Women’s hockey’s will could not exceed the skill

Photo by Will Huang

Photo by Will Huang

Peter Baxter sits at the top row of the stands behind the Wilfrid Laurier women’s hockey team bench. He switches between having his arms sternly crossed and his hands gripped tightly together. Tensely, the director of athletics and recreation watches what could be his daughter, Haley Baxter’s last game.

With 3:39 left in the first period, the Hawks strike first against the Guelph Gryphons. Co-captain and fifth-year Blair Connelly capitalizes on a beautiful feed. A wave of relief flushes over Peter Baxter’s face. It’s 1-0.

But the stress never lets up. In what could only be described as an all out war, the Hawks battle the top-seeded Gryphons, holding on to that one-goal lead. With every opportunity, every hit, every penalty, the Hawks are influenced by emotion.

The third period comes and as the clock ticks away, the Hawks are closer and closer to a one-goal win. But Guelph isn’t ranked the top team in the country for no reason. With just under eight minutes, they solve third-year goaltender Amanda Smith to send the game to overtime.

The Hawks are masters at overtime. They played every game in their first playoff series against the Toronto Varsity Blues with a few extra frames, so it’s second nature to them.

But it just wasn’t in the cards. Eight minutes into overtime, a tired, beat up Laurier team saw their hopes of a second series upset come to an end when Kaitlin Lowy beat Smith to give Guelph the 2-1 victory, and the series sweep. And behind the bench, where he had been all game, Peter Baxter stands up with the rest of the Laurier parents and claps as the Hawks left the ice one last time for the 2015-16 season.

“It was difficult out there tonight,” said head coach Rick Osborne after the game. “We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance to win both games. We obviously weren’t the strongest team on the ice but we were pretty close, especially when it came to compete level. I thought we were pretty close to a 1-0 win.”

A team that was evidently fighting for their lives fought in the best way that Laurier knows how — speed, finesse, guts and a whole lot of shot blocking. And for a team that preaches the fact the will must exceed the skill, the will is what carried them through the season.

They didn’t have an outright top scorer. They didn’t really have that go-to person. The Hawks juggled between goaltenders and lost more games in regulation than they have in history. But the will was always there.

And despite being swept in the series, and tears flowing from every players’ eyes, bench boss Osborne was far from upset. As each player came out from the locker room for their cool down, he stopped them, one-by-one, to say thank you for their hard work. He stopped every rookie player to commend them on an outstanding first season with the Hawks.

When Haley Baxter came out, she hugged Osborne.

“Thank you for taking a chance on me,” she said. A player that was at one point just supposed to be a healthy scratch, Baxter became so much more to this team.

“Baxter and Connelly have been rocks on the defence for three, four years,” Osborne said after the game. “They have left it all on the ice every playoff run.”

Baxter, Connelly, Robyn Degagne, Jessie Hurrell and Erika Kiviaho, a whole line of experience — almost 700 games worth — left their hearts on the ice in their last season in the purple and gold.

“We’ve got some really good recruits coming in [for next year], but there’s nobody … that can replace those girls,” Osborne said.

A red-eyed Connelly, who won two Ontario University Athletics championships over her five-year tenure, had nothing but kind words for those who helped shape her women’s hockey experience.

“The past five years have been incredible,” added Connelly on her playing experience with the Hawks. “I’ve played with some great leaders and some great teammates. I couldn’t have asked for a better group every year that I’ve played here and it’s been an honour to be a Laurier Golden Hawk and I’ll never forget my experience here.”

Now, with 2015-16 behind them, Osborne and his coaching staff head back to the drawing board. And although his daughter won’t be on the ice next season, you can expect the Laurier athletic director to be right where he usually is, arms sternly crossed or hands tightly gripped.

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