Cougars prepare to battle with Wickenheiser and the Dinos in season opener
Many have regarded Hayley Wickenheiser as the greatest women’s hockey player in the world.
Wickenheiser, who was born in Shaunavon, SK, has represented Canada at the Winter Olympics four times. In the process, she has helped Canada capture three gold medals and one silver medal, while being named the tournament MVP twice.
However, Wickenheiser made headlines last month for completely different reasons. The 32-year-old joined the University of Calgary Dinos women’s hockey team, making the Dinos more dangerous in the process and sending shock waves throughout the league.
The University of Regina Cougars women’s hockey team will be the first team to face Wickenheiser and the Dinos in the 2010-11 Canada West regular season. The Cougars open up their season with home games against Calgary on Friday and Saturday. Both games start at 7 p.m. at the Co-operators Centre.
“We’ll definitely get some people out to the game that maybe wouldn’t come normally,” said Cougars head coach Sarah Howald. “It’s great that she’s here for our first couple of games at home.”
For the Cougars, going up against the Dinos will mean facing off against one of their idols in the sport. Cougars captain Rae-Lynn Somogyi described Wickenheiser as “the biggest role models for women’s hockey ever.”
“She’s like the legend of girls’ hockey,” added Somogyi. “It’s exciting, but also a little intimidating [preparing to face Wickenheiser]. You’d never even think she’d come back. I think once everyone gets used to the fact that she’s just like any one of us it will be a great challenge.”
Since Wickenheiser’s return, it has been debated whether or not it was a fair move on her part to come back. While she does have university eligibility remaining, Wickenheiser clearly boasts skills far superior to the players she is to be playing against. Also, her return will in all likelihood take away a roster spot for another player. Howald and Somogyi did not have a major problem with Wickenheiser’s decision and would have welcomed her on their Cougars.
“I think it’s a good thing, but I hope she plays all the games and is committed to it,” said Howald. “When it comes to her taking someone’s roster position, that is entirely up to them and how they want to run their program. She is just one player and you never know how it’s going to affect your [team’s] dynamic.”
“It could bring a lot of publicity to our league, more fans, and could also push us to be a stronger league,” said Somogyi. “Hockey is a team sport, so we’ll see how it goes.”
This season, Regina will be focusing on more than just Wickenheiser. The team will try to build off their success last season, which ended when they were swept the University of Alberta Pandas in the conference semifinals. The Cougars field a roster that is relatively similar to last year and they only added four new recruits during the off-season.
“Overall, we can compete with anybody in the league,” said Howald. “It’s just a matter of winning some games and gaining confidence. Hopefully, getting to nationals this season is a realistic goal for us.”
Somogyi will be looked upon to lead the Cougars this season. After spending last season as a co-captain, she is the team’s captain this season. She will not necessarily lead on the score sheet – she only scored six points in 2009-10 – but does provide valuable leadership.
“She works extremely hard all the time and sets a good example for everybody,” explained Howald. “She is not afraid to tell people when they are not working hard. She holds people accountable and leads by example.”
“It wasn’t a complete surprise [being named captain] but it’s an honour,” offered Somogyi. "It gives you a lot more responsibility, but I believe I can handle it. I enjoy being the captain.”
Things have not started off great for Somogyi and the Cougars. Regina lost all six of its preseason games.
“The preseason was a good building block for us,” noted Somogyi. “There were a lot of positives out of it. We took the top team, Alberta, to a shootout. It also brought out a lot of things that we need to work on, like consistency.”
The preseason did give Regina a chance to raise money for a good cause. By putting on the Mandi Schwartz Challenge in the preseason, along with the Saskatchewan Hockey Association, the team raised $2,536.36 for Mandi Schwartz. Schwartz, a 22-year-old hockey player from Wilcox, SK, is undergoing cancer treatment in Seattle.
“It was a great honour,” admitted Somogyi. “A lot of us have played with her and she’s made a big impact on women’s hockey in Saskatchewan, especially around Regina. We hope she gets better.”
This season, Regina has some work to do on both ends of the ice. On offence last seasons, the Cougars averaged under two goals a game and had an average 11.1 power play percentage. Players like Kelcie McCutcheon (11 goals, 17 points in 2009-10), Rianne Wight (10 goals, 17 points) and Paige Wheeler (seven goals, 13 points) will be looked at to provide a spark.
Howald says it all starts with the back end.
“Over the last couple of seasons, we’ve not had an offensive mindset from our defencemen,” she explained. “The key to creating good offence is having defencemen that will make a good first pass out of the zone, create some odd man opportunities for you and take some shots from the point and be a scoring threat as well. We’ve added a couple of young defencemen who are very good offensively. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s going to help us score more goals.”
Defensively, the Cougars gave up over three goals a game last season. A “slightly misleading” stat, noted Howald.
“We tended to play really well and be within a goal most of the time,” she explained. “We had a few awful games where we allowed seven goals. I think we’re pretty good defensively and we’re starting in a better place than we were last year, because our habits, skills and goaltending situation is better.”
Lisa Urban is back between the pipes this season after posting a record of 3-11-0, a 3.02 goals against average and a .904 save percentage last season. Naticia Leskun and Morgan Cooper will back her up.
“I think Lisa is one of the best goaltenders in the conference if not the entire CIS,” said Howald. “She is solid and gives us an opportunity to win every night.”