OLDS — For the first time in their brief history, the Olds College women’s hockey team is playing for a championship.
The Broncos, who finished the 2021-22 season in third place with a (6-8-1) record, are battling Red Deer Polytechnic Queens in a five-game Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) championship series. The Queens finished the season in first place with an 11-2-2 record.
The Broncos and Queens faced off Friday in Red Deer and Sunday at the Sportsplex in Olds. The Queens won 4-0 Sunday and also won the Friday game. Their next game takes place Friday, March 25, 7 p.m. in Red Deer.
If necessary, the fourth game will be held Saturday, March 26 in Olds. Game time at the Sportplex would be 7 p.m. If a fifth game is necessary, it would be played Sunday, March 27 in Red Deer.
The Broncos women’s hockey team joined the ACAC in the 2015-16 season.
Until now, they had not won a playoff series. In the 2018 playoffs, they were swept by the Grant MacEwan Griffins in a best-of-three series. The same thing happened in 2019 at the hands of the NAIT Ooks.
The Broncos got revenge this year by knocking off the Ooks two games to one in a three-game series. The Ooks had finished the season in second place with an 11-4-0 record.
Impressively, they did that with a short bench.
After starting the season with 23 players, the Broncos have been down to 17 players since the winter semester began.
During an interview, Broncos head coach Chris Leeming said players left for a variety of reasons including personal and academic issues. He agreed the team has had time to get used to that shorter bench, which means lots of extra shifts for remaining players.
"That’s what the girls have said. They don’t even have time to overthink things. They just jump on the ice and go play.”
Leeming described the Red Deer Polytechnic Queens as good skaters who play very strong defensively. But he said the Broncos aren’t concentrating on what the Red Deer team does. They’re concentrating on what they’ll do.
“At the end of the day, we’re focused on ourselves," Leeming said. “That’s the process, that’s the one thing that we’ve talked a lot about, is just prioritizing the process and being in the moment.”
Leeming said one key to this season’s success has been good recruiting.
“Every year since I’ve been here, the programs, we started to get higher-end recruits. This is the first year that we’ll have all AAA recruits,” he said.
"We’ve taken an athlete-centred approach to development and just really aimed at developing good people. That’s honestly what I’m most proud of as a coach.
“They’ve embraced the growth that they’ve experienced. They just spin adversity into opportunities and then it begins to manifest itself within our game play,” he added.
Another key to success has been focusing on a system of strong defensive play as well as being opportunistic when they can.
“We play a possession game, puck support, jumping into the space. We really try to be hard to play against. We play a physical style as well,” Leeming said.
“We just keep it simple. To be honest with you, we want the puck and when we don’t have it, we work hard to get it back. And then we try to have a lot of puck support and movement patterns within our style of play.”
Strong leadership has also been a major factor.
“We really focus on our team culture and in our values to give them a platform to have challenging conversations with one another and I really do credit a lot of our success to the extraordinary leadership that we’ve had this year as well,” Leeming said.
“I think that they’ve done a great job really unifying this group. With what we say to pull on the rope in the same direction is kind of the way we frame it.”
He said team leaders include captain Jesse Jack as well as Danielle Corrigan, Maddy Black, Ali Macaulay and Abby Webster.
Leeming is really impressed by the contribution Jack has made.
“She’s demonstrated immense growth in her leadership capacity and she leads by example,” he said. “She just commits so much of her time to supporting her teammates and the community and just truly making an impact on others.
“I’d honestly have to say that her work ethic, determination and her compassion are just unmatched within what I’ve seen since I’ve been in coaching. She never asks anyone to work harder than she works herself and I think a lot of people respect that.”
Jack has been named Female Impact Athlete of the Year for the past two years. She didn’t win that award last year, but Leeming says she’s “in contention” for it again this year.
COVID really didn’t affect the Broncos much this season.
“There were a few cases. There were some in our athletic department and we had to manage that and we got through it and moved forward," Leeming said.
“We did have to reschedule one week’s worth of games because there were some cases throughout the league and we’ve bounced back from that.”
During the 2020-21 season, the Broncos weren’t able to play any games, due to COVID restrictions. They kept busy by practising and team-building, getting Leeming’s system down pat.
He believes that’s part of the reason they have been so successful this season.
At the moment, the team only loses two players to graduation. A few others are still deciding their future. Leeming says there’s a possibility they’ll lose five in total.