talk to the coach. They don’t want to always talk to the scout.”
Now that they’ve managed so many championships and national recognition, will Osborne continue to lead the Golden Hawks through the legacy?
“I’m in the last two years of a contract extension I signed last year so I have a contract for this year and next year,” Osborne explained. “I’m really taking it one year at a time.”
He explains that it’s very tentative.
“It’s really two things. It’s health- am I feeling good? And how am I going to balance it.”
In nine years, Osborne has created a dynasty that will continue through the end of his contract. For almost ten years, the team has been nationally ranked no.1, 2, or 3, and have been contenders for the national title every year since Osborne stepped in.
“I’m really proud of the team, and the legacy we’ve established here — the season after season results,” he reflected. “I certainly believe that we should have had a second or third national title and I kind of have that as one of my goals before I retire.”
Being a contender every year does create some hostility, but Osborne laughs at the target on the Lady Hawks’ back.
“Everybody in Ontario and everywhere else is gunning for us, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”